Brute Ethics





Animal Ethics Encyclopedia

To Index


 Ethical theory stating that there is only one truth for everyone; morality is not a matter of opinion. Also called Objectivism.

According to Absolutism that which is right or wrong, true or false, and concepts, like beauty and valour, do not depend on anyone's opinion, they hold for all situations and are the same for all people in all societies, everywhere for all time. Thus, moral values are permanent, immutable and are the standards by which you can judge everything. For instance, there is only one good life for everyone to follow because there is only one goodness.

Where do absolute values come from? Depending on your attitude you might claim that absolute values originate from God, society, the state, tradition or some other source, like natural selection. You might therefore declare it is your absolute right to use animals because God gave humanity dominion over them (see Dominionism in Anthropocentrism). Or you might assert you have the total right to hunt animals because of tradition ('we do it because it's always been that way'), or because you are superior to animals (see Prejudice and Speciesism) and must manage nature.


  • How can we know absolute truth? Who is to say what is right? Who is to say that eating animals or experimenting on them is right or wrong? If you believe in religious, professional or philosophical authority you may accept the word of religious leaders, people who tell us they know best or philosophical intellects. But if you are an atheist, free-thinker or bohemian, you would probably reject them and look elsewhere other than Absolutism for a moral code. Absolutism therefore is not for everyone.

  • Absolutism inhibits people thinking for themselves and prevents debate because it allows for no choice, there being only one morally correct path. Having only one right path removes the need to reflect on what the right moral action might be and surely ethics is about reflection.

  • Absolutism can be confusing when conflict arises. Your country may tell you it is your absolute duty to defend your country and kill people if need be. Or your mother may tell you always to eat the meat on your plate. But you might believe that taking human or animal life is wrong no matter what the circumstances. To resolve conflicts you may have to appeal to another ethical theory to decide the right moral action you should take.

  • Contrast with Relativism and Subjectivism.

To Index


 Animal activists speak up for animals and are ordinary caring people of all ages and backgrounds. They use accepted means to promote their animal cause and are not all necessarily and inevitably extremists. The secret is to do what you feel comfortable with, are good at doing and enjoy; not everyone wants to lobby politicians for animal-friendly legislation or go campaign marching on animal issues. So first, here are ten things you do to be a self-activist.


  • Stop calling animals it, as if they are inanimate lumps of rock. By calling animals he or she, you convey they are sentient beings, with feelings and needs of their own.

  • Speak up to defend animals when opportunities arise. Make your views known to newspapers and other news media when you think they are acting against the interests of animals.

  • Avoid animal products, like cut down on leather and scorn fur clothing and other fur items.

  • Use products and ingredients that are not tested on animals.

  • Wear suitable messages on your T-shirt and be prepared to defend what you think if someone challenges you.

  • Give up eating animals, even partially; being vegetarian on some days of the week is healthier and morally better than total carnivory.

  • Avoid using products that harm nature (the so called 'environment').

  • Use companies with publicly stated ethical policies (eg for banking or investment).

  • Do not patronise zoos.

  • Infuse yourself with Invertebrate Harmony.

    More Active Activism

    Here are ten more suggestions for projects to get into the swing of more active practical animal ethics.

  • Knowledge
  • Suggest good animal ethical books (eg on animal ethics, animal rights and animal welfare) that your public or college library can buy for their shelves. Ask your library to put up a display of books on animal ethics.

  • The Sixth Extinction
  • Most people do not realise we live in a human-caused mass extinction of animals and life - the 'Sixth Extinction'. Make people aware of it.

  • Your College or Work Refectory
  • Ask for more animal friendly (or at least less unfriendly) food. For instance, get management to offer (genuine) free-range eggs and ban battery eggs. Ask them to offer organically grown meat and shun industrially farmed chickens and other factory farmed animals. Get them to provide simple information about the food they offer so that diners know what they are eating and can choose alternatives.

  • Supermarkets
  • The market is money driven so they will not phase out factory farmed eggs so easily. But you could get them to display these eggs less prominently and to promote free range eggs more prominently. Some supermarkets have moved in this direction. Ditto broilers, but eggs are a good start. See Hens & Eggs and Chickens.

  • Fur
  • Politely and knowledgeably inform people in the street who are wearing real fur what they are doing (often they are foreigners). Remember fur brushes and distinguish real fur from synthetic fur (see Fur Test).

  • News Media
  • News people are always scouting around for news and rely on the public for it. So get your local newspaper, radio or television interested in newsworthy topics. For instance, be aware of dubious animal ethics at your local zoo, circus or pet shop. Inspect your local free-range farm. Is it truly free-range?

  • Works
  • Try to get your company to make its purchases from animal friendly companies. If your company is not animal-friendly, politely ask why - with the intention of putting animal-friendly ideas into its head.

  • Code of Ethics
  • Does your institution, profession or society handle animals or their products in any way? Have they a code of animal ethics spelling out how to act? Get management or colleagues to compose one.

  • Courses
  • Ask for animal ethics to be taught at your school, college or university.

  • Animal Ethics Society
  • Start an animal ethics society at home, college or work.

    Pointers for Success

  • Keep realistic
  • Keep in touch with ordinary people's attitudes. Dream, yes, but take off into a fantasy world and you are lost.

  • Be credible
  • Only make accurate claims you can reasonably prove. Be knowledgeable and check your sources. People will then learn they can trust what you say and be more ready to listen to you.

  • Do not assume your opponents are evil
  • They are likely to be as nice as you. Put yourself in their position and ask what will move them to do good.

  • Pick the right target
  • No one can change everything at once, so pick a specific target, something you can alter, has a weak point you can attack, and has a clear end goal and closure you can achieve in a given time.

  • Break down your goal into small steps
  • Success is more likely when you aim for successive small achievable steps.

  • Go round obstacles
  • If you cannot attack your opponent directly, attack his supports.

  • Focus on the task
  • The task is primary, so minimise bureaucracy.

  • Build Upwards
  • You can accomplish a lot on your own or with a few friends. Build on your reputation and history of successes to take on more or bigger projects.

    Many ideas for activism are at Animal Liberation Front.

    Also see Thinking Through Moral Issues.

To Index


Animal of peace & Jain symbol Eastern principle of non-violence advocating respect and non-harm to all life. Part of Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism. For example, advocates of ahimsa oppose eating animals. Ahimsa contrasts with the traditional Western view that only some creatures are worthy of respect and equal consideration.

To Index


Meercat altruism  Altruism involves helping others at some cost to yourself. Altruism is important because it can explain, in evolutionary terms, why we help others, ie why we act morally.

Perhaps the highest degree of altruism is giving up one's life so that others can live. For example:

  • Individual bees defend their colonies to the point of killing themselves. You risk being stung if you disturb a honey bee nest. The sting embeds in your skin and when the bee flies away the embedded sting pulls out the bee's viscera killing the bee. The bee sacrifices himself for his colony.

  • Some animals, such as robins and thrushes, place their lives in danger when warning others of an approaching raptor, eg a hawk, by emitting a high pitched whistle. The whistle is difficult for a hawk to pin point; nevertheless, it might give away the position of the caller who could then fall prey to the raptor. Meerkats (above graphic) post sentinels to watch for danger and are also at risk when sounding their alarm.

  • Acting altruistically need not necessarily endanger the altruist's life but there is always a cost of some sort, like sharing some of your food or possessions or giving up a coin to a beggar. Two examples of altruism not involving danger come from wild chimpanzees:

  • Chimpanzees eat plants and fruit but occasionally catch and eat baboons. A chimpanzee who catches a baboon sometimes gives bits of the carcass to soliciting chimpanzees. By giving away the food the altruist loses potential nourishment.

  • The adoption of orphaned infants is another altruism found in chimpanzees, and of course humans. The loss to the altruist is the energy put into raising someone else's offspring.

  • Explaining Altruism

    How can we explain altruism, ie helping behaviour, bearing in mind that helping behaviour is often moral behaviour? According to evolutionary theory, individuals act to replicate their genes. The way to replicate genes is by having offspring, because offspring carry copies of their parent's genes. However, altruism seems to run counter to this theory. Your genes will not spread if you die trying to save someone. And if you give away nourishment, possessions or money you will reduce your chances of successful reproduction than if you keep everything for yourself. Yet altruism is widespread throughout the animal kingdom, being well documented in species from social insects to chimpanzees and humans. Trying to explain how altruism works opens up insights into helping behaviour, including cooperation and team-work.

    Two ways of explaining altruism are kin selection and reciprocal altruism.

  • Kin Selection

  • Kin selection (also called inclusive fitness) was introduced by W D Hamilton in the 1960's. This idea is that it is worth sacrificing your life to save the lives of your close kin. For example, a mother saves her children from death. By saving her children she ensures that more copies of her genes survive than just her genes if she did not save her children. Kin selection says you are more likely to help a close relative even if the cost to yourself is high (eg you die for your child), that you only help a distant relative if the cost to yourself is low (eg you give him a meal), and that you help strangers (non-relatives) least because unlike your family they share few of their genes with you. When you help others survive and they inherit this altruistic way of behaving then altruism is likely to spread in the population.

  • Reciprocal Altruism

  • Kin selection offers an explanation of why people help their children and relations. But people help total strangers and this needs explaining. This question led to an idea advanced by R L Trivers in the 1970's. Reciprocal altruism says you help unrelated individuals (non-family) because there is the chance that they might help you in return (hence reciprocal altruism). This kind of altruism depends on your ability to identify others who may reciprocate your help and those you think may not. If you think someone is unlikely to return a favour, or cheat on you by taking your help and never returning it, you are not likely to do him a favour.

  • Multi-level Selection Theory

  • How can we explain helping behaviour outside kin selection and reciprocal altruism? Multi-level selection theory tries to explain altruism in terms of intensely competing groups. In this theory, elaborated in the 1990's by D S Wilson, a group with a high level of cooperation among its members is more likely to prosper than another group in competition with it that has a low level of cooperation among its members. Thus in the general population the number of altruists and cooperating groups will increase as cooperation flourishes and less successful non-cooperating groups lose out.

  • Costly Signalling Theory

    Like multi-level selection theory, costly signalling theory endeavours to explain helping behaviour among strangers. Costly signalling theory tries to account for altruistic acts that cost an altruist a great deal of energy, time or other currency. Developed by A Zahavi in the 1970's and then by A Grafen in the 1990's, the theory proposes that your extreme benevolence serves to reinforce your status, that is your unselfish behaviour will be perceived by others as coming from a great person, and that you will benefit in the long run from this perception. Therefore if you are going to act as a 'costly signaller' your kindness must:

  • Be costly to yourself.

  • Be a dependable indicator about yourself, eg your wealth, power or intelligence.

  • Be easily known to others that you are being kind (you must show off your benevolence in some way, even subtly).

  • Lead to some advantage for yourself, such as gaining a mate, an ally or high social position.

  • Costly signalling theory has another advantage, for if you fall on bad times your former generosity will encourage reciprocal altruism from those you benefited in your glory days. So scatter as much of your dosh as you can - by helping others you are really helping yourself!

    Contrast Altruism with Ethical Egoism.

To Index

Animal Abuse

animal abuse  Animal abuse is the gross mistreatment, harm, torture or killing of animals for reasons considered abnormal or insane by most people.

Animal abuse can indicate a violent personality. Animal abusers may be more likely to commit serious violent crimes against humans, especially domestic violence, assault and murder. A high number of murderers and serial killers in US prisons admit to abusing animals before they turned to humans. In recognition of this, many states in the US have made intentional cruelty to animals a crime, whereas it used to be a misdemeanour. The change in the law is to enable police to apprehend animal abusers before they commit serious crimes against humans.

In light of the animal-human violence connection, we must understand the relationship of animal abuse and violence to humans, for where you see one the other may exist. A society that tolerates animal abuse is a dangerous society for human life. Act early in cases of animal abuse and you may save the animals and the humans alike. Animal abuse is a warning that the perpetrator of abuse needs help. Researching animal abuse can increase awareness and understanding of violent crime against humans.

To Index

Animal Ethics

animal abuse  If you methodically question the meaning and purpose of life you are a philosopher, whether amateur or professional. Ethics is the part of philosophy that asks how people should live their lives and how they should do good and right to others. Animal ethics is the bit of ethics that deals specifically with animals: understanding animal-human moral issues through knowledge and reasoning and acting for the moral good. Thus animal ethics is a practical as well as a cognitive pursuit. In his book Animal Ethics (2005:12) Robert Garner says, "Animal ethics seeks to examine beliefs that are held about the moral status of non-human animals."

An ethical issue is when you think a harm or wrong is happening and something should be done about it. If we harm people then we must justify why we harm them and if we cannot justify our actions then we must not harm them. In the same way, animal ethics critically questions our conduct with animals. Everyone has some contact with animals directly or indirectly, whether farming or shooting animals, eating them, or feeding their pets factory farmed chicken and other animals, going to the zoo, using substances tested on animals or washing themselves with animal-based soap.


Thinking through, critically and carefully, what most people take for granted is, I believe, the chief task of philosophy, and it is this task that makes philosophy a worthwhile activity. Peter Singer (1986:226): Applied Ethics.

Why is Animal Ethics Important?

Our relationship with animals is based on our beliefs that are the result of our upbringing and social custom. We accept these beliefs, often on trust from our elders, without challenging and analysing them. But unexamined beliefs when acted out can do enormous amounts of harm. Most people do not realise the suffering and destruction humanity imposes on animals because it goes on largely out of sight and where it peaks above the surface it is tolerated as normal.

Vast numbers of animals suffer every year for humanity. Humanity turns animals into food, clothing and quack medicine, uses animals for sport, entertainment, experimentation and trade, and humanity spoils regions animals would otherwise inhabit and controls animal populations instead of managing its own. Furthermore, humanity is driving millions of wild species to extinction, an end to life comparable in enormity to the mass extinction that killed off the dinosaurs.

The harm humans are doing to animals amounts to an animal holocaust that we must address and this is why animal ethics is important. If we are to make civilized progress we must comprehend what we are doing to animals and think about how we should be treating them. We must ask what we are doing, why we are doing it, how should we and how can we do better - and take action. Therefore all of us must justify and defend our relations with animals in light of ethics. If we do nothing to reverse our butchery of animal life and nature, then we are morally impoverished as individuals and our species shall be consumed in a global ecological backlash.

How Do We Proceed?

When we make a judgement about the rights or wrongs of a situation our views and actions must be based on knowledge and reason. We must examine our thoughts and feelings carefully. We cannot rely completely on intuition or feelings because people may be manipulating us for their own purpose without us realising what is happening. We cannot rely on faith, religion, authority, the law, social standards, tradition, precedent, fashion, immediate impression, emotional illogic, mistaken belief, fantasy, magic and many other reasons that are not necessarily rational.

Reasons for acting ethically can be simple or complex, tempered by intuition or emotion, or whatever. But our reasons for acting ethically must be consistent, comprehensive and based on fact, that is on the truth of the matter as far as it is known. And our reasons for acting ethically must work the 6C Way:

  • Clearly - can be understood.

  • Concisely - not verbose or diffuse.

  • Compatibly - agreeing with basic intuition of what is right and good.

  • Consistently - without contradictions.

  • Constructively - extending our judgement into new or ambiguous areas by building on what we already understand and accept.

  • Comprehensively - not ad hoc but relevant to all kinds of problems.

  • Fundamental Ethical Positions

    There are three fundamental animal ethical positions regarding our moral behaviour to animals:

    1. Abuse
    Animals have no moral status. We owe nothing to animals except to make use of them as and how we like. This is the position many people held in past centuries and many people in Asia still do.

    2. Welfare
    Animal should have welfare. Animals are a resource for humanity and we should treat them kindly, but humans always come first in a conflict of interests. Welfarists acknowledge the need to use animals but try to alleviate 'needless' animal suffering. This is the position most people in the West hold today.

    3. Liberation
    The avant-garde position: we should liberate animals. Animals deserve moral status in some way similar to human moral status. Liberationists have a lifestyle quite different to the majority of people, being vegetarian or vegan and avoiding using animal goods and services. There are two types of animal liberationist and both want to abolish the use of animals on moral or other grounds. However, new welfarists see abolition as a long-term goal and meanwhile try to ease as much animal suffering as possible by introducing practical welfare measures. The 'hard-line' abolitionists believe welfare is a waste of time and pitch straight for abolition of animal use on the grounds that if there is no abuse there is no need for welfare.

    Key Concepts

    Six key concepts significant for the liberationist view of animal ethics are:

  • Sentiency - sentient beings can feel pleasure and suffer.

  • Rights - protection or privilege conferred on someone.

  • Interests - an individual's stake in fulfilling its life's natural potential.

  • Intrinsic value - value independent of usefulness to humans.

  • Equal consideration of interests - giving weight to everyone's interests.

  • Speciesism - prejudice in favour of your own species.

  • You could support animal liberation via Rights or Utilitarianism. An animal rightist, embodied by the philosopher Tom Regan, might say that all sentient beings are entitled to rights because they have equal intrinsic value. The view of a utilitarian, personified by the philosopher Peter Singer, could be that sentient animals have interests and therefore no species (humanity of course) is more important than another and we should give equal consideration to everyone's interests. Both views are similar in that withholding rights or equal consideration of interests is speciesism. A difference between these views is that Regan says you must not harm any animal with rights even if the action is for the benefit the majority. Singer, on the other hand, says you can harm sentient animals providing the harm has a useful outcome and you would also do the same harm to humans.

To Index

Animal Ethics Background

That animals are made for human use is a traditional attitude, at least among Westerners. This conception held from Old Testament times up at least to Darwin (1809 - 1882). Aristotle (384 - 322 BC) thought animals exist to provide humans with food and other provisions. Aquinas (1225 - 1274) claimed it is acceptable to kill animals and treat them in any useful way. Descartes (1596 - 1650) asserted that animal are mindless robots and therefore cannot suffer.

People had to emphasise differences between man and beast to maintain and defend their belief in human superiority. They said animals lack the important traits, like reason, intelligence, language and creativity. The spiritually inclined claimed that animals are inferior because they are not made in the 'image of God'. Nature-lovers appreciated animals and the religious turn of mind admired animals as God's creatures, but both were unresponsive to animal misfortune and distress. People protected some animals, but only if the animals belonged to someone as property.

However, Darwin began the demolition of human centredness by convincingly arguing that animals and humans evolved from the same ancestors. Common evolutionary descent explains why man shares the same appearance as animals, especially the apes (see Evolutionary Continuity). The public of Darwin's day were shocked. But Darwin's evolutionary theory in outline is widely accepted today.

Thus an ethical dilemma reared up. Animals and humans are similar. So if humans have moral status (ie moral consideration and moral rights) then animals should have moral status too. For most of the history of Western philosophy just about everyone passed off the moral status of animals as a trivial and insignificant question. However, since the 1970's an energetic debate has been waging on the moral status of animals, ignited by philosophers such as Peter Singer.

The debate about animal moral status is based on simple basic and common moral principles: it is wrong to cause suffering (see Cruelty) and it is wrong to discriminate against others by giving greater importance to your own group (see Speciesism). Apply these principles consistently and they lead to the logical conclusion that animals should be treated morally like humans - provided they have relevant similarities, some philosophers would say specifically if they can feel pain and suffer. The English philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748 - 1832) noted that:
"The day may come, when the rest of the animal creation may acquire the rights which never could have been withholden from them but by the hand of tyranny. ...the question is not, Can they reason? not, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?" (Jeremy Bentham: An introduction to the principles of morals and legislation. 1789:xvii:311.)
Many differences between animals and humans are immaterial to the moral debate so should not be used to justify excluding animals from moral consideration. A couple of non-relevant differences are that animals do not read or acknowledge the law; therefore there is no point arguing that animals should have the right to university education or legal representation. Relevant differences concern more basic requirements, such as the right to replicate ones genes, the right to liberty and the right to not to be forced to suffer for the gain of others (which includes animal experimentation but excludes predation).

Many people still cannot accept animals on the same moral level as humanity, even while acknowledging the contributions of Darwin and others. Today there is more debate and action on animal ethics than at any previous time. Indeed, there is more debate about animals today than all past times combined.

To Index

Animal Experimentation

Go here.

To Index


1) The animal world, animal life, the character, quality and nature of animals. 2) A mysterious vital power or force as opposed to the bio-physical explanation for life's energy. 3) The base nature of animals juxtaposed against human moral and spiritual nature. When compared with humanity, animality is often defined by qualities animals are perceived to lack and is used to reflect on the meaning of a supposedly superior humanity.

To Index

Animal Morality

Are only humans moral animals, that is do only humans show moral behaviour? Many people would say yes, only humans can be moral, and claim that animals behave only instinctively or in some other low way. Your definition of what constitutes moral behaviour will likely hinge on your sympathies. You might advocate that moral behaviour is a uniquely human attribute and define moral behaviour in such a way as to squeeze out animals, for example, claim that only humans can reason (see Descartes) or that animals lack the free will necessary to make moral choices, even though no one has proven that humans have free will.

On the other hand, you might be among the minority of people who would argue that animals are moral beings, that even insects show moral behaviour, and that wherever life abounds from insects upwards, there you will find morality. See Moral Ubiquity.

To Index

Animal Rights vs Animal Ethics

 In a nutshell animal rights is a small part of the much broader animal ethics.

Animal Rights Animal Ethics
1. Concentrates only on rights, which is a small part of animal ethics. 1. Has a broad scope that includes animal rights (and overlaps with Environmental Ethics).
2. Is a doctrine. 2. Does not offer any specific view on how we should treat animals.
3. Says that animals should have rights somewhat (ie not exactly) like humans do. 3. Asks how we should treat animals and provides a number of approaches.
4. Is part of Duty Ethics, ie we have a duty to give animals rights and respect those rights. 4. Duty ethics is just one part of the scope of animal ethics.
5. Maintains that using animals for human gain is morally wrong and that animals should merit their own intrinsic value. 5. Tries to resolve moral animal-human issues using a number of approaches.
6. Concentrates on sentient animals. 6. Applies to all animals.

Also see Animal Ethics Background.

To Index

Animal Rights vs Animal Welfare

 In many ways, animal rights and animal welfare are two conflicting philosophies.

The welfare position:

  • We can use animals to benefit ourselves.

  • Using animals is morally right.

  • We should treat animals as humanely as possible and not cause them 'unnecessary' pain.

  • We can buy, sell, hunt and eat animals, etc, especially if we judge the benefit to ourselves outweighs the harm to animals.

  • Only humans have real interests and that these interests are always more important than animals.

  • We should improve but not radically change our treatment of animals.

  • We can measure animal welfare objectively and scientifically, for instance count the number of chickens who prefer to live on a straw floor or a wire mesh floor. Morally, we can see animal welfare as part of Consequence Ethics, such as Utilitarianism that states individuals may suffer for the benefit of the majority.

    The rights position:

  • We should not use animals as it is morally wrong to do so.

  • We should not inflict death or pain on animals - no matter how much we gain.

  • Animals have interests and we should not inevitably trump them with our own interests.

  • We should change our treatment of animals, even if it means a radical shift in our attitude to them and the way we use them.

  • We cannot measure animal rights objectively or scientifically; it is an ethical concept that is a subjective moral choice. Animal rights resembles the conviction of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724 - 1804) that we should not harm humans even in the interests of the majority. Animal rights takes Kant's view, a Duty Ethics concept, a step further and applies it to animals.

    Animal rightists often disparage of animal welfare:
"Animal 'welfare' laws do little but regulate the details of exploitation." (Steven Best & Anthony J Nocella (2002): Terrorist or Freedom Fighter? p12.)
Also see New Welfarism.

To Index

Animal Rights vs Conservation

 Conservation and animal rights have similarities and differences.


  • Both became popular with the public in the late 1970's.

  • Both oppose human-centredness (Anthropocentrism) (although not all conservationists do).

  • Both believe wild animals have intrinsic value (value independent of human values) (not an attitude of all conservationists).

  • Both support conserving the environment, although for different reasons. Conservationists support the environment for the sake of greater conservation whereas animal rightists support it for the sake of the animals who live in it.

  • Differences:

  • Animal rights is concerned with the individual animal as well as with animals in general.

    Conservation focuses on levels above the individual - populations, species, ecosystems and the biosphere - except when just a few individuals are the only survivors of their population or species.

  • Animal rights refers usually to sentient animals, not necessarily to all animals, such as insects, and not to plants.

  • Conservation encompasses all creatures (plants etc) and includes the physical part of nature, eg air and water.

  • Animal rightists try to minimise suffering of animals, especially when humans cause it.

  • Pain and death to conservationists is part of life which individuals must endure, and conservationists would prefer individuals to suffer so long as their population or species survives.

  • Animal rights is concerned with animals in agriculture, laboratories, fur trade, circuses and other areas of human activity.

    Conservationists are not usually concerned with these animals unless they intrude on conservation matters, such as when these activities take wild animals from endangered populations.

To Index


The attitude that humans are the most important thing in the universe. Also called human centredness. The word anthropocentrism comes from the Greek antrhropos meaning human + kentron meaning centre.

Many people see humanity as separate from nature or as part of nature but at the apex of a hierarchy of species. Either way they cherish humanity as the most important being whose practical concerns take priority over other creatures.

You can trace Anthropocentrism to the Judaeo-Christian religious tradition, to other religions and to ancient Greek philosophy. It usually takes two main forms: Dominionism and Stewardism.


  • Humans are masters of nature which exists to serve our needs.

  • Nature is a limitless resource to which we can do anything.

  • Dominionism appeals in particular to big business. It says nothing about respecting or caring for other creatures. It has no thought about the negative consequences of human actions, unlike Stewardism.


  • Humans are caretakers of nature in that we look after it in some way.

  • Humans are important but other creatures also have value in themselves.

  • Some people claim that nature exists for God and it is the role of humans to ensure that his works continue by acting as his stewards. A secular view of Stewardism is that we should look after nature for future human generations to use. Stewardism appeals to nature conservationists.


    Since ancient times humanity has believed it occupies the physical centre of the universe. But science has repeatedly shown that anthropocentric views glorifying man are false:

  • The Earth is not flat with Jerusalem at its centre but is globular with no focus on its surface.

  • The Earth is not at the centre of the heavenly bodies but orbits the Sun.

  • The Milky Way is unexceptional and only one of billions of galaxies.

  • The Universe does not have a centre.

  • Humans are descended from animals.

  • Humans and other animals share most of the same genes. Most human genes are the same as bugs. We even share nearly half our genes with bananas and other plants.

    Many people still support the notion that humanity occupies centre-universe, although it is now conceived of in a spiritual sense. Anthropocentrism is an attitude that dies hard.

    Compare with Enlightened Anthropocentrism and contrast with Environmentalism.

To Index

Anthropocentrism, Enlightened

Enlightened Anthropocentrism is the view that our moral duties to nature come only from our duties to humans. Similar to Anthropocentrism, but 'enlightened' in that nature is given consideration, albeit secondarily to humans.

Upholders of this view assert that Enlightened Anthropocentrism has many practical applications. You can see its strength in everyday policy-making because it is our practical concerns that guide our politics and legislation. For instance, we make laws to protect nature for our use and by doing so indirectly protect wild animals. Adherents of Enlightened Anthropocentrism claim that non-anthropocentric theories, such as Environmentalism and Deep Ecology (which claim nature has intrinsic value), provide only difficult to prove theoretical moral arguments.

To Index


Attributing human characteristics to non-humans. Putting human thoughts, feelings or personality traits into your cat, horse, computer, car or any non-human animate or inanimate object.

Many people anthropomophise God, who is said to have made man in his own image. You might anthropomophise your computer. When it is working smoothly it is in a good mood, but when uncooperative it is aggressive or upset.

The danger from anthropomorphism is when applying rights to animals. It is ignorant to give animals rights based on human attributes we think they have but in reality do not experience. It would be foolish to give rights to your computer because you feel it is sometimes moody or agreeable and you think of it as having a personality. On the other hand, it is morally wrong to withhold all rights from animals because you do not want to be anthropomorphic and are unwilling to see the qualities they actually share with humans. Not everyone would want to treat their cat or horse like a robot devoid of feelings. The difficulty is knowing the right level to pitch it. The rights of species should be appropriate, based on their own characteristics, not human ones we mistakenly apply or withhold from them.

Anthropomorphism is common in mythologies, fables and allegories. The word comes from the Greek Anthropos meaning man, plus morphe meaning form.

Also see Clever Hans.

To Index

Aquinas, Thomas (1225 - 1274)

 Philosopher, theologian and Dominican monk who studied and taught in the schools of medieval Europe.

The significance of Aquinas for animals is that Catholic doctrine is a great influence on people's attitude to animals. Aquinas argued that reason and faith are compatible and set about absorbing what was considered acceptable of Aristotelian and ancient Greek philosophy (reason) into Catholic belief (faith). The philosophy of Aquinas is known as Thomism.

Aquinas maintained (after Aristotle) that:

  • God made a hierarchy of creatures with man at the top.

  • Animals cannot reason and do not have souls.

  • Animals exist for mankind alone.

  • Aquinas concluded that beings higher up the hierarchy of creatures may kill and eat those lower down. Therefore, since humans are at the top of the hierarchy, it is all right for them to kill animals. Furthermore, according to Aquinas, since animals do not think, and since they do not undergo redemption like humans, we can use them as we wish. Aquinas freed people from guilt and fear that they were harming animals. He thought harming animals is wrong only if they are the property of people, because it is wrong to damage people's property.

To Index

Aristotle (384 - 322 BC)

Ancient Greek philosopher. Aristotle was and still is one of the most influential thinkers. His views were widely held by Western philosophers and Christian and Moslem religions. His views still influence many people's attitudes on how we treat animals.

As well as philosophy, he immersed himself in politics, literary criticism and the natural sciences. He maintained that our only source of knowledge is from our sensory experience (as opposed, say, to instinct or revelation) and that we can discover the essence of all things by reasoning.

Aristotle is the first person known to modern society to study nature impartially to understand how it works. Among his views he thought that men are more rational thinkers than women and therefore are their superiors. Also that people with superior intellect should command weaker minded people, who should be their servants or slaves. He argued that animals are below humans because only humans can reason and therefore we can use animals without the consideration we would give to people.

Aristotle was born in Thrace (south-east Europe) and studied in Athens. As a teenager he was a pupil of Plato, then became a distinguished member of Plato's Academy. Later he opened his own school, the Lyceum, in Athens. The king of Macedon asked him to teach his son, who later became Alexander the Great, ruler of the largest empire of its day, conqueror of peoples from Egypt to Persia.

To Index


See Moral Autonomy.

© 2004 Roger Panaman All rights reserved