Brute Ethics





Animal Ethics Encyclopedia

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Reciprocal Morality

The view that you are morally obligated to respect the rights of others only if they respect your rights.

For & Against: argue your case

  • Claim: Animals do not respect our rights so we need not give them rights.

  • Claim: Conferment of rights is about how we ought to behave toward others. It is not about whether animals can reciprocate or not. We give rights to many people who cannot respect or reciprocate our rights: babies, young children and unborn future generations. Therefore we should give animals rights.

  • Claim: Giving rights to babies and children benefits us by giving rights to our next of kin (see Altruism). And giving rights to severely mentally retarded people might help us one day should we become severely retarded too. But we are not related to animals, nor will we become animals, so it is pointless giving animals rights.

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Regan, Tom (1938 - )

 Emeritus professor of philosophy and American advocate for animal rights. Among his many books The Case for Animal Rights (1983), translated into several languages, made him a public name.

Regan asserts that animals have inherent worth (that is intrinsic value) because they have feelings, desires, beliefs, preferences, memories, expectations, purposeful behaviour, and so on. He calls animals with such features subject's of a life because 'what happens to them matters to them'. He says, "All animals are somebody - someone with a life of their own. Behind those eyes is a story, the story of their life in their world as they experience it." (See Umwelt.) Regan maintains that animals who have the features of a subject of a life should have the same rights to life as humans and sees the animal rights movement as part of the human rights movement.

Regan's position clashes with his contemporary, Peter Singer. Singer argues that subjective human preferences can occasionally outweigh the interests of animals. To avoid this, Regan counters that it is better animal rights is based on intrinsic value. Regan says this will thwart people putting their own interests before animals whenever it suits them (for instance see Ethical Egoism), prevent exploitation of individual animals for the greater good (that is the good of humans, see Utilitarianism), and stop morality being an exclusively human club (for example see Contractarianism).

Among Regan's books on animal ethics are: All That Dwell Therein: Essays on Animal Rights and Environmental Ethics (1982); The Case for Animal Rights (1983); Defending Animal Rights (2001); and Empty Cages: Facing the Challenge of Animal Rights (2004).

Quote from Giving Voice to Animal Rights. The Satya Interview with Tom Regan, Kymberlie Adams Matthews. Accessed online February 2007.

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Philosophical theory that nothing is morally good or bad and nothing is morally right or wrong in itself. Moral values simply derive from the culture you live in. Doing right and good means following the custom of your society. Doing wrong means not following customs. Also called Cultural Relativism.

Relativism says that societies and cultures can have different moral views about the same thing and that no one can say which views are right; moral views are simply different. One society holds that cattle are sacred and must be treated with respect. Another society raises and slaughters cattle by the million for food.

Another example comes from hunting foxes. The fox hunting camp in Britain is described as wealthy, conservative, countrified and upper class whereas the pro-fox anti-hunt camp is pictured as ordinary, socialist, townie and lower class. This characterisation is extreme and simplistic but seems to have some truth, particularly in that antagonists form two discernible if somewhat overlapping cultures. The point is that both cultures are adamant that they are morally right about supporting / denouncing fox hunting. On the basis of Relativism, both are neither right nor wrong, just different.

Relativism challenges the concept that moral truth is absolute, invariable and universal. Relativism, therefore, undermines moral thinking. It is anathema to anyone with any degree of absolute moral outlook.


There may be many and great moral differences between cultures, but it does not automatically rule out that there are no universal moral truths. Look deep enough you may find a universal core of moral values.

If you say everything is relative you are making an absolute statement. You then cannot hold that everything is relative. Once you start to admit that some things are absolute, you weaken your case for morality being relative.

Contrast with Absolutism and Subjectivism.

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Religious Tradition

Many Western attitudes about animals derive from Judaeo-Christian sources and are human centred. These attitudes, as with those in Islam and Hinduism, tend to see humans in every way as more important than animals.

Three important beliefs commonly accepted by Christianity for centuries are that:

  • God made animals for human use.

  • Animals do not have souls.

  • Animals do not have intellect (that is cannot reason).

  • These ideas in the Judaeo-Christian tradition are used to justify exploiting animals without moral obligation to them, although they do not sanction deliberate cruelty to animals.

    Modern Interpretation

    A more modern interpretation of Christian thought is that:

  • Humans have a responsibility from God to care for animals.

  • Humans and animals share a kinship.

  • Humans should be benevolent as well as not cruel to animals.

  • Recent Interpretations

    A recent version of Christian thought reinterprets Christian teachings that ignore or marginalise sentient animals. 'Animal theology' asserts that:

  • God cares about all creatures, not just humans.

  • Humans are not the masters of other creatures but have a special role as their carers.

  • Sentient animals as well as humans survive death, ie have souls.

  • Christianity must broaden its outlook to the whole universe.

  • Another and stronger recent version is that:

  • Animals have rights because they belong to God.

  • Animals do not have free will and it is wrong for humans to take advantage of this lack.

  • Use of animals implies responsibility, not domination, so that the strong (humans) should protect the weak (animals).

  • Also see Andrew Linzey and Anthropocentrism.

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Go to Rights.

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Go to Rodeo.

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Ryder, Richard D (1940 - )

 Richard Hood Jack Dudley Ryder, British animal ethics philosopher and animal welfare campaigner. Was a psychologist who experimented on animals but now speaks out for animal rights.

Ryder denounces
  • Utilitarianism
  • because it justifies the exploitation of some animals if there is a net gain in happiness for the majority of other animals. Instead, he advocates his philosophy of Painism: that all animals who feel pain should be worthy of rights and that moral worth should be based on reducing the pain of individuals.

    His books include Victims of Science (1975), on the use of animals in research; Animal Revolution (1989), on the recent history and development of animal rights; Painism (1992), on ethics, animal rights and environmentalism; Painism (2001), on the moral theory of Painism; and Putting Morality Back Into Politics (2006).

    Ryder coined the term speciesism in the 1970's, and painism in the 1990's to describe his ethical philosophy.

    © 2004 Roger Panaman All rights reserved