Brute Ethics





Animal Ethics Encyclopedia

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On what should our moral consideration of other beings be based? Some people claim that all people are equal and that moral consideration should be based on a principle of equality. However, they choose to ignore that in significant ways we are all unequal, made different by circumstance (like upbringing, inherited wealth and education), mentality (like moral responsibility, rationality and verbal ability) and physical aspect (like sex and race). But there is one way in which we are all equal. No matter what our situation, brain wiring or physicality, we all have basic interests. It is on interests, some philosphers claim, that we should base our moral consideration of others. Two basic interests that everyone shares are an interest in staying alive and an interest in staying healthy. Other interests are to live in freedom to make our own decisions, enjoy relationships with our fellows, live in peace and security, eat healthily, and so on.

People of different nationality, intelligence or race are all equal by virtue of sharing the same basic interests. But a corollary of humans claiming moral status on grounds of interests is that animals also deserve moral status, because they, too, share our basic interests. Animals, like humans, have interests such as staying alive, staying healthy, living free to make their own decisions, and interacting with their kin and fellows.

An advantage of focusing on interests is that you can refute species membership - that humans deserve greater moral status simply because they belong to the human species - so often used to exclude animals from moral consideration. Emphasising interests, you can claim that humans, chimpanzees, dogs, sparrows and mice all share the same basic interests so deserve equal moral consideration of their interests. We are, of course, only considering interests that are comparable. We are not comparing such interests as accumulating wealth, or gaining free access to museums or libraries, because these are interests that animals do not share with us.


Instead of resting moral status on interests, they can rest on God. God made us all in His image, not in the image of chimpanzees or mice, so animals do not go to heaven and therefore being lesser creatures we can ignore them. On the other hand, some people are abandoning this traditional view for a re-interpretation of our relationship with animals, see Religious Tradition. However, this argument lacks force for people who are not theistically inclined.

Instead of resting moral status on interests you might say they could depend on genetic relationships. We all tend to treat preferentially our close genetic kin, like parents, offspring and siblings. We treat people more distantly related to us less preferentially and strangers least of all. We are more likely to give a loan or a kidney to a member of our own family than to a stranger. Extending this argument, we are more likely to help members of our own species than animal species. This is an argument based on Altruism, embedded in our biological nature. However, although it may be true that we tend to help kin more than strangers, we can nevertheless rise above our biology. We also have the capacity to steal and murder yet do not have to just because the potential is built into us.

How do we know beyond any doubt that animals have interests? Stick a pin in an animal and he will act as though he is trying to save himself - as though his interest is staying alive. But is what we see only an act? Was nothing going on inside his head? A robot could be programmed to react the same way. To have interests, however, it is not necessary to be conscious of them. A fundamental interest is to reproduce. But until recently humans did it without knowing why. We now know from scientific discoveries that by reproducing we replicate our genes and pass them on to our offspring. Genes have been replicating themselves for hundreds of millions of years, before they even invented bodies (animals) to live in and protect them.

Even if the animal stabbed with the pin ran away without conscious thought of what he was doing, we should still take his interests into account by giving him the benefit of the doubt that he really does have interests. We should do this because if we do not we risk making a horrifying moral blunder. Another reason for taking his interests into account is that if we profess to be morally superior to animals (as many people claim) then we should exercise that superiority by looking after animals, not by neglecting or abusing them. Yet another reason is that all vertebrates share much the same biology (nervous system, physiology, evolution, etc); therefore we are also likely to share, at least to some degree, the same kind of physical feelings, such as pain perception and desire to survive; therefore we all have interests. (See Evolutionary Continuity.)

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Intrinsic Value

Something of intrinsic value has value or worth in itself, irrespective of its usefulness or value to humans or others. The importance of intrinsic value is two-fold. First, we determine ethical issues by what we value. This makes value among the most important topics in ethics. Second, pro-animal ethics philosophers argue that if animals have intrinsic value then we should protect them for their own sake, not just because they are useful to us. Intrinsic value is also called inherent worth or inherent value.

Philosophers often distinguish two kinds of value. In addition to intrinsic value they recognise instrumental value: the value something has because of its usefulness. Animals are instrumental for furthering human endeavour: fur keeps you warm, animal muscle (meat) gives you a meal, animal skin holds up your trousers. You might be prepared to risk your life to rescue an animal from a blaze, but only if the animal has instrumental value for you. If your animal is a prize bull in a fire, you might save him, but be disinclined to risk your life if he is an ordinary bull whose value you can easily recover from your insurance company.

Compare intrinsic and instrumental values by asking why it is wrong to beat a donkey. If a donkey has intrinsic value then he has value in his own right and we should treat him properly, irrespective of any other consideration. However, if he has only instrumental value, kicking him is wrong because he may belong to someone and we should respect their property, for which they should reciprocate by respecting our property, and that is useful. Something can have intrinsic and instrumental value at the same time. You may value a donkey as a donkey in himself and also because he is good for pulling your cart.

Some philosophers hold that intrinsic value is a matter of degree and relative to humans in some way, usually that humans have more intrinsic value than animals, who often no value. Philosophers like Descartes (1596 - 1650) and Spinoza (1632 - 1677) claimed animals have only instrumental value for humans. They claimed that rationality and consciousness are essential for intrinsic value but that animals have neither of these faculties.

Some philosophers assert that intrinsic value is absolute, that all creatures including humans have the same worth. Some contemporary philosophers, such as Peter Singer (1946 - ) and Tom Regan (1938 - ), argue that if a human or animal has certain characteristics, such as interests or being a subject of a life, then they have intrinsic value.

Philosophers also argue as to whether intrinsic value exists. Does intrinsic value exist without humans, like the stars, or is it a concept only in the human mind? If intrinsic value exists, where does it come from? Are there qualitatively different kinds of intrinsic value, one quality for humans and other qualities for different species, like one quality for insects, another quality for frogs and yet another quality for wolves?

If intrinsic value exists only as a concept in the human mind, all anyone may be saying when they talk about it is that we should be less human-centred and more outward-looking and caring of other creatures. Being less human-centred would not be easy as we can assume that each species is naturally inclined to be centred on itself. Undoubtedly humans are.


Why should we not attribute 'intrinsic dignity' or 'intrinsic worth' to ourselves? Fellow humans are unlikely to reject the accolades we so generously bestow on them, and those to whom we deny the honour are unable to object.

Peter Singer (1986): Applied Ethics. p228.


  • If all animals have equal (that is absolute) intrinsic value, then the principle of intrinsic value cannot help us decide how best to resolve a moral conflict. If a man or a dog must die and we have to choose who should die, then we have to decide by some means other than by assigning them equal intrinsic value. By necessity we may have to rank creatures in order of their importance to us. Absolute intrinsic value then loses its practical power.

  • Estimating the value of animals from our human perspective may be an error. Only members of a species might be able to assess the intrinsic value of individuals of their own species. Only humans can gauge the intrinsic value of a human in terms of human values. Similarly, only chimpanzees can gauge in chimpanzee values the intrinsic value of a chimpanzee. In this case intrinsic value cannot help us make moral decisions about animals.

  • It may be that intrinsic value does not exist other than as an apparent value humans like to give things and that in reality if anything has value then it is only instrumental value. For example, finding food has instrumental value because it enables you to live. Living has instrumental value because it enables your genes to replicate themselves*. But gene replication is a physical-chemical process that has no obvious intrinsic value in itself - it just is. Therefore, since living is the highest thing we can do, and our bodies only serve our genes for the genes to replicate themselves, there is no such thing as intrinsic value.

  • *Biological theory says that long before life appeared on Earth the first genes were naked molecules, open to their surroundings. But after aeons some genes made barriers around themselves. In effect each gene became a single-cell organism. The barrier around a gene had the advantage of keeping each gene safer from noxious environmental stimuli allowing the genes to replicate better, so the capability of making a barrier spread. Then groups of these single-cell organisms grouped together to make bodies. Bodies enabled the genes they carried to survive and replicate better and that capability also spread. According to biological theory a body is no more than a vessel that genes make to enable them to survive and replicate themselves. Humans are the only known bodies that have become conscious and aware of this process.

    Also see Values & Moral Judgements

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Instrumental Value

The value something has because of its usefulness. Some animals have intrinsic value, but do they have instrumental value? The concept of value is one of the most important subjects in ethics and particularly significant for animal ethics. See Intrinsic Value.

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Invertebrate Harmony

Smiling insect The view that we should try to live in harmony with all creatures, no matter their status - and that includes insects and other invertebrates - and treat them with respect and compassion.

Invertebrates are animals without a backbone and make up the vast majority (over 99 percent) of animals on Earth. Humans harm lots of insects, spiders and other invertebrates for very little reason. But on the economic front many invertebrates directly or indirectly benefit the human economy (and a few do not). So they have instrumental value (are useful to humans). They should also have intrinsic value, value in themselves irrespective of any value to humans.

Invertebrates are small. But if we are aware of them and we each practice invertebrate harmony on a small scale, then we shall not kill so many and be better as compassionate beings. Also, standing and watching them, we will have a better appreciation of the extent of life. Here are some things you can do.

  • Do not commit the number fallacy: that just because there are lots of them it is somehow all right to kill them. Neither number nor body size determines the value of life.

  • Instead of squashing insects and other invertebrates to get rid of them, pick them up carefully between two bits of paper and release them elsewhere. Picking them up between fingers can injure them without you knowing it, you cannot hear them shriek, and they might die later.

  • It is said that no one is ever more than a metre from a spider. They are there in your house even if you do not see them. If you get rid of one, another will soon take its place (a house is like a cave, their natural habitat). They will not harm you. So leave them be unless they are causing a real nuisance. You can still admire them even if they give you the creeps.

  • If they are not causing you hardship, let ants trailing into your house have their way. They are not harmful and will clean your house of debris. They will soon be gone when the weather cools.

  • Insects and other invertebrates are vital to the well being of the biosphere and we can learn to appreciate them and the many wonderful things they do.

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It An animal is an it, whereas a human is a he or she. But why do we call an animal an it? A chimpanzee, horse, cat, cow, mouse is as much a he or she as a human. Calling an animal an it makes him inanimate material, a depersonalised object. As Bentham said, "animals...stand degraded into the class of things" (An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. 1789, xvii 311). But animals are not like sticks and stones. Once a being is depersonalised down to the level of an it, we feel we can do anything we like to it without moral thought. Kicking a stone or throwing away a stick has no moral consequences. We compound the offence by calling our own inanimate human creations, like a car, ship or country, a she.

Animal-sympathetic people, even by doing nothing else, could make an important contribution to animals by completely giving up calling them it and start calling them him or her - including invertebrates.

Fed up with him, her and it? See Han as an alternative.

© 2004 Roger Panaman All rights reserved