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Facing Animals: A Relational, Other-Oriented Approach to Moral Standing


In this essay we reflect critically on how animal ethics, and in particular thinking about moral standing, is currently configured. Starting from the work of two influential “analytic” thinkers in this field, Peter Singer and Tom Regan, we examine some basic assumptions shared by these positions and demonstrate their conceptual failings—ones that have, despite efforts to the contrary, the general effect of marginalizing and excluding others. Inspired by the so-called “continental” philosophical tradition (in particular Emmanuel Levinas, Martin Heidegger, and Jacques Derrida), we then argue that what is needed is a change in the rules of the game, a change of the question. We alter the (pre-) normative question from “What properties does the animal have?” to “What are the conditions under which an entity becomes a moral subject?” This leads us to consider the role of language, personal relations, and material-technological contexts. What is needed then in response to the moral standing problem, is not more of the same—yet another, more refined criterion and argumentation concerning moral standing, or a “final” rational argumentation that would be able to settle the animal question once and for all—but a turning or transformation in both our thinking about and our relations to animals, through language, through technology, and through the various place-ordering practices in which we participate.

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  1. 1.

    A recent addition to the FAQ published on the Chicago Manual of Style web site addresses this matter in the context of a grammatical question concerning pronouns:

    Q. When referring to a zombie, should I use the relative pronoun who (which would refer to a person) or that (since, technically, the zombie is no longer living)? Essentially, does a zombie cease to become a “person” in the grammatical sense?

    A. Let’s assume this is a serious question, in which case you, as the writer, get to decide just how much humanity (if any) and grammatical sense you wish to invest in said zombie. That will guide your choice of who or that (CMS 2013).

  2. 2.

    The terms “moral agent” and “moral patient” refer to the two components of the ethical relationship—the initiator of moral decision and action and the receiver of such activity. Although the term “moral agent” has considerable acceptance throughout the philosophical tradition, the term “moral patient” is a rather recent formulation. For more on this terminology and its importance in structuring moral thinking, see Luciano Floridi’s “Information Ethics” (1999) and David Gunkel’s The Machine Question (2012).


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Correspondence to Mark Coeckelbergh.

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Coeckelbergh, M., Gunkel, D.J. Facing Animals: A Relational, Other-Oriented Approach to Moral Standing. J Agric Environ Ethics 27, 715–733 (2014).

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  • Animal ethics
  • Moral standing
  • Levinas
  • Moral language
  • Technology
  • Place