History of Animal Ethics

mindmap ethics

A story of humans’ changing views towards animals.

Human interaction with animals, and views about human-animal relationships, have changed dramatically throughout history. Over two million years ago, animals might have been seen as mysterious beings that shared our environment, with various features and abilities often completely different to our own. As we began to interact with animals more, our views have constantly developed: animals became things we could use for food, things to interact with according to various moral virtues, things to use without concern, beings that have interests that deserve consideration, and subject-of-a-life that deserve the inalienable right to life and autonomy.

Summary of historical views on animals:

  • Early mankind’s view (since two million years ago): Animals can be hunted or scavenged for food.
  • Early mankind’s view (since ~33 thousand years ago): Animals are property to be used for food, money, clothing, entertainment, etcetera.
  • Descartes’ view (~1640): Animals sense stimuli, but don’t have minds, which means that they don’t feel pain nor think about feeling pain, and are therefore not able to suffer, nor have interests, and can be used as means to our ends.
  • Kant’s view (~1785): ‘Animals are not self-conscious and are there merely as the means to an end. That end is man.’ (Kant, 1963)
  • Bentham’s view (~1789): Animals have interests of their own and their interests should be taken into consideration when determining moral actions that will affect them (whether they are beneficiaries, or used as the beneficiaries of others).
  • Singer’s view (~1975): Animals can feel pleasure and pain and so have interests of their own and therefore are not means-to-our-ends and deserve equal considerations of interest in the calculation of their use.
  • Regan’s view (~1983): Humans and animals are ‘subjects-of-a-life’ that have an interest in their continued existence (they want to keep living) and therefore matter morally and should be extended inalienable rights such that their use exclusively as an means-to-an-end is not permitted.
  • Francione’s view (~1995): If animals matter morally, we cannot use them at all: animals do matter morally and therefore veganism is a moral imperative and a moral baseline (the least that a moral person should do).
  • Marks’ view (~2014): The desire to extend compassion and consideration to animals can derive from personal values without the need to invoke concepts of morality (that assume beliefs in mind-independent moral principles or spirituality).

Humans have hunted animals for around two-million years (McKie, 2012).

Approximately 33 thousand years ago, dogs were domesticated. All dogs share common ancestors with wolves that began to hunt alongside man and scavenge for leftovers around 33 thousand years ago (The Telegraph, 2015).

Between 11 and 13 thousand years ago, animals were domesticated for food. Sheep in Southwest Asia are thought to be the first animal domesticated for food (Lear, 2012).


Approximately 2.5 thousand years ago, the spiritual doctrine of ‘Ahimsa’, a core value of Jainism, Buddhism, and Hinduism emerges in India as a philosophy of non-violence.

In Greece approximately 2.5 thousand years ago, early moral theories indirectly benefit animals. Many ancient Greek philosophers viewed the world as hierarchical, with humans at the top, animals below, and plants at the bottom. Correspondingly, animals were thought to be for use of man, just as plants were to be used by animals. Some ancient Greek philosophers restrained from eating meat, but usually to practise virtues like moderation and self-restraint.

In approximately 500 B.C.E., the Pythagorean diet is practised. Pythagoras believed that ‘animals share with us the privilege of having a soul’ (Ovid, trans. 1958) and that human souls were reincarnated into animals after death. Followers of Pythagoras throughout the ages refrained from eating animals, but would consume dairy and eggs, in what would become known at the Pythagorean diet.

Rene Descarte

Around 1640, Rene Descartes stated that animals have no moral status. Rene Descartes’ philosophy of mind (known as dualism) claims that human capacities (like rational thought, language, and self-awareness) could not arise from material processes alone. As such, the human mind was said to be the result of an immaterial soul, and since animals could not reason nor use language rationally, animals could not have a mind and therefore could not suffer or have mental experiences. Descartes believed that animals were mindless machines. Descartes would explain the behaviour of animals that resembled the experiences of pain as mechanistic reflexes. Thus, according to Descartes, animals could be used in any way necessary without considering their interests nor welfare. This view gained acceptance conveniently at a time when a scientific interest in vivisection was growing, alleviating moral concern for dogs (and other animals) that would react as if they were feeling pain while being operated on without anaesthetic.

Immanuel Kant (1785) was a Prussian philosopher that said, ‘every rational being, exists as an end in himself and not merely as a means to be arbitrarily used by this or that will’ (2002). Since, according to Kant, animals are not rational, they are merely objects to be used, not ends-in-themselves. Kant (and other philosophers) use the phrase ‘means-to-an-end’ and ‘end-in-themselves’ to explain their view on an animal or object’s purpose. If an animal is considered a ‘means’, then it is extrinsically valuable and able to be used to achieve some other goal (like for food by humans), but if an animal is an ‘end-in-itself’ then their life is a goal itself (i.e. intrinsically valuable) and cannot be used to achieve another goal (e.g. you might not eat a human regardless how good they might taste because they might have intrinsic value). Kant believed that it is immoral to use rational beings (like humans) merely as a means-to-an-end, but that animals are irrational beings and can be used as a means to serve man.

Kant defines rational beings as persons (a philosophical term for someone whose interests are taken into consideration in ethical decisions) and in conjunction with his ‘categorical imperative’, which is a form of moral command that is unconditional, human beings cannot be used as a means. Animals escaped the protection of his categorical imperative because they were not considered persons.

In contrast to Kant’s views of not using a being as a means to an end, is the utilitarian view. Utilitarians share the Hedonistic view that pleasure is good and suffering is bad, and that a being’s value is in their utility to produce pleasure/happiness. In summary, Kant would say that use is not permitted of any being that is rational, while the utilitarians would say that all use is permitted if it results in the ‘greatest good for the greatest number’. For example, Kant would say that killing a person is categorically wrong, whereas a utilitarian might say that if killing a person generates more benefit to a greater number of affected parties, it is allowable.

Jeremy Bentham

In 1789, Jeremy Bentham established utilitarianism, an ethical theory based on maximising happiness. With roots in the ancient Greek philosophy of hedonism, utilitarianism claims that the only intrinsic value in nature is pleasure, and conversely, the only intrinsic disvalue is pain.

As a consequentialist theory, utilitarianism determines the morality of actions by their outcomes; the moral action is the one that results in the most pleasure and least pain. Utilitarianism does not attribute beings with inalienable rights that cannot be overridden; any being’s interests can be overturned if their use results in the greatest good for the greatest number. In its determination of moral acts, utilitarianism considers the interests of all affected beings, and while many utilitarians since Bentham have ignored animals’ welfare, Bentham did extend his theory to include animals’ interests: “The day may come, when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been withheld from them but by the hand of tyranny. [italics in original]” (Bentham, 1789).

In contrast to Descartes, who argued that animals’ interests need not be taken into consideration, Bentham asks: ‘The question is not, “can [animals] reason?” nor, “can they talk?” but, “can they suffer?” ’ While Bentham provided a framework for considering animals in his ethical system, he did not exclude the possibility of using them –but to be fair, he did not exclude the use of humans either.

In short, utilitarianism is not absolutely opposed to using human or animals if the use results in more pleasure than pain. Utilitarianism is therefore the basis for the welfare approach to animal ethics, as opposed to the rights approach. As Fieser points out, Utilitarianism’s primary concern is for the welfare of beings rather than proposing inalienable rights (to humans, animals, or objects):

“Animal welfare theories accept that animals have interests but allow those interests to be traded away as long as the human benefits are thought to justify the sacrifice, while animal rights theories say that animals, like humans, have interests that cannot be sacrificed or traded away to benefit others. … Supporters of the animal rights movement believe that animals are not ours to use for food, clothing, entertainment, or experimentation, while supporters of the animal welfare movement believe that animals can be used for those purposes as long as ‘humane’ guidelines are followed.” (Fieser, 2010)

Founded in Britain in 1824, the Society for the Protection of Animals (SPCA) is oldest (and first) animal welfare charity to be founded anywhere in the world. Primarily concerned in reducing suffering and reforming established animal use to be less cruel, the SPCA has successfully lobbied for new laws in animal welfare since early in its inception (for example, the Cruelty to Animal Act 1835). In 1840 the SPCA was renamed the Royal Society for the Protection of Animals (RSPCA).

V0004825 Pythagoras. Line engraving by D. Cunego, 1782, after R. Meng

1847, the ‘vegetable diet’ becomes known as vegetarianism. In Britain, a variety of different groups came together in 1847 to form the Vegetarian Society. Before this time, a diet like vegetarianism would be referred to as the Pythagorean diet (after the ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras who abstained from eating meat and took a philosophical stance against killing animals). There were numerous reasons for the members of the Vegetarian Society following its diet, for: personal health, religious moderation and self-restraint, the perceived unnaturalness of eating meat (Christian religious reasons), to encourage social reform, and to reject its perceived enablement of social aggression.

1859, the theory of evolution implies that humans are not distinct from animals. Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species published in 1859, presented the view that all life on Earth has evolved over massive time periods through the mechanism of natural selection. Random variations in individuals of a species would be ‘selected’ by the environment based on how favourable they were to the individual’s survival. Over time, entire populations changed characteristics due to environmental pressures. This presented a dramatic change in perspective for mankind in relation to other animals.

Prior to this time, a common view in Western society was that humans were created in the image of God and are distinct from the animal kingdom. Darwin’s theory presented humans as different to animals only in degree but not in ‘kind’. Humans now had to consider that they are related to the other animals as much as they are related to each other, as oppose to seeing themselves as categorically different from animals.

Henry Salt

In 1892, Henry Salt published Animals’ Rights: Considered in Relation to Social Progress, which was forward thinking and included many of the modern concepts relating to animal rights.

In 1944, Donald Watson in London coined the word vegan when founding the Vegan Society. The Vegan Society defined veganism as: ‘a philosophy and way of life which seeks to exclude, as far as possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing, or any other purpose.’

Donald Watson

Don Watson coined the phrase “vegan” from the beginning and end of the word “vegetarian” for a new newspaper called “The Vegan News”. Watson and others formed The Vegan Society in November and soon after codified the society by writing: “The vegan renounces it as superstitious that human life depends upon the exploitation of these creatures whose feelings are much the same as our own …”. By 1951, veganism was defined as “the doctrine that man should live without exploiting animals.”

The word ‘speciesism’ (species-ism) first appeared in a pamphlet published by Richard Ryder of the Oxford Group in 1970. Speciesism is the idea that it is not a sufficient reason to treat others differently just because they are of a different species than you. Speciesism is similar to racism or sexism; sexism relies on picking ‘sex’ as the criteria for excluding certain people from equal concern; racism relies on ‘race’ as the criteria for exclusion; speciesism relies on picking the species of a living being to ignore their suffering. Species association itself cannot justify exploitation or use, any more than race or sex categorisation can.

1971, a publication arguing for animal rights. A group of philosophers called the Oxford Group, published “Animals, Men and Morals: An Inquiry into the Maltreatment of Non-humans” (1971). While not being the first book to present a case for animal rights (see 1892 above), the book was ground-breaking at the time because it argued for animal rights instead of animal welfare. The book contained an essay by Richard Ryder which explored the concept of speciesism.

Peter Singer

1975, anti-speciesism is applied to utilitarianism. Peter Singer, an Australian philosopher, published ‘Animal Liberation’ in 1975. In this work, Singer acknowledges that speciesism is prevalent in modern society and rejected it in favour of an animal-inclusive version of utilitarianism. The book details the use of animals in modern society in two main areas: scientific research and factory farming. It also covers the main questions that someone would ask when interested in going vegetarian, and details the history of the animal rights movement. Writing in an approachable manner, Singer’s book has had a substantial influence in the modern animal welfare/rights movements. While Singer is not vegan, he is vegetarian and explains that vegans ‘are living demonstrations of the practicality and nutritional soundness of a diet that is totally free from the exploitation of other animals’ (2009).

While Singer doesn’t argue for inalienable animal rights, he does make the case that the current use of animals in society is both horrific and inexcusable. Singer’s view is that animals can feel pleasure and pain and so have interests of their own and therefore are not means to our ends. Being a utilitarian, Singer’s view can be categorised as a ‘welfare approach’ to animal ethics because it argues for the consideration of the animal’s welfare in calculations of their use. For Singer, it is acceptable to use animals if it results in ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’. Not to simplify Singer’s position, Singer does propose a cessation of animal use for almost all cases in modern society (most of the killing of animals for food, testing, hunting, clothing, etc., and their unnecessary use in entertainment). So, even though it is possible that utilitarian principles could place animal use off-limits entirely (if in every calculation, their use did not result in the greatest good for the greatest number), in theory (and practise) utilitarianism does not grant rights to animals (or humans for that matter) because it cannot guarantee that their use won’t always result in some greater good for some greater number.

For example, Singer’s ethical code would allow for animals to be tested on if the outcome was worthwhile: killing one animal to save two other animals; killing one human to save two humans (assuming equal consideration of interests in both examples). But what about killing one animal to save one human? Again, Singer proposes by considering the interests of all affected parties equally and without speciesism, the outcome that results in the greatest good for the greatest number is the ‘right’ act; as long as an act results in greater good for greater numbers, any act is permitted. Of course, in reality, Singer is far more skeptical of vivisection and the scientific testing on animals for human purposes to approve of such a simplified scenario, but in theory, utilitarianism would allow for the use of any being if it resulted in the benefit of a greater number of beings.

This consequentialist feature of utilitarianism has been criticised by many ethicists. Interestingly, utilitarianism (through Singer) brought animals into the moral concern of wider modern society, but utilitarianism’s fundamental inability to grant inalienable rights to animals, would ultimately cause the most criticism by animal rights advocates later.

Tom Regan

1983, A deontological argument for animal rights: ‘animals are the subject-of-a-life and possess inherent value’. Tom Regan published A Case For Animal Rights in 1983, presenting an argument for animal rights. Regan responds to Kant’s categorical imperative in a way that highlights the necessity to include animals within an ethical theory. Regan’s argument is succinctly summarised by Josephine Donovan (1993):

“Regan makes his case by countering Kant’s theory that human moral patients (i.e., those who are severely retarded, infants, or others unable to reason) need not be treated as ends. This to Regan is unacceptable. Therefore, if one accepts both moral agents and moral patients as entitled to the basic respect implied in the notion of rights, Regan argues, it follows that nonhuman moral patients (animals) must be included in the category of those entitled to be treated as ends. To argue otherwise is speciesist; that is, it arbitrarily assumes that humans are worth more than other life forms.”

Gary Francione

1995, ‘the abolitionist approach’ to animal rights emerges. Gary Francione is a North American professor of law and philosophy who has established ‘the abolitionist approach’ to animal rights. The abolitionist approach borrows its name from the abolitionists of the United States’ 19th century civil rights movement. The abolitionist approach is two things at once: a set of animal-rights and an approach to animal-rights advocacy.

The animal rights that Francione proposes rely on the criteria that sentience determines whether a being is worthy of moral concern. Francione says that ‘all sentient beings are equal for the purpose of not being used exclusively as a resource’, and that all sentient beings share ‘the right not be treated as property of others’. Since animals are sentient, Francione argues that animal rights advocates ‘abolish, and not merely regulate, institutionalized animal exploitation’.

Francione explains in Animals, Property and the Law (1995) how animal rights will never be established in law while animals are legally considered to be property. In his 1996 book, Rain without Thunder: The Ideology of the Animal Rights Movement, Francione criticised the existing animal rights organisations for being ineffective, counterproductive, and speciesist. Francione labels existing animal rights organisations the ‘new-welfarists’ because, unlike the utilitarian welfarists that were only concerned about animals’ welfare, new-welfarists claim to seek the establishment of animal rights, while in practise, promote welfare reforms whose historical results make them indistinguishable from welfarist organisations. Francione sees new-welfarists as missing the opportunity to advocate for inalienable animal rights.

Francione’s ‘moral imperative’ is his claim that: ‘it is a moral imperative to be vegan if animals matter morally’. Therefore, according to the abolitionist approach, veganism is a moral-baseline; veganism is the starting point for a moral life, the least of which a moral person must adhere to.

Melanie Joy is an American professor of psychology and sociology that developed the term ‘carnism’ to describe the ideology of meat eating (Joy, 2001). By labelling the ideology of a diet which is inclusive of animal products, Joy is able to ‘deconstruct the invisibility of the system, exposing the principles and practises of a system that has since its inception been in hiding’ (Joy, 2010). In addition to bringing carnism to light and challenging its dominance in most modern cultures, Joy is able to criticise the three main ways that meat eating maintains its acceptance: ‘it is necessary, normal, and natural to eat meat’.

In 2012, an international group of scientists released a public statement called the Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness. It declared that animal consciousness is not exclusively a human capacity, given the evidence of similar ‘neurological substrates that generate consciousness’ found in animals.

Joel Marks

2014, an argument for amoral ethics applied to animal liberation. Joel Marks, a North American philosopher, is a vegan moral abolitionist (and animal abolitionist). In other words, he desires the same outcome as Francione, however also desires the end of using moral language.

Marks rejects the position known as moral realism and identifies as an amoralist (without morality). Amorality is the rejection that there are objective moral properties in the universe.

Marks explains that only after retiring from a career as a moral realist, did he have an ‘anti-epiphany’ that: ‘religious fundamentalists are correct: without God, there is no [objective] morality’ (Marks, 2012). Marks, having rejected the arguments for god, concludes that there are no mind-independent morals.

Marks puts forward an ethical framework in place of morality called desirism. Desirism accepts that humans have desires/values. It is animals’ desires that account for behaviours. For Marks, there is no imperative to obey moral principles (because objective morality does not exist), so it cannot be correctly said “what we ought to do”. Instead, Marks says that “what we would do, is that which we rationally desire, all things considered”.

Marks is a vegan that desires animal liberation, the same abolition of animal use that Francione wants, however he fundamentally disagrees with Francione’s moral assumptions and would approach animal advocacy in a different way.

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