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A “Practical” Ethic for Animals

Abstract

Drawing on the features of “practical philosophy” described by Toulmin (1990), a “practical” ethic for animals would be rooted in knowledge of how people affect animals, and would provide guidance on the diverse ethical concerns that arise. Human activities affect animals in four broad ways: (1) keeping animals, for example, on farms and as companions, (2) causing intentional harm to animals, for example through slaughter and hunting, (3) causing direct but unintended harm to animals, for example by cropping practices and vehicle collisions, and (4) harming animals indirectly by disturbing life-sustaining processes and balances of nature, for example by habitat destruction and climate change. The four types of activities raise different ethical concerns including suffering, injury, deprivation, and death (of individuals), decline of populations, disruption of ecological systems containing animals, and extinction of species. They also vary in features relevant to moral evaluation and decision-making; these include the number of animals affected, the duration of the effects, the likelihood of irreversible effects, and the degree to which the effects can be controlled. In some cases human actions can also provide benefits to animals such as shelter and health care. Four mid-level principles are proposed to make a plausible fit to the features of the four types of human activities and to address the major ethical concerns that arise. The principles are: (1) to provide good lives for the animals in our care, (2) to treat suffering with compassion, (3) to be mindful of unseen harm, and (4) to protect the life-sustaining processes and balances of nature. This “practical” approach arguably makes a better fit to the complex, real-life problems of animal ethics than the single foundational principles that have dominated much recent animal ethics philosophy.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    By an “ethic for animals,” I mean a system of ethical thought that includes animals, such that people take animals, as well as people, into ethical consideration.

  2. 2.

    I am using “suffering” as a short-hand for unpleasant affective states of all sorts including severe pain, fear, hunger, thirst, discomfort, and anxiety.

  3. 3.

    I am using “species” as a short-hand for genetically distinct types including species, sub-species and other taxonomic divisions.

  4. 4.

    By group (including family) I mean individuals that interact directly, for example in gathering food, sharing shelter, or moving in concert. By population I mean individuals that interact indirectly, for example by living in the same geographic area or competing for the same resources. By ecological system I mean “a dynamic complex of plant, animal, and microorganism communities and the nonliving environment interacting as a functional unit” (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment 2005).

  5. 5.

    The number of animals killed by crop production practices has been debated by Davis (2003), Matheny (2003), and Lamey (2007). However, most of their calculations appear to have been based on data for Apodemus sylvaticus taken from Tew and Macdonald (1993) rather than more numerous species such as Microtus arvalis as studied, for example, by Jacob (2003).

  6. 6.

    By “indirectly” I mean that the harm to animals is separated by an intervening process, and typically by a period of time, from the human activity that caused the harm. For example, methane released into the atmosphere is not toxic to animals but may cause harm in the future by climate change and melting of polar ice; and releasing a new pathogen may cause little harm at first, but great harm in the future after the pathogen multiplies and spreads. The distinction between direct and indirect harm is not always clear-cut, but it is important because people will likely have less opportunity to control the eventual effect on animals if the harm is indirect.

  7. 7.

    ‘By “compassion” I mean the feeling of being “moved by the suffering or distress of another, and by the desire to relieve it,” and “pity that inclines one to spare or to succour” (OED 2011).

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Acknowledgments

Section “How People Affect Animals” is an abbreviated version of Fraser and MacRae (2011); I am grateful to Amelia MacRae and the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare for allowing me to re-work some of that material here. I also thank Nancy Clarke for research assistance, Lennart Nordenfelt and colleagues in the UBC Animal Welfare Program for helpful discussion, and Michael McDonald, Henrik Lerner and the journal reviewers for many valuable suggestions. The work was supported by grants from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

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Fraser, D. A “Practical” Ethic for Animals. J Agric Environ Ethics 25, 721–746 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10806-011-9353-z

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Keywords

  • Animals
  • Animal ethics
  • Animal welfare
  • Conservation
  • Ethics
  • Environmental ethics