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While Western philosophy has not historically been concerned with animal rights or animal welfare, it has more recently become an important part of animal advocacy conversations and movements. The three historical philosophers that are most discussed are René Descartes, John Stuart Mill, and Immanuel Kant. While contemporary animal advocates have voiced concerns with the ways in which each of these figures dealt with animals in their works, many advocates have also found these thinkers to be helpful in defining our ethical relationship to animals. In this overview of the topic, the views of each of these thinkers and their place in contemporary animal welfare and rights movements will be briefly set out.
René Descartes (1596-1650)
It is quite common in the writings of an animal rights thinker for Descartes’ views on animals to be counterposed to their own. That is to say, Descartes is almost invariably set up as a philosophical villain in discussions of animal rights--and understandably so. Descartes’ committed views on philosophy of mind left him with some very unintuitive, and some might say disturbing, views on animals.
Descartes was a dualist, which is to say, he believed that humans are composed of two separate substances: mind and body. Sensations, like the sensation of pain, are only possible in beings that are composed of both mind and body because sensations emerge from the commingling of these two substances. Animals, according to Descartes, are, however, composed of only one of the two substances: body. Hence animals are sophisticated machines that are capable of making the physical motions and grimaces that would in humans accompany the sensation of pain; but, possessing no minds themselves, animals are incapable of possessing the accompanying sensation.
While it does not necessarily follow from the proposition that animals cannot experience pain and do not possess minds that we have no ethical duties to them, it does make for a difficult starting position. For instance, to continue to maintain that one’s treatment of animals is ethically constrained, one might argue that while beating a dog does not hurt the dog, it is unethical to do so because it makes one more likely to beat a person. The obvious objection, however, is that if neither a dog nor a rug has any sensation, then beating a dog should be no more likely to desensitize one to human pain than would beating a rug to get the dust out of it. After all, if you are not inflicting pain on the dog, how could beating it be more likely to cause you to hurt another person than chopping down a tree or skipping a stone across water? Consequently, if one adopts the philosophy of mind that Descartes did, it seems especially difficult to take issue with acts upon animals such as scientific experimentation—acts that are done without cruelty and for (arguably at least) good purpose. And indeed, Descartes did not take issue with scientific experimentation on animals and even vividly depicts vivisection in his work.
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)
Kantian ethical philosophy has proven attractive to many animal rights advocates, in large part because his ethical theory incorporates the idea that ethical duties owed to a person are absolute; they cannot be overridden or dismissed based on other circumstances and considerations. Animal rights advocates find this way of thinking about ethical obligations attractive because while many people agree that we have duties and obligations of some sort to animals, they think that these duties can be trumped by other considerations. For instance, while many people think it is wrong to hurt animals, they concede that hurting animals should be permitted under certain circumstances. For instance, they might think that it is permissible to hurt them for the sake of making clothing and shoes, or at the very least, it is permissible to hurt them to turn them into food or to use them to find cures for human diseases. To establish that animals have inviolable rights would hence offer a great deal of protection to animals, and bar such concessions.
Kant himself, however, did not include animals amongst those beings that had these sorts of inviolable rights. He did not therefore maintain that we have any direct ethical duties to animals. Kant held that the basis of such ethical duties was respect for heightened cognitive capabilities—capabilities which animals, he held, do not possess. Some characterize this heightened cognitive capability as self-consciousness. Current animal rights thinker Steven Wise, responding to Kant, argues that some animals do have the level of cognitive ability that Kant demands, and Wise claims that contemporary science can help us to identify which animals those are. In this fashion, Wise hopes to establish that there are some animals to whom we do have direct ethical duties.
It should be noted, that while Kant did not believe that we owed ethical duties to animals, he did believe that there are ethical restraints on our treatment of animals based on our ethical duties to ourselves. Granting that animals are capable of feeling pain, and hence are qualitatively different from inanimate objects like rugs, Kant had more resources for making such an argument than a Cartesian would have. Kant argued that we should not be cruel to animals because desensitizing ourselves to causing them pain could make us more insensitive and more likely to inflict pain on other people.
John Stuart Mill (1806-1873)
John Stuart Mill was a utilitarian. He believed that ethical acts are those acts that tend to minimize pain and maximize pleasure. Animals, according to Mill, can experience both pain and pleasure and so they should be taken into consideration in all ethical decisions. While the further claim that humans are capable of experiencing higher pleasures can skew calculations in their favor, Mill’s philosophy is still viewed by animal advocates as a particularly promising first step. Peter Singer, a contemporary philosopher that advocates ethical treatment of animals, famously expounded on the place of animals within a utilitarian framework in his book Animal Liberation. While both Mill and Singer would agree that it can be ethically permissible to inflict harm on animals if enough overall happiness would tend to result from that act, Singer adamantly maintains that many of the ways we use animals today are not ethically permissible under utilitarianism given the triviality of the pleasure attained and the great magnitude of the suffering endured.
For more details regarding these philosophical treatments of animals and the ways they have been adopted by animal rights and animal welfare advocates, please see the Detailed Discussion of this topic.
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