Brute Ethics





Animal Ethics Encyclopedia

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  Philosophical theory that moral judgements are not statements of fact but are merely expressions of our feelings and that is all. Emotivism is also called Non-cognitivism (meaning not about thinking).

Emotivism claims that your moral judgements are only about your feelings and therefore they are neither true nor false, neither right nor wrong - they are only emotions. Thus if you say eating animals is wrong (or right) or that killing animals is wrong (or right), you are only expressing your emotional feelings. You might just as well make a declaration like down (or up) with killing!, which equally expresses your disposition.

If moral disputants are only expressing their feelings, then they will forever disagree with each other because people will always see the world in different emotional colours. Two examples of emotive issues are rodeo shows and fox hunting with hounds. There will always be discord between people for and against using/abusing animals as, according to Emotivism, no one is ever right or wrong and if people are morally rational at all it is only to rationalise their emotional preferences.

Some people distinguish a subtle difference between Emotivism and the similar Subjectivism (that morality depends only on your attitude). In Emotivism you are being emotive; in Subjectivism you are also telling others to do things or are implying commands or recommendations. Thus if you say we should not abuse animals, according to Emotivism you are making a statement about your feelings. On the other hand, according to Subjectivism you are telling others or implying that we should stop abusing animals.

Ethicists closely identify Emotivism with philosophers A J Ayer (1910 - 1988) and Charles Stevenson (1908 - 1979) of the mid-20th century, the period when it was widely promoted.


We do seem to be able to argue logically and rationally, so Emotivism might be false. Emotivists would disagree and claim that when you are apparently debating ethics you are really engaged in such things as defining terms or discussing scientific ideas. Emotivists would say that it is when you make moral judgements that you are not being meaningful.

However, we do seem to base some moral decisions on rational thought. For example, discussing treatment for the heart ailment of your aged dog, your vet may want to do a thorough cardiac investigation but one that would be stressing for your dog. You may decide it will be too much stress for your dog and he is better off as he is. But emotivists would say this is making decisions on gut feelings.

Being able to rationalise does not prove that Emotivism is false. We can rationalise about many things that have no basis. We can argue rationally about God, fairies or demons but many people say that God, fairies and demons do not exist.

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Environmental Ethics

Applied and theoretical philosophy about how humans should interact with nature, that is the non-human world, living and inanimate. Environmental Ethics, also called Environmentalism, poses a challenge to Anthropocentrism about assuming the moral superiority of humans over other species.

Some Environmental Ethics questions: should mountains be demolished for their ore, forests cut down for wood, rivers dammed for electricity, wild animals killed to make grazing for huge numbers of livestock, and fish fished-out to feed a burgeoning human population? Are these actions necessary and do we have a right to do them? Do plants, animals, rivers, mountains, environments have rights? Are we free to pollute and use up natural resources? Are we morally obligated to restore what we disrupt or destroy? Do artificially restored environments have the same value as natural ones?

Questions about Environmental Ethics date back to ancient times. But the modern era of environmental ethics is widely considered to begin with the 1962 book Silent Spring, written by the American writer and ecologist Rachel Carson (1907 - 1964). She warned about the ruinous use of modern man-made chemicals on the environment and called for a change in the way humans see nature. Serious attention about the rights and wrongs of human behaviour on nature gradually started to gather pace about this time. Some early milestones in environmental ethics are:

  • 1968 - The Population Bomb, published by the American Paul Ehrlich, warning about human overpopulation and its threat to Earth's life-support mechanisms.

  • 1970 - the first published photos of Earth from space, showing a precious blue globe, the dwelling of humanity and all known life, surrounded by the depths of darkness.

  • 1971 - the first conference on environmental ethics convened in the United States at the University of Georgia.

  • 1973 - formulation of Deep Ecology by Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess.

  • 1974 - in Should Trees Have Standing? Christopher Stone, professor of law at the University of Southern California, argued that trees and other natural entities should have legal protection and status in their own right.

  • 1975 - Australian Peter Singer's argued in his book Animal Liberation that animals deserve equal consideration with humans.

  • Criticism

  • Central to Environmental Ethics is what is value, what is intrinsic value, and where do value and intrinsic value come from? If something - an animal, stream, wood or hill - has intrinsic value then we have a moral duty as moral agents to protect it. But if something does not have intrinsic value then why bother with it? If nature has no intrinsic value then Environmental Ethics amounts to nothing.

  • Critics might argue that our moral duty to the environment comes solely from our duty to humans. By protecting the environment and dealing with environmental degradation for the benefit of humanity we look after the environment at the same time. Thus, in this view, we need Enlightened Anthropocentrism, not Environmental Ethics, to guide our interaction with the non-human world.

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Equal Consideration of Interests

This is the principle of giving equal deliberation to everyone's moral interests. For example, everybody should have the same claim to a good life, no matter what their status (such as intelligence, wealth, sex or race), and we ought to give everybody adequate scope to achieve a good life.

The principle is commonly applied only to humans, and then not to all humans all the time, as woman, racial minorities and other groups are still discriminated against. People usually deny equal consideration to animals as a matter of course; animals are a useful resource for experiment, sport, food, entertainment, etc. However, the strong version of the principle says that animal and human interests are equally important and that when there is a moral conflict of interests you must consider animal and human interests equally. For example, when considering the alleviation of suffering, humans should not automatically take precedence over animals.

For the principle of equal consideration to make sense when dealing with animals, you must apply it to comparable interests. All animals and humans share certain interests, such as staying alive, having freedom of movement and access to good nutrition, enjoying relations. But animals and humans do not always have comparable interests. Animals do not share the human interests of freedom of speech, voting in a democracy or installing indoor flushing toilets. These latter interests are not comparable interests.

Advantages of the principle of equal consideration of moral interests are:

1. It counters the view that possessing certain attributes, such as species membership or cognitive abilities, like intelligence or rationality, are important when deciding animal-human moral conflicts.

2. It avoids giving moral equality to animals on all issues. You do not have to consider a claim by dogs for equal access to sports or by cats for equal opportunity in arts. Only comparable interests count. So you can limit your consideration to basic claims, such as to life, liberty and procreation.

3. It avoids giving equal moral status to all creatures. Insects, for example, are generally assumed to experience pain in a lesser way than humans, so if you cause insects pain you might be harming them less than if you cause humans pain.

Weaknesses of the principle of equal consideration of moral interests are:

1. It does not tell you what interests to consider. Basic interests like staying alive and avoiding pain are obvious, but you have to decide what other interests may be relevant. Children, mentally retarded adults and normal adults do not invariably share the same interests and the difficulty of knowing which interests to consider is compounded when we include animals in our thoughts.

2. It does not tell you how to weigh the importance of interests. Not everyone accepts that the principle necessarily means that humans and animals are morally equal. You might argue that staying alive and avoiding pain are vital interests with the same importance for animals and humans. But you might argue that these interests are more important for humans and weigh them in their favour. Some people say that non-sentient animals have no interests; on the other hand, some ecologists say non-sentient beings like trees, rivers, mountains and ecosystems have interests and are therefore morally considerable (see Environmental Ethics).

The notion of equal consideration of interests is not a new idea, but Peter Singer gave it wide circulation in his 1975 book, Animal Liberation. Singer questions our predominant attitude to animals and invites an outlook from us of equal consideration towards other species, particularly to sentient animals.

Note that treating animals as moral equals with humans is not the same as giving animals rights. If humans and animal interests are weighted as morally equal, then for example you could logically experiment on a human as on an animal. However, if animals and humans have the same moral rights (which forbid harm), then you cannot experiment on either. Certainly, the equal consideration of moral interests is a principle by which we can debate the moral status of animals. Along with other concepts, like sentience and speciesism, the principle is one of the foundations of the animal rights debate.

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Ethical Egoism

Philosophical theory that the best way to act is for everyone to pursue their own self-interests. You should always do what is in your best interests regardless of the good or bad outcome for others. Ethical egoism is not psychological egoism, a psychological theory which attempts to explain why people behave as they do. Ethical egoism is a philosophical theory about how people ought to behave.

As an ethical egoist your only obligation is to benefit yourself and you have no moral responsibility to others. You can treat humans and animals any way that brings you benefits. Others have rights only in so far that their rights are advantageous to you or do not inconvenience you. You do things for your own pleasure and avoid anything which brings you discomfort or pain, even at the expense of others. You hunt animals because you enjoy the sport; experiment on animals because it advances your career; clear the last remaining animal habitat to grow more crops or to enhance your garden; you are a vegetarian not for the sake of animals but because eating them upsets you.

Compared with other ethical theories it is easier for the ethical egoist to know what is in his own interests, unlike Utilitarianism where you must judge what is good and right for others. Ethical egoism also encourages individual freedom and responsibility for your actions; you decide what to do for yourself and bear the consequences.

Egoistic appeals to self-interest do not always necessarily work against animals. Vegetarian egoism, for example, saves animal lives no matter what its motive. And a desire to avoid food poisoning from salmonella or bovine spongiform encephalitis (BSE) may lead you to boycott cheap factory farmed eggs and meat.

Ethical egoism is not psychological egoism. The latter is a psychological theory which attempts to explain why people behave as they do. Ethical egoism is a philosophical theory about how people ought to behave.


Ethical Egoism applies only to you, that is to each person as an isolated individual, whereas morality is about applying behaviour for the benefit of others, it is universal in scope. Ethical Egoism does not provide an ethical basis for the helping professions, such as medical, veterinary or welfare work. As such it is a dead-end ethical philosophy.

If you advocate Ethical Egoism as a moral policy that others should follow, then they are likely to act against you (because they will be acting in their own interests). So while you might privately aspire to egoism you would do well to tell others not to. Tell them to be altruists instead. But then you will be lying and that is often considered immoral.

In a society where people are highly interactive and dependent on each other, conflicts will frequently arise if everyone acts in their own self-interest. Ethical Egoism does not allow for the resolution of conflicts. No matter how bad the situation, it simply tells everyone to keep acting in their own self-interests, making matters worse.

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Ethical Frameworks

  Ethical frameworks (also called moral systems) offer ways to organise our thoughts when making decisions about which moral action to take and enable us to see other people's stance on moral issues better. Ethicists over centuries have developed three influential frameworks (or systems) in particular and most ethical positions can be understood against one or more of them. The frameworks fit in with three moral questions people have always asked:

  • What outcome should I aim for?
  • Consequence Ethics says you should act to bring about the best results or consequences.

  • What am I required to do?
  • Duty Ethics says you should do what ever is your duty.

  • What should a virtuous person do?
  • Virtue Ethics says you should act as a virtuous person would act.

    The three frameworks overlap to some extent, but each focuses on a different principle that calls up different insights into a moral problem and suggests different ways of resolving it. The table below contrasts and highlights the main features of these frameworks.

Comparison of Consequence Ethics, Duty Ethics & Virtue Ethics
  Consequence Ethics Duty Ethics Virtue Ethics
Asks How can I make the best outcome? What are my obligations or duties? How will my actions support my being a virtuous person?
Asserts Morality Is Doing what is likely to achieve the best results. Doing your duty or obligation. Doing what a virtuous person would do.
Focuses On The best outcome (consequence) you can make. The duty you are required to do. What the virtuous person should do.
Main Concern Is The value of results - not your duty or quality of character. Doing your duty - whatever the consequences and whatever your character. Your moral character - not consequences or duty.
Aims To produce the most good. To perform the right duty. To develop your moral character.
Example Utilitarianism & Ethical Egoism Rights based ethics & Judaeo-Christianity Buddhism, Confucianism & Christian Virtue

Relationship Between Frameworks

Frameworks sometime complement one another. For example, people may want to stop whaling because it will upset the ecosystem (Consequence Ethics), or because there will be no whales left for posterity (Duty Ethics), or because enlightened people do not go whaling (Virtue Ethics).

It is important to understand all three frameworks so that you are aware how ethical disagreements might arise, that is, when one person advocates one framework that clashes with someone else advocating another framework. A foxhunter or bull fighter may defend his actions to preserve tradition; alternatively, someone might claim that no person sympathetic to animals would kill them for sport. A case of Duty Ethics versus Virtue Ethics.

Choosing A Framework

Which framework should you use to help you resolve an ethical issue? This partly depends on your personality, that is you might be more oriented to outcome than to duty, or visa versa. One common suggestion is to use whichever framework feels most natural for a particular set of circumstances. For instance it might be useful to use:

  • A Consequence framework - for dealing with large numbers.

  • You might have to decide to save a majority of some animals at the expense of a minority of other animals - good consequences for some, bad for others.

  • A Duty framework - for dealing with conflicting obligations.

  • Being a livestock farmer you may feel you have an obligation to send livestock for slaughter to feed people. That is you may feel that your first duty is to people and your duty to animals is secondary, for instance by being as kind to them as economics permit.

  • A Virtue framework - for dealing with personal decisions.

  • Apply the range of your cognitive faculties (reason, experience, intuition, etc) to act as a virtuous person would act. For example, should a virtuous person be compassionate and therefore not cause suffering and thus not eat animals knowing they are factory farmed?

    However, another common suggestion is that if two or all three frameworks support your proposed moral judegment and action then you can feel more confident of being on the right track. Consider each framework in turn to find the best overall solution.

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Ethical Monism / Pluralism

Ethical Monism asserts that there is a single and consistent ethical standard or principle (or set of principles) we can apply to all ethical problems worldwide. For instance, all moral problems can be resolved, say, by Ethical Egoism or by Utilitarianism.

Monism used to be widely accepted but is giving way among broad thinkers to Ethical Pluralism. Supporters of Pluralism claim that ethical problems can only be addressed from different ethical perspectives because there is no single ethical outlook that can solve everything. Three major ethical perspectives are Consequence Ethics, Duty Ethics and Virtue Ethics. They are different frameworks for thinking about moral issues and for arriving at solutions to act for the moral good.

Also see Absolutism and Relativism.

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Ethics & Philosophy

Philosophy is a way of questioning the meaning and purpose of life. Ethics is a part of philosophy focusing on how people should live and how people should behave toward one another by doing good and right.

The first Western philosophers lived in south-east Europe around 2,500 years ago and they included the first important thinkers in Western society. Unlike other people they reasoned methodically and taught their listeners to use their faculty of reasoning while expecting them not to be dogmatic but to disagree and argue their claims. Previously people had tried to explain the world and everything through tradition, revelation, mysticism, religion or authority. Methodical reasoning, argumentation and non-dogmatism were new ways of exploring and understanding the world and a tremendous event in the evolution of thought. After billions of years of evolution a part of the universe was now aware and asking questions about itself.


  • Morality - Morality is concerned with doing good or bad, right or wrong. It is the principles or rules of conduct about how we ought to behave to others and their practical application. Morale derives from the Latin mores, meaning social rules or etiquette.

  • Ethics - The systematic scholarly study of morality. Ethics asks questions like what is good, bad, right and wrong and why. Ethics is treated both as a singular and plural word and comes from the Greek ethos, meaning moral character.

  • Ethics vs Morality - What is the relationship between ethics and morality? Ethics is reflecting about how we ought to behave and morality is behaving as we ought to behave. Ethics is to morality as musicology is to playing a musical instrument; musicology is the academic study of music, whereas playing an instrument is making musical sounds in everyday life. However, people often use the terms ethics and morality interchangeably in colloquial speech to mean behaving as we ought to behave.

  • Ethical - Relating to ethics or morality.

  • Ethic - A set of principles, like your ethic may be to wash every morning, eat only wholesome veggie food and be helpful to others, not just people.

  • Divisions Of Ethics

    You can divide ethics into four overlapping sections: meta-ethics, descriptive ethics, normative ethics, and applied ethics.

    Meta-ethics evaluates the nature of ethical ideas. For example, where does morality come from? Does it come from the will of God, from biological evolution, from an invention of society or is ethics muddled nonsense? And it analyses arguments about moral behaviour, such as examining whether ethical statements are true or false, right or wrong, and what do true, false, right, wrong and other words mean?

    Descriptive Ethics
    Different cultures have different ways of doing things. This field of ethics describes and compares morality within and across cultures. For instance, how do the native people of Tonga, or some other remote island, compare with New Yorkers and Parisians.

    Normative Ethics
    When most people think of ethics or morality they usually have normative ethics in mind. Normative ethics asks how ought we to behave morally (not how do we behave, which is a branch of science) and attempts to establish standards (or norms) of conduct. Rival normative frameworks offer alternative ways of considering and dealing with moral questions. Three rival systems are:

  • Consequence Ethics
    Your action is right if the outcome is good.

  • Duty Ethics
    Your action is right if you do your duty.

  • Virtue Ethics
    Your action is right if it comes from your good character.

  • To compare these three systems see Ethical Frameworks.

    Applied Ethics
    This division of ethics uses philosophy, especially normative ethics, to resolve specific practical moral issues. Applied ethics seriously began about the 1970's; before then ethics was mainly a scholarly pursuit. You can divide applied ethics into any number of fields to apply your philosophical knowledge. Fields include:

  • Animal Ethics
  • How we treat the animal world. For instance, should your local circus keep its licence if it uses animals to entertain the public? Should animal farms supply animals for scientific experimentation? Should a shop in your town sell fur?

  • Environmental Ethics
  • Environmental Ethics examines our relations with nature. For instance, should your local factory continue polluting the nearby river and threaten its fish life? Should the government build a dam to provide industry with power at the expense of drowning valleys with their fauna and flora? Ought the local council drain a wetland and destroy its wildlife for agriculture when people need food and work?

    Other areas of applied ethics include medical ethics, feminism, education ethics, corporate social responsibility, internet ethics, and sex ethics. These relate respectively to how we deal with sick people, women, learning, corporate dealings with individuals and society, use of the internet, and sexual relations.

    The Fuzz
    The distinction between meta, normative and applied ethics is often fuzzy. For example, animal experimentation is applied ethics because it involves specific controversial everyday behavior. But it also depends on normative principles, such as the question of animal rights (eg right to life), and meta ethical questions like what are rights and where do they come from.

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Evolutionary Continuity

Evolutionary continuity is the inheritance of features from pre-existing species. This has implications for consciousness, thought and emotions in animals and for animal-human relations.

Up to and for the greater part of the 19th century most people assumed each species was made from scratch, independently of each other. But we now know that species evolve from pre-existing species. New species inherit the basic body plan of their ancestor plus variations which make them different.

All mammals come from a tiny shrew-like creature that lived millions of years ago. All mammal species (and of course humans) inherited the basic body design from this animal and have their own variations - modifications of hair, teeth, lungs, kidneys, skeleton, and so on. Also from the shrew-like creature we all inherited variations of the same design of brain: the seat of consciousness, thought and emotions.

So species inherit features from pre-existing species and all mammals share the same source of body. Therefore, given that humans have developed consciousness, thought and emotions, these faculties may have pre-existed to some degree in other mammals and our direct forebears the primates. Evolutionary continuity, then, suggests that, just as we see similarities in form and function of body plan in other mammals, we can expect they also share with us to some extent, our facility for consciousness, thought and emotions.

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Expanding the Circle

 Expanding the circle means extending your moral consideration to include other people and foreign societies. Moral consideration means reflecting on the moral standing of others such that if other beings have moral status then you should give them moral rights.

The expanding circle is an evocative metaphor capturing the progress of humanity as a moral species and its advancement of ethics; we are developing morally by drawing more beings into our circle as worthy of moral consideration. Some expansionists, people believing in expanding the moral circle, strive for humanity to accept animals and other parts of nature, inanimate as well as inanimate, within the circle (for example see Environmental Ethics).

Expanding the circle is a phrase coined by William Edward Hartpole Lecky (1838 - 1903), a 19th century Irish historian and philosopher. In his 1869 book History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne (vol 1, 100 -101) he writes:
"At one time the benevolent affections embrace merely the family, soon the circle expanding includes first a class, then nation, then a coalition of nations, then all humanity and finally, its influence is felt in the dealings of man with the animal world..."
Two hundred years ago slaves were accepted as a social norm. A hundred years ago women were unfranchised. Slaves and women were outside the moral circle, morally excluded. Deep rooted forms of racism and sexism still exist, and animals for many people are still outside the circle.

Instead of considering just one circle, a different design of circle is one composed of concentric rings. This allows for gradations of distinct levels of moral consideration. For many people, humans occupy the inner and highest moral circle and other animals progressively less worthy of moral consideration occupy successively distant circles.

Lecky's statue stands outside the University of Dublin but his reputation gathers dust. Peter Singer invoked Lecky's phrase, the expanding circle, as the title of a book (The Expanding Circle: ethics and sociobiology, 1981) in which he reasons that the human moral circle is expanding to include animals.

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Experimental Contradiction

 The experimental contradiction is a conflict in logic. Experimenters on animals and their supporters use it to justify experimenting on animals to make advances in medicine, surgery, psychology, etc.

The experimental contradiction states that animals and humans are alike but unalike. The experimental contradiction says that they are sufficiently alike so that results gained from animals are applicable to humans. But at the same time it also says that animals and humans are sufficiently unlike so that carrying out experiments on animals is morally acceptable. Logically, you cannot have it both ways; the experimental contradiction is illogical. If animals and humans are alike then it is morally wrong to experiment on either. And if animals and humans are unalike then we cannot conclude that results from one can be applied to the other.

© 2004 Roger Panaman All rights reserved