Brute Ethics





Animal Ethics Encyclopedia

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Umwelt is your unique subjective perspective on the world.

Umwelt is a German word (more or less pronounced oom-velt) meaning surroundings. It was coined by Jakob von Uexkull (1864 - 1944), an Estonian biologist interested in how creatures perceive and interpret their subjective world, to describe the different subjective worlds of individuals. A fly, a mouse, a human perceive the world differently. Even two animals of the same species living in the same environment (like a pair of mice in the same mouse hole or two people in your house) do not share exactly the same world.

Each animal's umwelt is unique because every creature is a distinctive individual with a life, circumstances and perspective of its own. Umwelt theory says that the mind interprets the world so cannot be separated from it and that every creature, interacting with all the living and non-living features of its environment, creates and shapes its own umwelt.

Applying umwelt to ethics means that every animal is unique; animals are not just anonymous numbers or clones. Therefore, from the ethical standpoint, you can say that each animal deserves unique moral consideration. We should treat each animal, not as an inconsequent number, but as an individual living in his own world or umwelt.

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Universal Declaration on Animals

Questions of human welfare and nature conservation are addressed at the highest levels of government. They are debated at international meetings and agreements are codified in binding charters. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity are examples. Yet animals have no worldwide protection, presumably because they are so much a part of the human exploitation of resources.

The lack of success for internationally binding charters on animal rights has not been for want of trying. Attempts have been made to identify and advance the rights of animals at least since the 18th century. Henry Salt traced efforts back to 1796 to The Rights of Beasts, an essay by John Lawrence. In the 20th century a number of international declarations supporting animal rights were devised. Perhaps the most prominent venture was the 1978 announcement by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) of the Universal Declaration of Animal Rights (The Times, 17 October 1978). Among its declarations are that all animals have the same rights to existence, no animal shall be ill-treated or subject to cruelty, animals, like humans, should command the protection of law, and dead animals shall be treated with respect. However, the Declaration dwindled and vanished before it could reach higher levels of international agreement.

More recently some of the world's leading animal welfare organisations are campaigning for the United Nations to adopt a new declaration, this time on the welfare of animals. Why welfare and not rights? The softer option may be easier for people to accept so that the declaration holds up and endures.

The animal organisations behind the Universal Declaration on Animal Welfare envisage that signatory countries to the document will recognise animals as sentient, as beings who are able to feel pain and suffer. The organisations hope the Declaration will make animal welfare an important global issue and pioneer the way for legally binding international agreements on animal welfare hastening a better deal for animals worldwide. The Declaration would also underscore the importance of animal welfare as part of the development of humanity.

So far a number of UN member states are acting as a steering group to advance the initiative at the UN. But achieving a Declaration on Animal Welfare will be a long journey. The Convention on the Rights of the Child, for example, took thirty years of effort before the United Nations adopted it.

For a draft copy of the Universal Declaration on Animal Welfare see the Appendix

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 Ethical theory that says an action is morally right if it benefits the greatest number of beings with the greatest good. You determine what is right to do by calculating the amount of pleasure or suffering your actions may cause and the right action will be the one that gives most pleasure (or least suffering) to the majority concerned. Utilitarianism derives from the word utility, meaning usefulness.

Thus, you are piloting a lifeboat in outerspace. There is just enough air to get you (as pilot) and one of the two passengers with you back to Earth. So you blast the chef into space and save the vet because the vet can save many animals back on Earth whereas the chef will cook them. You have chosen the utilitarian way. Again, some of your dinner guests are vegetarians and you wonder if you should serve roast pig. As a strict utilitarian you poll your guests beforehand. Five guests say no to pig and twenty-five guests say yes. Therefore you serve pig and bring pleasure to the majority of guests. Hard luck for the pig and the six vegetarians.

Utilitarianism evolved in the 18th century and is most closely associated with British philosophers Jeremy Bentham (1748 - 1832) and John Stuart Mill (1808 - 1873). It is still a powerful theory widely applied in daily life. A utilitarian would argue that sacrificing the lives of a few is right if it can save the lives of many. A real-life example is the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan. The bombs killed many people but at the time it was justified on the grounds that it would save many more lives by bringing about a quick Japanese surrender and an end to the Second World War.

You can argue the Utilitarianism way to abolish animal suffering or to inflict it. You might say the suffering and death of billions of food animals clearly outweighs the enjoyment of the millions of people who eat them; the animals lose their lives but are just another meal to the well fed diners, who can always eat something else. On the other hand, you might claim the treatment of millions of experimental laboratory animals is right if millions of people gain a lot more through better health and enjoyment of life.

Utilitarianism is not concerned with what you may think is your duty or with how a virtuous person might act. Utilitarianism is concerned only with the consequences of actions and therefore is a consequence ethics theory.

Strengths of Utilitarianism is its seeming objectivity in that you tote up the costs, benefits and numbers involved in your moral action to predict your action's effect and act accordingly. Utilitarianism depends on objective criteria, not on metaphysical entities like God or possessing a soul. Utilitarianism laudably considers the beings directly influenced by a moral issue, not any secondary characters or just yourself as in Duty Ethics or Virtue Ethics.


  • It is impossible to measure the suffering and pleasure of individuals (whether animals or people) and compare them. You might only be able to make gross estimates, like numbers of those living and dying before and after your action.

  • It can be difficult to know what is pleasure and pain, and what is right and wrong for others. You might have to guess, but should guessing be the basis of morality? If you rely on intuition, someone else might entertain a conflicting intuition, then how can you decide who is right?

  • If you do not know what the consequences of your action will be, and cannot even make a good guess, then Utilitarianism is no use for helping you decide the right course of action and fails as a moral theory.

  • Your action may seem beneficial at first but a long time later reveal harmful results. The effect of radiation was not foreseen when the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan. Sickness and death from radiation greatly added to the misery and the number of dead.

  • Utilitarianism could justify cruelty for the sake of the majority. Individuals and minorities can be harmed so long as the majority benefit. Unqualified Utilitarianism condones the abuse, torture or destruction of some creatures for the pleasure of several if the pleasure exceeds the victims' suffering (for example fox hunting, angling, hare coursing, gang rape).

  • Utilitarianism absolves you from personal responsibility for your action in that you can rationalise away doing wrong to a few for the sake of the many.

  • Doing some things seems wrong, no matter what the consequences are for doing them. Most people would be highly motivated to save their own nearest and dearest (animal, pet or child) even at the cost of letting dozens of others perish. But Utilitarianism would have you save strangers and let your own dear one die.

  • Contrast with Ethical Egoism, Painism.

    © 2004 Roger Panaman All rights reserved