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Matthew Pianalto, Ph.D., inspires ethical action at Eastern Kentucky University

Pig Dog. Dog Pig. 20" x 30" acrylic on canvas by artist Dana Ellyn /
Pig Dog. Dog Pig. 20" x 30" acrylic on canvas by artist Dana Ellyn /
Photo courtesy of Dana Ellyn, used with permission

Our understanding of the unity between animal ethics and environmental ethics will eventually spawn more acceptance and better stewardship among all living and non-living things. “Someone whose eyes are opened to a way of looking at animals and nature that involves deeper compassion, respect, or reverence,” says Matthew Pianalto, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Philosophy at Eastern Kentucky University, “is making progress toward a different way of living that has the power to influence and perhaps over time radically alter his or her practice.”

Pianalto developed interest in both animal ethics and environmental ethics as a result of his engagement in related reading and research. With no pre-existing agenda, he says, “I had been thinking and writing about the nature of happiness and well-being and became interested in the environmental aspects of a consumption-driven pursuit of happiness and in working out what a sustainable or ecological happiness looks like by contrast.”

With his long-standing interest in the work of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and contemporary scholars of Wittgenstein’s work, Pianalto discovered the animal-related works of Raimond Gaita and Cora Diamond. For Pianalto, Cora Diamond’s paper, Eating Meat and Eating People, was both perplexing and intriguing; her argument for defending the rights of animals differed from distinguished animal ethics theorists, Peter Singer and Tom Regan.

“How we conceptualize and treat animals became a live issue for me in a way that it had not been previously,” Pianalto says. “I probably would not have pursued these avenues of inquiry had I not been asked to teach courses first on Environmental Ethics and then Animal Ethics.”

During a one-year visiting position at Truman State University, Pianalto created a unit on environmental ethics for a Philosophy and Public Affairs course. The next year, when he started at Eastern Kentucky University, Pianalto was asked to teach a whole course on environmental ethics.

Meanwhile, Eastern Kentucky University, Department of Psychology Professor, Dr. Robert Mitchell, was about to launch a new interdisciplinary Bachelor’s Degree program in Animal Studies. An animal ethics course for this new major was developed and Pianalto says, “I was at the right place at the right time to take on teaching responsibilities that allowed me to pursue my interests.”

In his classes at Eastern Kentucky University, Pianalto promotes awareness and understanding of the major animal rights ideas and figures, critical thinking about their arguments, and the students’ own beliefs. “Because applied ethics is focused on real-world issues and problems,” Pianalto states, “there is an inherent element of interdisciplinarity in these courses.”

“One must know things about nature, animals, the economy, and so forth that go far beyond any expertise I have as a philosopher,” Pianalto modestly says. His students who are majoring in animal studies, biology, wildlife management, economics, and the like, create an equilibrium, “so the learning often goes both ways in these classes.”

Among the many different theories in both animal ethics and environmental ethics, perhaps the most fundamental distinction to be made in both disciplines is between anthropocentrism, the belief that only human beings are owed direct moral consideration or respect, and the belief that non-humans are owed direct moral consideration or respect.

“Many, although not all, of those we think of as animal advocates and environmentalists reject anthropocentrism,” Pianalto says, “and hold that other living beings and in some cases systems of nature, species, and non-living parts of the natural world like mountains possess intrinsic or inherent value.”

Sometimes animal advocacy conflicts with environmental ethics. “Animal rights advocates focus on protecting and promoting the welfare or rights of individual animals,” Pianalto states, “but environmentalists are concerned with the health and flourishing of the whole system, including the non-animal parts of nature.”

This can lead to disagreements about issues such as hunting, factory farming, the culling of animals to manage populations, and whether endangered species deserve special consideration or protection. Along with these points of conflict, there are issues about which there can be broad agreement.

Albeit for different reasons, animal advocates and environmentalists both have strong reasons for opposing factory farming, for example, because of its negative impact on animals and the environment. Cumulatively, habitat loss caused by the human development of the earth further contributes to the rapid decline in biodiversity is a collective concern.

Another point of contention in animal ethics, environmental ethics, and also true of ethics applied to other large social and political issues, is effective action. “This is something I take seriously in the courses I teach,” Pianalto explains, “because I’m presenting college students with information about huge and complex problems such as factory farming and climate change.”

The issues at hand can be overwhelming and can invoke the feeling that there is little a single person can do to make a difference. Students often acknowledge the problems, but thinking there are no large-scale practical alternatives, they continue to participate in it and won’t commit fully to the animal rights position because it’s too impractical.

Pianalto encourages students to consider whether they should do what they think is right, what is consistent with the philosophy they accept, even if it doesn’t make a big difference. Ideals, are important to have even if living-up to them is difficult or takes a long time.

“Large-scale social problems have to be addressed at a collective level with the collaboration of many hands and voices. They require people working for environmental and animal protection groups and agencies, getting involved in politics and law, and so forth.”

“Few people will dedicate their lives to animal or environmental causes,” Pianalto remarks. “If we think those causes and their philosophies merit support, we can still try to align our personal conduct with them even if we invest our time and talents in other worthwhile activities and careers.”

Pianalto’s personal ideas are casual yet profound. He endorses the idea that animals have rights, animals have a valid claim to moral consideration, and animals do not exist merely as resources for human use and consumption. “I also extend that conception of rights as a valid claim to moral consideration to other living beings. The idea is simply that all life is owed respect, if not also, as Albert Schweitzer advocated, reverence.”

“The ideas can only be put into practice by paying attention to individuals and to the living world around us,” Pianalto believes. “By learning about animals and nature, we become increasingly aware of what it is about specific animals, plants, or places that gives them some unique value and makes them worthy of respect and reverence or love.”

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