Brute Ethics





Animal Ethics Encyclopedia

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A moral theory that claims the right moral action should be based on diminishing the pain of the individuals who suffer the most. Also that the capacity to feel pain is the only morally relevant interest, not factors like degree of consciousness, rationality or intelligence (as in a mouse compared with a dog, or a dog compared with a human).

Painism allows you to evaluate an action that causes individuals pain if it can reduce the pain in others who are suffering a lot more. So causing pain in, say, experimental animals, would not be morally wrong if it alleviates even more pain in other suffers. But it would be wrong to cause severe pain in some individuals to reduce only some pain in other individuals.

Painism says:

  • Pain is all forms of suffering, whether mental or physical.

  • Individuals who suffer the same amount of pain deserve equal consideration - no matter what their species.

  • The intensity of suffering of each individual, especially by the individual who suffers the most, should guide your moral action. The same amount of pain in a mouse is as important as the same amount of pain in a human.

  • Painism as a moral application is universal, that is it applies to every creature, everywhere, at all times, in every situation.

  • Trade-offs - the balance of costs over benefits - are fundamental in ethics, and Painism asks how much pain is reasonable to inflict on one creature in order to reduce severe pain in another creature. How reasonable is it to confine or kill diseased animals to prevent contagion spreading to healthy ones. Or how reasonable is it to burn down a laboratory (pain to the owners) to save experimental animals. Or how reasonable is it to kill an animal for a meal?

    Painism opposes Utilitarianism, a rival moral theory that emphasises creating the greatest happiness or pleasure for the greatest number of individuals. Painism says that pain, not pleasure, motivates all our desires; pain is more forceful than pleasure because we would rather avoid pain than enjoy pleasure. Also, that the rightness of what you do does not depend on the number of individuals who gain from your action weighed against the number of individuals who lose by it. Therefore adding up everyone's pain, as in Utilitarianism, is meaningless. For example, two units of pain in a body, plus three unit of pain in another body, does not total five units of pain, because no one can feel the total pain. Each individual can only feel the pain in his own body.

    Painism maintains that the severity of pain of an individual is critical, not the quantity of pain unrealistically summed over many individuals. Unlike Utilitarianism, Painism does not permit a minority to suffer for the sake of the majority; the suffering of each individual is morally more important than the total number of sufferers. By making pain the basic moral issue and stressing the importance of individuals, Painism stands between Utilitarianism, with doing what is right for the many at its core, and rights, which centres more on individuals.

    Painism was originated and is championed by the British psychologist and ethicist Richard D Ryder (Painism: a modern morality. 2001). A term related to Painism is painient, coined by Ryder, meaning able to feel pain. A mouse, dog and human are panient but glass beads and marbles are not. Something painient can suffer and according to Painism all painient creatures have rights.
"The suffering of pain and distress has become the central issue in ethics today." Richard Ryder in Animal experimentation: good or bad. 2002:60.


  • A comparative summing up of pains can be made, albeit crudely en masse. The Americans defended their decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan in 1945 on the grounds that it would result in fewer deaths and misery than if the war dragged on and forced an invasion of Japan.

  • We do not know exactly what pain other animals feel. So trying to compare pain in animals of different species, say a mouse and a chimpanzee, is difficult or impossible. Basing your moral action on pain alone is therefore not altogether sound.

  • Painism states that only painience - the capacity to feel pain - warrants moral standing. Therefore, according to Painism, you would not give rights to intelligent aliens visiting Earth if they were advanced enough not to feel pain. Nevertheless, they should deserve moral standing and be given such rights as respect and freedom from intentional harm. You would therefore have to look beyond Painism for moral guidance.

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Passenger Pigeon

The American Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) is one of the most powerful symbols of humanity's destruction of nature and indifference to the animal world.

Early European settlers described the bluish-gray birds as countless and infinite. Their migratory flights at 100 kilometres per hour (60 mph) darkened the sky overhead for days. At the beginning of the European settlement they were estimated at three billion to five billion and may have composed over a quarter of the total number of individual birds living in America. One nesting site in Wisconsin was said to contain 136,000,000 birds covering 2,225 square kilometres (850 square miles).

The passenger pigeon died out in the early twentieth century; they could not withstand being shot and their habitat destroyed. Their use as bushmeat for city markets was especially severe. At one nesting site in Michigan, bird collectors slew 50,000 birds every day over three months for the meat trade. The fate of the passenger pigeon was a tragedy of the commons (a resource everyone uses but no one looks after). Laws to save the passenger pigeon were too late and ineffectual. The last one died in Cincinnati Zoo in 1914 aged 29 years of age. Several searches and rewards for survivors came to nothing.

Science has examined and named just a fraction of Earth's millions of species. No one can be certain of the exact number and no one may ever know. Man-made pressures are exterminating so many species that they are disappearing without us knowing they even existed.

Also see Mass Extinction.

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Predation is the killing of animals by predators. Predators - like wolves, lions, eagles, orcas, falcons, foxes, weasels, dogs, cats and some sharks - are animals who have to kill animals to eat and survive.

Humans also kill animals for food, but a few people do not kill or eat animals on moral grounds. This raises a question about predation in some people's minds: do predators also have a moral responsibility to stop preying on animals? Should horses, deer, goats, pigeons, seals and rabbits feed without alarm of a predator killing them? Some people say yes, because they could live long and fulfilling lives, suffer fear when hunted and feel pain when caught and killed. These people say that if the aim of morality is to reduce suffering, then predation is immoral and should stop.

The only way predation could stop is if humans killed off all predators. It may seem silly to want to kill off all predators, or even try. But up to the 1970's people were doing just this. People trapped, poisoned or shot predators all over the world. They destroyed wolves, for instance, throughout conterminous United States by the 1920's (though in Minnesota they only just survived). Professional predator-killers scouting the range were sad to kill these beasts but thought they were doing prey animals a service.

So what happens when people kill off all predators. In the absence of predators the numbers of prey animals increase dramatically. Huge populations of prey eat all their food then starve to death in the resulting famine. A few animals survive, however, and their population and vegetation recover. But then the cycle repeats itself and keeps repeating itself. So killing off predators increases suffering.

A more cogent reason for keeping predators alive and well is that predation is not a moral subject. Humans can make moral choices about the food they eat. Predators cannot and have no alternative but to kill or stave to death; predators cannot become vegetarians.

But morality aside, predation is actually necessary for life because nature can only work when one thing eats another. Nature is a cycle of life and death and we have no alternative but to accept that.

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 Many people emphasise humanity's superiority over animality by drawing a clear distinction between animals and humans. Anthropologists, concerned with physical attributes, dwell on upright stance. Sociologists, impressed with human communication, stress language. Philosophers, penetrating the knowable, place all on reasoning: Plato and Aristotle in the 4th century BC, Aquinas in the 13th century, Descartes in the 17th century, and even some modern philosophers, regarded animals as machines incapable of thought of any sort; they presumed the ability to reason makes humans uniquely superior to animals.

There is a self-interested prejudice against animals. People may try to be nice to them and advance their welfare but fight any notion of giving them rights. Why?

Utility & Conflict
  • Animals are useful and bothersome. We eat and wear animals, use them in experimental research for our benefit and when they take our food or living space we wipe them out as pests.

  • Dissimilarity
  • At a deep level, in the domain of biology (genetics, biochemistry, anatomy, physiology, ecology and evolution), similarities between animals and humans far outweigh differences (Evolutionary Continuity). Yet humans tend to be geared to see only surface features; they discriminate heavily against each other at the level of social differences: language, religion, customs and clothes. So animals, being a bit further removed, stand even less chance of acceptance.

  • Social Exclusion
  • Except for a few pets, animals are not part of our social group; they are outsiders. People often disdain disparate groups and can be violent to the point of exterminating other human communities. Being violent to animals is even easier.

  • Consequently, conferring moral rights on animals is an uphill task. Utility, dissimilarity and social exclusion often combine prejudicially against taking animals seriously.

    Also see Human Superiority and Speciesism.

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Sages say charity begins at home; we can say the same of morality. As well as animals far and wide, we should do what is good and right for our household animal companions. Too many people rely on scolding their pets or punishing them to correct undesirable behaviour. But fortunately this kind of reprimand is seldom if ever necessary. Here are a few simple pointers that will do the job better and enrich animal-human relations too.

You can apply the following pointers to most mammals, whether pets or not. But let's keep an image of cats and dogs in mind as they are the most common household animals.

First, why you should not scold or punish your pet:
  1. You may be clear in your mind why you are reprimanding your cat or dog. But you cannot assume he also knows why. He may assess the situation differently and think you are reprimanding him for another reason, one that has not even occurred to you. Both of your beliefs are totally different and neither of you realise it.

  2. Your reprimand will be useless and can be counterproductive if he does not make the connection between it and his behaviour. When he does something undesirable and you do not reprimand him immediately - that is within one or two seconds - but wait for longer, he is unlikely to make the connection. From his point of view, you are being mean to him for no reason.

  3. By constantly reprimanding him, you can stir up conflicting feelings of attachment for you and fear of you, which may stress him and make his behaviour worse.

  4. You may think you have won your point. But he may think he has won, without you being aware of it. Thus you may actually be encouraging him to behave the same way again another time.

  5. You might win a conflict, but only temporarily, as he may be determined to do the same thing again in future.

  6. He may attack you or someone else if he is constantly frustrated and his anger builds up.
Now for what you should do. Four simple rules:

1. Ignore
One of your most effective techniques to change your pet's behaviour, such as if he bites or scratches you or does something else directly aimed at you, is immediately to ignore him. Cats and especially dogs do not like to be ignored, particularly when they want something from you. So immediately stop interacting with him, look away, keep your back turned on him and pretend he does not exist. Keep it up for a couple of minutes at least.

For example, your cat bits you when you pick him up. Immediately gently drop him to the floor and turn your back on him. (However, it may be better, if he really does not want you to do something, to respect his wish and not do it in the first place.)

Or say your dog barks excitedly when you pick up his lead to go for a walk and rushes about madly. Assuming you want to stop him doing this, immediately drop the lead and turn your back to him. Only pick up the lead when he begins to calm down. Do this well and consistently and over time he will become much calmer.

2. Distract & Reward
Sometimes distraction and reward are more suitable than ignoring your pet. Distract your pet from an undesirable behaviour by giving him something else to do and then reward him, for instance with praise, when he does it. Holding a string for you cat to pounce on or chucking a ball for your dog is a distraction and a reward at the same time. You are stopping his action continuing without upsetting him and by rewarding him you are making him happy and relaxed, and that is good in the long run.

3. Imitate
Imitating the way cats and dogs behave with members of their own species is a useful method for dealing with an unwanted behaviour. But be sure to act like a real cat or dog (not like a human trying to imitate one!) otherwise your gestures will have no meaning for your companion. For a cat, make a loud hissing sound, sudden and explosive, like a cat's hiss. Do it well and your cat will stop and think twice about what he is doing. For a dog, growl - just like a dog. At the same time a sustained wide-eyed stare is additional discouragement. A stare is very assertive and commanding to a cat or dog.

4. Be Consistent
Always be consistent in what you do. If you act one way one day and then another way another day you will confuse your companion and his behaviour will get worse. If other people in your household interact closely with your pet, try to get them to do the same as you. Everyone should be consistent.

When carried out well and consistently, these pointers are a solid beginning. You could follow them up with good advice on how you can communicate with your companion in a benign, efficacious way to guide his behaviour.

For more about effectively controlling your dog, see Dog Controlling. Also see Shaping.

© 2004 Roger Panaman All rights reserved