Encyclopedia of Business and Professional Ethics

Living Edition
| Editors: Deborah C Poff, Alex C. Michalos

Animal Ethics

  • Monique R. E. JanssensEmail author
  • Franck L. B. Meijboom
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-23514-1_68-1


Animal Ethics Animal Welfare NGOs Responsibility Toward Restaurant Company Direct Moral Duties 
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Animal ethics deals with the question how nonhuman animals should be treated. This implies a discussion about whether animals are morally important for their own sakes and, if so, what consequences follow for human action. Traditionally, animal ethics is concerned with individual animals and their inherent value, their interests, and their preferences.


As in business ethics and many other ethics disciplines, the most common approaches of animal ethics are consequentialism, deontology, and virtue ethics. What these approaches have in common is that they include sentient animals in the sphere of the morally relevant. This means we should take them into account for their own sakes when deciding about the rightness or wrongness of our actions.

Consequentialism and Utilitarianism

In 1780, the father of utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham, wrote down a short but famous fragment on what we would now call animal ethics: “The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?” With these words, he creates the inclusion of sentient animals (animals who can experience pleasure and pain) in the sphere of the morally relevant. If a utilitarian – a consequentialist who sees welfare or happiness as the central value that should be maximized – is calculating the added or diminished value for all affected, the added or diminished value for affected animals counts as well. To put it simply, as soon as we know other creatures can be harmed by the experience of pain, we should take them into account, because being sentient is why we as humans count morally too. In our times, this approach has been developed further by Peter Singer, theoretically as well as practically. He examines how we should weigh the different value changes for animals and humans in different situations and argues that by the above definition, at least all vertebrates (without ailments that prevent them from feeling pleasure and pain) are morally relevant and that their interests should receive equal consideration.

Deontology and Rights Ethics

According to Immanuel Kant, humans have direct duties toward other rational beings, who have moral agency. Toward animals, who are nonrational beings without moral agency, humans have only indirect duties, meaning the following. People who behave badly toward animals, by these actions, could hurt the feelings of humans or start behaving badly toward humans too. Although the first is very plausible by intuition, and the latter today is supported by social psychology, there have been many calls for additional recognition of direct human duties toward animals. Korsgaard, for example, has argued that animals are rational beings as well, which means that we do have direct duties toward them, although they are of another nature than the ones we have toward humans. Tom Regan developed a deontology-inspired rights approach to animal ethics, by which he claims that humans have direct moral duties toward animals of the same nature as our duties toward humans. His approach is based on the inherent value of what he calls subjects of a life: sentient individuals who have, apart from their sentience, extra violable abilities, like memory and belief. They are aware of the world and of what happens to them, and they act intentionally. These subjects of a life are moral patients: whereas they lack the capacity of moral agents to do right or wrong, or to reflect on their deeds, they can undergo right and wrong. Therefore, they have inherent value and a right to be treated respectfully and not to be harmed. There are circumstances where it is permitted to override this right: if not harming them would harm an even greater number of moral patients. On these grounds, Regan includes in the moral realm mammals from around the age of 1 year (like he does with young children and mentally handicapped people with an intellectual disability). At the same time, he remarks that it is difficult to draw the line and that the group of subjects of a life might be larger, including, for example, birds.

Virtue Ethics-Inspired Capabilities Approach

Martha Nussbaum developed a virtue ethics-inspired capabilities approach for animal ethics (although she denies the existence of any such unitary approach as “virtue ethics”). Her approach holds in short that based on an attitude of wonder and respect toward other creatures, we should allow animals the capabilities of flourishing in their own specific ways. She translates the list of capabilities this approach assigns to humans to a list of capabilities animals should be allowed. These are life, bodily health, bodily integrity, access to sources of pleasure, emotions through attachment to others, practical reason (to the extent to which the capacity is present in the animal), non-humiliation, relationships with other species, play, and control over their environment. Nussbaum does not go very deep into differences between animal species but acknowledges that priority should be given to changing the situation of animals who suffer from the way they are treated.

Which Animals to Include: Some Consensus

Departing from differing ethical strands, the philosophers mentioned above seem to agree that vertebrates are the first to be taken into consideration: mammals in the first place and probably also fish, birds, reptiles, and amphibians. Apart from that, research shows that more species can have experiences they evaluate as positive or negative and recognize stimuli for which they take an effort to encounter or to avoid them. To begin with, crustaceans and octopuses were added to the list of animals with sentience. Today, there is discussion about, for example, shrimps and bees. Knowledge about the biological systems of animals is increasing rapidly. Animal ethicists are pleading for giving more animal species the benefit of the doubt and treat them respectfully by avoiding the risk of making them suffer.

Worlds Apart

In businesses, animals are often treated as an instrument for human goals. They are bred, caught, and fished to serve as food. Special breeds are formed to obtain laboratory and companion animals. In circuses and dolphinariums, animals are taught tricks for human entertainment. Others are trained to do agricultural, rescue or guide work for humans, etc. Apart from that, companies have an indirect impact on animals, through, for example, habitat destruction, road kill, food policy in company restaurants, and pollution, including noise and light. From an animal ethics perspective, it is disputable whether business activities involving animals are ethically sound and, if so, under which conditions. The issue here is to what extent a company is morally allowed to use or harm animals for its own benefit. Though awareness is growing, many companies lack an ethical stand toward animals.

This is reflected in business ethics. In this academic discipline, there is hardly any systematic attention to animals. In animal business literature, animal issues are not often listed among corporate responsibilities. Theories of business ethics in many cases ignore the issue of animal ethics or touch upon it no more than shortly. Rather than as an independent question, the issue of responsibility toward animals is often addressed as a commodity or as a dimension of a public health or an environmental issue. This situation disregards the academic debate on what we owe to animals and hardly pays attention to the moral problems that occur when companies deal (directly or indirectly) with animals. Based on what is achieved in animal ethics, the discipline should have its own position in corporate responsibility and professional ethics.

Different Roles of Animals in Relation to Companies

Including animals into ethical reflection of companies is complicated, not only because of the huge variety between animals and animal species but also because humans relate to animals in very different ways. Animals can be classified in six categories of relatedness to people: farmed animals, research animals, wildlife, animals in entertainment, working animals, and companion animals. This is not a static categorization. Animals can change categories. Wildlife can be captured and put in a zoo to continue its life as an object of entertainment. A farmed animal can be purchased by a private person and be kept as a companion animal. The largest numbers of animals owned by companies are farmed animals and research animals. Smaller numbers of animals are found in entertainment, as working animals (on small farms, in service dog organizations, police forces, and rescue organizations), and in companion animal breeding businesses. The relation between businesses and wildlife is in many cases not ownership but indirect impact.

The Extent of Corporate Responsibility

Where the legal responsibilities of a company toward animals are relatively clearly defined, the moral responsibilities are not. What a company owes to animals in moral terms depends on its relationship with animals. Companies that own animals bear a primary responsibility, resulting in a duty of care, both legally and morally. However, moral responsibility is not limited to owners; it is passed on through the production chain and affects the responsibility of business partners. Each company who buys animal-based products bears a shared responsibility for the animals the products were derived from. And even outside the production chain, procurement is a responsible activity. In this way, every company has an impact on animals, be it by serving animal-based food in its company restaurants. Therefore, it is important that each company determines the extent of its own responsibility and the relative proportion of it among other responsibility issues. To accomplish this, it is wise for companies to be open to the opinions of all stakeholders. One can think of investors, partners in the production chain, customers, employees, animal welfare NGOs, the general public, etc. Apart from that, there are good arguments to say that the animals themselves are stakeholders too. They are affected by certain actions of companies, although they cannot express themselves – but neither can young children, and still allowing child labor is not done.

Implementation of Animal Ethics in Business Practice

To make the moral responsibility operational, companies often refer to the attention paid to animal welfare and especially to the so-called five freedoms. These were formulated by the Brambell Committee as an ethical guideline for better treatment of farm animals in 1965. The Farm Animal Welfare Committee of the UK reformulated them as:
  • Freedom from hunger and thirst

  • Freedom from discomfort

  • Freedom from pain, injury, or disease

  • Freedom to express normal behavior

  • Freedom from fear and distress

Although these five freedoms are widespread and reflected in legal texts, they tend to be insufficient to deal with the range of responsibilities of companies in the context of animals. They are a “moral floor” rather than a “moral ceiling” that one could strive for. They offer no handles for determining the extent to which these freedoms should be provided. Secondly, the five freedoms are highly utilitarianism inspired and lack room for notions like respect for animals and rights of animals.

Ten Steps to Dealing with Corporate Responsibility Toward Animals

To include animal ethics in the accountability of a company, there are several steps a company can take:
  1. 1.

    Start a think tank for animal ethics.

  2. 2.

    Identify the impact of the company on animals. Organize a brainstorm with the help of independent ethicists. Listen to animal welfare NGOs during the process.

  3. 3.

    Identify the corporate ethical position toward animals. What is the view of the company on animals? Are they things, resources, or living beings? Does their welfare count? Do their rights count? Do their capabilities count? Invite an independent ethicist to moderate the process.

  4. 4.

    Do a materiality analysis and identify the importance of animal ethics for the company, in the light of its responsibilities.

  5. 5.

    Search the corporate website for the word “animal” and have a look at how the company is talking about animals there. (You can also do a Corporate Commitment to Animals scan; see Janssens and Kaptein 2016.)

  6. 6.

    Adopt animal welfare as an official corporate responsibility issue. Include it in the business code and the responsibility report. Tell the public about it on your website and in other documents.

  7. 7.

    Connect goals to new insights and plans, design programs, and implement them.

  8. 8.

    Dare to be a leader in your industry.

  9. 9.

    Tackle challenges in partnerships with relevant partners (NGOs, researchers, the government, industry partners, etc.).

  10. 10.

    Inform the media honestly and transparently, in cooperation with your partners.



Animal ethics is not just an add-on for business ethics. Based on what is achieved in the field of animal ethics, any professional in any organizational context has moral reasons for being aware of special responsibilities toward animals. Although there are different accounts in animal ethics, they all agree on the importance of taking the life and welfare of sentient animals into account in decision-making. This can be done by taking steps from identifying an ethical stance toward animals to taking action and communicating transparently about the actions taken and the results achieved.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Monique R. E. Janssens
    • 1
    • 2
    Email author
  • Franck L. B. Meijboom
    • 3
  1. 1.Rotterdam School of ManagementErasmus University RotterdamRotterdamThe Netherlands
  2. 2.Ethisch BedrijfUtrechtThe Netherlands
  3. 3.Ethisch Institute, Utrecht UniversityUtrechtThe Netherlands

Section editors and affiliations

  • Muel Kaptein
    • 1
  1. 1.Erasmus UniversityRotterdamThe Netherlands