Virtues and Animals Essay questions


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J Agric Environ Ethics (2014) 27:909–929 DOI 10.1007/s10806-014-9505-z ARTICLES Virtues and Animals: A Minimally Decent Ethic for Practical Living in a Non-ideal World Cheryl Abbate Accepted: 24 April 2014 / Published online: 6 May 2014 ! Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014 Abstract Traditional approaches to animal ethics commonly emerge from one of two influential ethical theories: Regan’s deontology (The case for animal rights. University of California, Berkeley, 1983) and Singer’s preference utilitarianism (Animal liberation. Avon Books, New York, 1975). I argue that both of the theories are unsuccessful at providing adequate protection for animals because they are unable to satisfy the three conditions of a minimally decent theory of animal protection. While Singer’s theory is overly permissive, Regan’s theory is too restrictive. I argue that a minimally decent animal ethic requires a framework that allows for context-dependent considerations of our complex human–animal relationship in a non-ideal world. A plausible theory which exemplifies this new ethic is virtue ethics. Keywords Philosophy ! Animal ethics ! Virtue ethics Traditional approaches to animal ethics commonly emerge from one of two influential ethical theories: Tom Regan’s deontology (1983) or Peter Singer’s preference utilitarianism (1975).1 While both theories are often rejected because they are committed to consequences that are undesirable for humans (Cohen 1986, 2001; Schmahmann and Polacheck 1995), I argue that both theories should be rejected because they are unsuccessful at providing adequate protection for 1 See Singer’s (1975) Animal Liberation and Regan’s (1983) The Case for Animal Rights, which are considered to be the two most influential works on animal liberation. C. Abbate (&) Marquette University, 912 N 76th Street, Wauwatosa, WI 53213, USA e-mail: 123 910 C. Abbate animals.2 This is because both fail to satisfy at least one of the following three conditions which I argue a minimally decent theory of animal protection must embrace3: 1. 2. 3. It must condemn practices and industries which cause unnecessary animal suffering and death, It must provide normative guidance for individual moral agents that forbids them from being a party to practices and industries that cause unnecessary suffering and death to animals, and It must provide normative guidance that instructs moral agents to prevent moral catastrophes by at least minimizing or reducing the pain, suffering, and death of nonhuman animals if elimination of pain, suffering, and death is not feasible. The permissive nature of Singer’s preference utilitarianism prevents his theory from satisfying the first two conditions because: (1) his theory is unable to condemn certain industries and practices that cause unnecessary suffering to animals, and (2) his account is unable to demand that individuals refuse to be a party to certain industries or practices that generate a significant amount of unnecessary animal suffering. On the other hand, the restrictiveness of Regan’s theory is at odds with the third condition: his account permits moral catastrophes which would generate unfathomable animal suffering and death. The deficiencies of both utilitarianism and deontology stem from their assumption that there is one universal moral principle or rule that should govern all conceivable situations involving animals, regardless of the imperfect conditions of our world that impact our encounters with animals. Since rule moralities, like utilitarianism and deontology, cannot account for the complexity of human–animal interactions, I argue that a minimally decent animal liberation ethics requires a framework that allows for context-dependent considerations of our complex human–animal relationships in a non-ideal world. A plausible theory which exemplifies such a framework is virtue ethics. A Minimal Decent Ethic for Animal Ethicists Before proceeding, it is important to note that my target audience, individuals who desire to liberate and protect animals from human supremacy, are already committed to a concern for animals. The goal of this project, then, is not to convince utilitarians or deontologists to accept a theory of virtue ethics nor is the aim of this paper to convince moral agents to foster an interest in animal ethics if they are presently unconcerned. Rather, the intent of my project is to address those who already foster a concern for the welfare and lives of animals and to provide them with reasons to ground these concerns in a theory of virtue ethics, which I argue, can best account for their basic intuitions. 2 For the sake of simplicity, I will often use the term ‘‘animal’’ to refer to nonhuman animals in this paper 3 This idea of building an animal ethics around ‘‘common sense’’ principles is also found in Engel (2001), Sapontzis (1987), DeGrazia (1996) and Clark (1977) 123 Virtues and Animals 911 Keeping in mind the goal of this project, there are four implicit assumptions which, I argue, give rise to and make sense of the three previously mentioned conditions of a minimally decent theory of animal protection. These assumptions are generally agreed upon by animal advocates and thus they will motivate the discussion which follows: 1. 2. 3. 4. Causing unnecessary pain to animals is wrong. Killing animals without good reason is wrong. It is wrong to participate in activities that cause, or are made possible by, unnecessary animal suffering and death. There will be times when it is necessary to kill an animal, or to cause it some amount of suffering, such as in order to prevent a greater amount of animal suffering and death. I furthermore acknowledge that there is not widespread agreement about some of these claims in the ethical theory community at large. For instance, a utilitarian might question whether it is wrong to kill an animal if it is done painlessly. A utilitarian might also be skeptical of the claim that it is wrong to be a party to a practice that causes, or is made possible by, unnecessary animal suffering if one’s presence itself does not cause suffering. I set aside these theoretical considerations and proceed with the assumption that these four claims should not be disregarded when evaluating possible ethical frameworks for an animal ethic because there is widespread agreement about these claims in the animal liberation community. Claim #1: It is Wrong to Cause Animals to Suffer Unnecessarily The first condition of a minimally decent theory of animal protection is derived from a basic principle of nonmaleficence that, at the very least, every minimally decent theory of animal ethics should accept: nonhuman animal suffering and pain is bad and unnecessary suffering ought not to be imposed on them (DeGrazia 2005; Clark 1977). At first glance, this principle of nonmaleficence may appear utilitarian in nature, yet as most animal ethicists would agree, a disdain for unnecessary suffering is not unique to utilitarianism: all minimally decent moral theories agree that beings who can suffer, including nonhuman animals, should not be subjected to unnecessary pain or suffering (see Clark 1977; DeGrazia 2005; Francione 1995; Engel 2000). As DeGrazia points out, this is one moral principle that is beyond serious doubt and one need not appeal to a specific moral theory in order to accept this principle. According to DeGrazia (1996, 259), ‘‘a system of thought that did not embrace nonmaleficence would hardly be recognizable as a moral system.’’ Thus, at the very least, a decent animal ethic should endorse the claim that the unnecessary pain and suffering of animals ought to be prevented and an ethic that does not succeed in preventing unnecessary harms to nonhuman animals is a deficient foundation for an animal protection ethic. A fundamental consideration within this discussion concerns what constitutes unnecessary or needless suffering. To say that X is necessary is to say that one must X in order to get Y, and there are no other ways to get Y without Xing. Yet to say that something is necessary does not settle the moral question: it might be 123 912 C. Abbate ‘‘necessary’’ to do A in order to achieve a certain outcome B, while at the same time, it might be morally impermissible to do A because it causes suffering in order to achieve B, when B itself is not itself necessary. For instance the suffering that infants would endure through infant torture is necessary if you want to study the effects of torture on infants, but that doesn’t entail that the suffering of the infants is a moral necessity. 4Likewise, the suffering that animals endure is indeed necessary for the majority of practices that involve the use of nonhuman animals, such as factory farming, the circus, zoos, hunting, pigeon shoots, rodeos, and so forth, yet it does not follow that the suffering of animals is of a moral necessity. In both cases of infant-torture and animal exploitation, the ‘‘necessary suffering’’ is only causally necessary: the infant suffering and animal suffering is necessary given the nature of the activity. However, the activity itself (such as torture, rodeos, and so forth) is not necessary in a moral sense; it is not necessary to bring about a significant good.5 For the remainder of this discussion, I will assume that the phrase necessary suffering refers to only suffering that is of a moral necessity. I will argue that in order for animal suffering to be characterized as morally necessary, it must meet two conditions: 1. 2. The suffering caused to animals must be caused in the name of some end that is worth the cost, or proportional to, the suffering involved. As Clark (1977, 42–45) writes, ‘‘the human ends within which we calculate necessity must be of some weight.’’ The activity or practice which is responsible for causing animal suffering must itself be necessary for achieving some greater good. That is, there must be no other way to achieve the good end other than performing the activity or practice that causes the suffering. To make this clear, consider the following two scenarios: Scenario 1: In order to test the safety of a new makeup product, researchers subject a rabbit to excruciating pain through a toxicity test known as the Draize test. During this test, large quantities of the makeup product is forced into the eye of a rabbit, after which the rabbit might experience redness, swelling, discharge, ulceration, hemorrhaging, or even blindness in her tested eye. Scenario 2: Farm animals are forced to suffer in intensive, confining, restrictive, and unsanitary conditions so that they can be mass produced for human consumption. In the first scenario, the suffering caused to the rabbit is not in the name of a significant end that is worth the cost of the immense suffering that a rabbit endures 4 Thank you to Nathan Nobis who enlightened this discussion and provided this example in personal conversation. 5 Although one might point out that going to rodeos, circuses, and so forth brings about an important human good, such as pleasure or entertainment, the suffering of these animals still is not necessary because we could achieve similar pleasure or entertainment through some other activity, like going to a comedy show, watching a movie, and so forth. Since we have these other sources of entertainment, rodeos are not necessary for entertainment; it is just one, among many, opportunities for entertainment. Also note that there might be different conceptions of what counts as a significant good depending on one’s cultural values. While I am sympathetic to this point, I will assume that there are at least a few obvious ‘‘goods’’ that are not significant, irrespective of one’s culture (such as gustatory pleasure or entertainment). 123 Virtues and Animals 913 in the Draize Eye test. Rather, the suffering is inflicted upon the rabbit for a trivial reason: vanity. This would be the sort of suffering that Engel classifies as suffering that ‘‘serves no greater, outweighing justifying good’’ (2000, 859). Undoubtedly, the suffering caused to the rabbit in this scenario is not of a moral necessity because it fails to pass the first requirement. In the second scenario, the suffering of the farm animals is caused for a more substantial purpose: human nutrition. However, the suffering of the animals still is not of a moral necessity because there are non-animal alternatives readily available (especially in developed nations) that sufficiently meet the nutritional needs of humans, such as plant based foods. Thus, even though the end that is sought after is significantly important, the activity or practice that causes the suffering of animals is not necessary to achieve that end. Since we have other means of meeting the nutritional needs of humans, factory farming cannot be said to be necessary for providing nutrition to humans; it is just one, among many, possible ways of meeting the nutritional needs of humans. Claim #2: It is Wrong to Kill Animals Unnecessarily A minimally decent animal ethic, to some extent, is also concerned with preventing the unnecessary death of animals. While some self-proclaimed animal ethicists, such as Cigman (1980, 57), McMahan (2008, 66–76), Hare (1993, 226) and Singer (2011, 104) maintain that death is not a harm for animals since they do not have a desire to continue to live, the killing of animals still is not considered to be inconsequential. For instance, Singer points out that ‘‘many modes of killing used on animals do not inflict instantaneous death, so there is pain in the process of dying’’ (Singer 2011, 104). Furthermore, even a utilitarian finds it morally problematic to kill an animal painlessly without good reason because when animals die, there is usually a loss of good experiences in the world. Through death, animals are deprived of the pleasure of their existence and since a utilitarian finds a world in which beings are deprived of pleasurable experiences to be morally undesirable, moral agents ought not kill animals without good reason (Singer 2011, 120). But more importantly, as Singer writes, to effectively liberate animals, we must ‘‘bring nonhuman animals within our sphere of moral concern and cease to treat their lives as expendable for whatever trivial purposes we may have’’ (Singer 1975, 20). To kill animals needlessly, however painless their deaths might be, is to undermine the goal of all animal liberationists. To dispose of animals when we feel like it or when they become ‘‘bothersome,’’ however painless their death, is to send the message that the lives of all animals are insignificant, meaningless, unimportant, and inferior to the lives of all humans. The animal ethicist’s aversion to painlessly killing animals is evident when we consider her response to the phenomena of overpopulation of homeless cats and dogs. She does not find it acceptable to just painlessly kill these animals to quickly and ‘‘ethically’’ resolve the issue. Rather, as someone who cares about these animals, she struggles to find these animals a home. She feels an enormous sense of regret and sadness when she is presented with the statistics regarding the millions of healthy cats and dogs who are painlessly killed each year in animal shelters. She is 123 914 C. Abbate troubled each time she learns that a healthy cat has been painlessly killed because she believes that it is undesirable for the cat to be denied the opportunity to live the life he was given. Claim #3: It is Wrong to be a Party to Animal Cruelty My third assumption is that animal ethicists agree that it is wrong for one to be a party to acts or practices that cause, or are made possible by, unnecessary animal suffering even if her participation in these acts does not, in any way, cause animals to suffer. For instance, someone who claims to care about the well-being of animals would not accept a free ticket to a dog fighting show while reassuring herself that the ‘‘ticket would have just gone to waste.’’ Someone who is concerned for animal welfare would not devour ‘‘kitty soup’’ that was produced by torturing cats even if the soup would go to waste if she refused to eat it. Someone who is truly concerned for the well-being of animals would feel revulsion at the prospect of participating in such activities and would thus refuse to be a part of these activities even if her participation does not, in any way, cause animals to suffer. Claim #4: It is Acceptable to Harm Animals in Order to Prevent a Moral Catastrophe While we can point to a number of exploitative practices, like factory farming and cosmetic testing, that cause animals to suffer unnecessarily, there might be times when it is morally necessary to: (1) inflict some amount of pain upon a number of animals, and (2) painlessly kill some number of animals. That is, there are instances where causing harm to a being is necessary to secure some end which is worth the cost, or proportional to, the suffering or death involved. One case of necessary suffering and death which I am concerned with in this paper concerns moral catastrophes: situations where the only way a moral agent can prevent the uncontrolled, continuation of significant animal suffering and death is by causing harm to some smaller number of animals. Since animals are: (1) unable to escape their suffering, and (2) unable, themselves, to take measures to control widespread animal suffering, humans, then, are the only beings in a position to intervene in some way. If the only way to minimize an epidemic of animal suffering and death is for human beings to either painlessly kill some animals or cause animals some degree of bearable suffering, then a moral agent should intervene and act to minimize this suffering, while lamenting the harm she causes. If she does nothing, then she sentences a significant amount of animals to a life of misery: misery that could have been prevented had she intervened. In such exceptional cases, causing nonhuman animals harm, according to the definition of necessity deployed in this paper, is morally necessary. Utilitarianism: An Excessively Permissive Theory Singer’s preference utilitarianism, as presented in Animal Liberation (1975), is the dominant utilitarian approach used to promote an ethic for nonhuman animals. The 123 Virtues and Animals 915 fundamental goal of Singer’s project is to extend the basic principle of equality to animals. This principle requires moral agents to give everyone’s interests equal consideration. Since sentient animals have interests, such as the interest in not suffering, we must take their interests into account and give equal consideration to their suffering as we would to the suffering of humans. That is, we should not discount the suffering of an elephant in moral decision making simply because she is ‘‘just an animal.’’ Singer argues that taking serious the principle of equal consideration does not require us to protect the interests of beings (human or nonhuman) with nonviolable rights; rather, the goal of the basic principle of equality is to ensure that, in moral decision making, we give equal weight to the interests of all sentient beings and that we do not arbitrarily discriminate against animals based on their species membership (Singer 1975, 34). Since Singer is a preference utilitarian, he operates under the assumption that the ultimate goal of morality is not to protect the interests of beings with rights, but rather, he assumes that the goal of morality is to maximize preferences (also referred to as interests) of all sentient beings. If the ultimate goal of morality is to maximize preferences, then it follows that any being’s preference can be overridden if the conseq ...
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Virtues and Animals



Animal ethics is an interesting topic that has gained popularity in recent days. The vast
interest in this topic has been reinforced by cases of cruelty against animals that have taken place
in recent days. While most supporters of animal rights agree that harming animals is morally
wrong, they fail to address whether harming animals for human’s gain is ethical in itself. Abbate,
(2014), acknowledges that Currently, there is no a single theory of animal ethics, that has proved
to be effective in protecting animals from cruelty, or in shaping the relationship with human
beings (p.910). As such, he proposes a minimally decent theory, which he believes would guide
human-animal interactions, and also provide adequate pr...

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