A right to life and freedom: animal ethics
is animal ethics?
Ethics addresses questions of morality,
such as what makes our actions right or wrong. Animal ethics focuses upon the
constantly evolving way in which society thinks of nonhuman animals. Through
our use of animals as goods, for food, for entertainment and companionship,
animal ethics is something that we all interact with on a daily basis.
When we begin to explore our behaviour
towards animals, we find that what is presented as acceptable conduct is often
inconsistent. While we love and value the nonhuman members of our family, such
as the cats and dogs who share our homes, we distance ourselves from the lives
of billions of farmed animals.
Our consumer choices shape our daily
lives and it is through them that we have come to regard animals such as
chickens, pigs, sheep and cows not as individuals, but in terms of the
financial value placed upon them. The distance we maintain between their lives and
our own allows our use of their bodies to continue unchallenged. Can this inequality
in how we regard other animals ever be truly justified?
ethics in theory
Different approaches to animal ethics,
such as welfarism and abolitionism, vary greatly both in their philosophical
viewpoints and their practices. Their shared focus is achieving the inclusion
of nonhuman animals within our moral community.
The call for ‘higher-welfare’
products, through consumer demand for organic and free-range meat, eggs and
dairy, is termed welfarism. Welfarism modifies systems of abuse through changes
to legislation and working practices, while allowing exploitation of nonhuman
animals to continue.
By rejecting their commodification as
‘products’ and property, abolitionism affords nonhuman animals a right to life and
freedom from exploitation. Abolitionism challenges the legitimacy of abusive
industries and what we demand from them, working to end suffering by ending exploitation
as a whole.
ethics in practice
We can prevent nonhuman animals from
being degraded into the class of things by promoting a compassionate attitude
towards them.3 An attitude that demonstrates a lack of respect for
other animals and unfair behaviour towards them is known as speciesism. Like
both racism and sexism, speciesism is a prejudice which builds a general
disregard for the lives of others based upon an unreasonable differentiation.
Only by allowing all animals equal consideration can we be unprejudiced in our
When we start to value nonhuman
animals as individuals, we recognise that they are not mechanical units of
production and profit.1 Gradual changes to how animals are treated,
confined and slaughtered may alter aspects of how we use other animals but they
do not challenge the wrongs of their enslavement.2 On the surface, welfare
changes may appear compassionate, however by looking at the wider picture we can
see that they leave animals within abusive environments and allow their exploitation
to continue. By regulating cruelty, welfarism actively accepts the trade in nonhuman
Killing and unacceptable harm remain
an inherent part of farming animals for food, regardless of the farming
practices used. The commercial branding of organic and free range products wrongly
reassures us as consumers. The cheery media persona designed for these products
enables us to put a falsely positive image to a process which commodifies
animals and causes them to suffer.
By creating a change within our own consumer
demand, we can create a wider reaching change for the better. When we choose
not to support exploitative industries and avoid products taken from animals, we
reject the commodity status placed upon them and recognise their value as
individuals.4 Veganism is the simple action of removing our personal
demand for animal exploitation. It is the practical application of the idea
that animals are not property, nor ours to use and manipulate.
ethics and you
If you believe that we should be kind
to animals and treat them with respect, only one further step is needed to
reach the conclusion that all animals
deserve our kindness and respect.5 If we extend to other animals the
same compassion and morality we would hope for ourselves, we can begin to
alleviate the harm that we cause them. Compassionate choices made by us as
individuals offer protection to those who need it most. Changing the way in
which harm takes place is not enough: we need to make choices that respect life
and freedom. By leading a vegan lifestyle, we end our demand for animal suffering
and exploitation. All that this requires from us is the decision to make a
Turner, All Heaven in a Rage. Centaur Press, Fontwell, Sussex. 1992.
D’Silva, Adverse impacts of industrial animal agriculture on the health and welfare of farmed animals
(accessed 6th January 2011)
Dunayer, Speciesism. Ryce Publishing, Maryland, 2004.
Garner, Animals, Politics and Morality. Manchester University Press, 1994.
Feinberg, Can Animals Have Rights? As cited in Animal Rights and Human
Obligations. Edited by Tom Regan and Peter Singer. 1976. Prentice Hall, INC.