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Matthew Pianalto, Ph.D., discusses the spectrum of animal ethics theories

Three Star Happy Lucky Fish Oil/Mix on unstretched canvas approx. 29" x 46"
Three Star Happy Lucky Fish Oil/Mix on unstretched canvas approx. 29" x 46"
“Three Star Happy Lucky Fish” Photo courtesy of Matt Sesow, used with permission /

There is no one way of thinking and living. Among the many individuals and organizations that advocate for humanity, non-human animals, and the environment, we are all working toward a united goal and are responsible for the global future of the earth.

To be confident about who you are, what you believe, and know that your thoughts and actions have meaning and a positive effect is only a fraction of the overall equation. Being open-minded enough not to dismiss opinions, reason, and emotion, but instead learn from and incorporate new and different ways of thought, will bring better, clearer understanding of the universal picture.

“I don’t think there’s a single thing that could be called the Animal Rights Movement. There are many different philosophies and movements,” states Matthew Pianalto, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Philosophy at Eastern Kentucky University. As discussed in our previous conversation regarding the similarities and differences between animal ethics and environmental ethics, there are significant differences in theories and their conclusions.

“The differences between animal rights philosophies is comparable in some ways to the differences one can see in the agendas and points of emphasis in different animal advocacy organizations,” Pianalto says. “The basic question on which there are divided opinions is whether certain practices involving animals can be improved, made more humane, or whether they must be abolished altogether.”

While some accept that improving the conditions for animals within an unjustified practice is better than doing nothing and is a step in the right direction, others argue that this approach distracts attention from the fundamental injustice of animal usages. “A distinction is often drawn between animal ethics theorists who take a welfare approach, such as Peter Singer, and those who take a rights approach, such as Tom Regan.”

“The welfare approach,” Pianalto states, “emphasizes the idea that we should not inflict unnecessary pain and suffering on sentient animals.” In Peter Singer’s utilitarian ethics, all sentient animals have a right to equal consideration.

Pianalto emphasizes, “A right to equal consideration is not tantamount to a right to life.” He further explains that this also does not mean that an animal’s life is as valuable as a human’s life.

Simply stated, Singer proposes that pain experienced by animals has no less value because it’s an animal that experiences the pain rather than a human. “As a utilitarian, Singer doesn’t issue blanket condemnations against using animals in various ways.”

“Animal rights philosophers such as Tom Regan and Gary Francione object at a fairly deep level to the utilitarian logic of welfarist positions such as Singer’s,” Pianalto compares. In contrast to Singer, Regan and Francione stress the concept of rights, respect for individuals, and advocate an extreme change in attitude and practice with principled opposition toward absolutism.

Regan contends that all animals who are subjects of a life have inherent value,” Pianalto says. Regan’s theory that some animals have the same moral rights as humans, “applies at least to all mammals who possess conscious awareness and memory. Their lives have value that does not depend upon their usefulness as human resources and they do not exist for us.”

On the other hand, Gary Francione’s Abolitionist approach to animal rights is defined in strict moral absolutes with veganism as the foremost moral criterion. Essentially, based on animal sentience alone, the ownership, exploitation, and legal regulation of animals is unjust and tantamount to enslavement.

“Animals should be free to live their own lives,” Pianalto sums-up Abolitionist theory. “This ultimately means that we should preserve and restore natural areas in which animals have room to do so.”

Both Singer and Regan have said that part of their intention is to show that moral concern for animals can be given a rational justification; moral concern for animals isn’t simply the result of emotions and sentimentality. However, Pianalto explains, when we acknowledge and accept an animal’s perspective, the compassion and sympathy we experience is a moral insight.

“Ecofeminists and defenders of care ethics reject the dualism between reason and emotion and the traditional assumption that reason is superior to emotion,” Pianalto continues. “Emotions are not mere feelings. They have cognitive content, and are, in that respect, thoughtful responses to the world.”

“Instead of constructing a grand theory of animal rights that shows how animals fit into existing abstract moral theories and categories,” Pianalto says, “Josephine Donovan contends that we simply need to pay attention to actual others, including animals, and listen to them.”

In her 1990 work, Animal Rights and Feminist Theory, Donovan concludes, “We should not kill, eat, torture, and exploit animals because they do not want to be so treated, and we know that. If we listen, we can hear them.”

“The key part is that we know that,” Pianalto states. “We don’t need an elaborate theory of mind in order to arrive at this knowledge. We need only to pay attention to the animals as well as to the ways in which we might satisfy vital needs of our own that don’t involve exploiting animals.”

While the commonality of all these philosophers and advocates show the many different ways our attitudes toward animals can be questioned and criticized, Pianalto comments, “Some philosophers continue to argue against the idea that animals can have rights on the grounds that rights can only be ascribed to moral agents.”

A moral agent is an individual capable of acting morally, distinguishing between right and wrong, and can give and receive (i.e. understand) moral reasons; thus, they can be held morally accountable for their actions. Pianalto believes these arguments are hopeless, since they imply that not all humans have rights.

“If we cause needless suffering to a sentient being or do thoughtless violence to any living thing, we are doing a wrong to that being,” Pianalto says. “We are harming it by making its life worse or by ending its life without good reason.”

“I’ve been thinking lately about a passage from Raimond Gaita’s book, The Philosopher’s Dog, in which he describes an exchange he had with his daughter when she was young,” Pianalto mentions. Even though Gaita is not religious, he was humbled by his young daughter’s recognition of the beauty of God’s creations and her simple expression of acceptance and compassion for all living things.

“Whether there is a God or not, we all, human and animal, come from the same primal source and we are all in the same boat,” Pianalto says. “The earth that sustains us does not belong to any of us and yet we are all of the earth and we all return to the earth.”

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