Animal Abolitionism Meets Moral Abolitionism

Cutting the Gordian Knot of Applied Ethics

A Letter to the Editor to this article was published on 18 April 2014


The use of other animals for human purposes is as contentious an issue as one is likely to find in ethics. And this is so not only because there are both passionate defenders and opponents of such use, but also because even among the latter there are adamant and diametric differences about the bases of their opposition. In both disputes, the approach taken tends to be that of applied ethics, by which a position on the issue is derived from a fundamental moral commitment. This commitment in turn depends on normative ethics, which investigates the various moral theories for the best fit to our moral intuitions. Thus it is that the use of animals in biomedical research is typically defended by appeal to a utilitarian theory, which legitimates harm to some for the greater good of others; while the opposition condemns that use either by appeal to the same theory, but disagreeing about the actual efficacy of animal experimentation, or by appeal to an alternative theory, such as the right of all sentient beings not to be exploited. Unfortunately, the normative issue seems likely never to be resolved, hence leaving the applied issue in limbo. The present essay seeks to circumvent this impasse by dispensing altogether with any moral claim or argument, thereby cutting the Gordian knot of animal ethics with a meta-ethical sword. The alternative schema defended is simply to advance relevant considerations, whereupon “there is nothing left but to feel.” In a word, motivation replaces justification.

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  1. 1.

    Animals are also used by human beings to benefit other animals, as in veterinary research. For simplicity of exposition I will ignore that kind of case, although both similar and distinctive issues arise. It might also be possible simply to subsume those cases under human purposes, since, when one gets down to it, the healing of other animals is a human purpose. Indeed, the vast majority of veterinary practice probably concerns keeping animals healthy so that they can be eaten or otherwise exploited by humans (Marks 2011b).

  2. 2.

    It is averred by some so-called experimental philosophers (see, e.g., Sarkissian et al. 2011) that the kind of morality here being denied is not necessarily the kind that most people believe in to begin with. I will deal with this potential objection to the amoralist project in the sequel.

  3. 3.

    I adopt the term from Joyce (2001, 214). Joyce himself rejects the position, however, in favor of a so-called moral fictionalism. See Garner (2007), Green (2011), and Marks (2013) for refutations of fictionalism.

  4. 4.

    There is a crucially relevant ambiguity in a word like “desired” (or “desirable”). It could suggest an “absolute” or “objective” desirability, or merely what someone (or some group) desires. As an amoralist I always mean it in the latter sense. Objective desirability has, for me, gone the way of the dodos—just like morality. However, I here pass over a complex issue simply for lack of space. Thus, even in my sense of “desired,” there is an element that could sensically be called objective; for example, I desire animal liberation because, among other things, I believe it would result in less suffering in the world as a matter of objective fact. But even if that belief were true, it would not make my desire objective in the sense of somehow “requiring” that I, not to mention everyone, desire animal liberation.

  5. 5.

    Various terms are used in various ways in the relevant literature, and the distinctions can be of the utmost importance. Thus, Francione (2008, 19) argues that Singer’s (2009) animal liberation is not committed to abolishing the use of other animals, and Hall (2010, 123–124) argues that Francione’s animal abolitionism is not committed to preserving habitats for wild animals. Hall herself defends a robust sense of “animal rights” that encompasses both the abolition of animal use and the preservation of habitats. While I agree with both Hall’s and Francione’s critiques, and also accept the full substance of Hall’s positive program, I continue nevertheless to employ both “abolitionism” and “liberation” for the position I defend. This is because, on the one hand, I don’t feel “liberation” needs to be tied to Singer’s utilitarian parsing of it, and, on the other, I am uncomfortable with the moralist overtones of “rights.”

  6. 6.

    I do want to differentiate moralist argumentation from figuring out what to do, which I have been calling “ethics.” Thus, very real questions remain about how best to achieve the goal(s) of animal liberation. For example, Francione and Garner (2010) debate the relative efficacy of welfarist versus rights-based strategies.

  7. 7.

    A shining exception to this among supporters of animal experimentation is veterinarian Larry Carbone; for example, he writes, “I conclude that we may not have a right to experiment on animals, only a very pressing need” (Carbone 2004, 19). See also Marks (2011a).

  8. 8.

    Naturally the same point—that the unsoundness of their arguments does not inhibit their rhetorical force—could be made about moralist opponents of animal use. Alas, however, rather than somehow “canceling out,” the opposing forces may only further buttress the status quo, for example, by precluding meaningful dialogue between interlocutors whose positions have hardened from viewing each other as evil. More on this in the next section.

  9. 9.

    It might seem that a moralist ethics could accommodate even this, for example, the so-called preference utilitarianism of Peter Singer. But it is still the case that a morality grounded on preferences would be treating them as stepping stones to something very un-preference-like, namely, authoritative, universal commands or standards or some such. My view, to the contrary, is that preferences, even rational ones, may motivate but do not legitimate.

  10. 10.

    Not to mention illegal or other outré tactics, such as intimidation, vandalism, and violence. But this is no different from a moralist call to arms under whatever circumstances happen to appeal to the individual moralist. What literal war, after all, has not been somebody’s moral, indeed holy cause? Again, the overall difference from a moralist regime I would anticipate for an amoralist one is that the more extreme resorts would become more rare without the “God-is-on-our-side” rallying cry of absolute moral truth.

  11. 11.

    While Gary Francione is my personal hero, God bless him, I must confess that he is a moralist. But as Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown) says at the end of Some Like It Hot, “nobody’s perfect.”


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Correspondence to Joel Marks.

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Marks, J. Animal Abolitionism Meets Moral Abolitionism. Bioethical Inquiry 10, 445–455 (2013).

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  • Animal ethics
  • Animal experimentation
  • Meta-ethics
  • Utilitarianism
  • Amorality
  • Moral abolitionism
  • Animal abolitionism
  • Applied ethics