The Moral Status of Animals

Author: Jason Wyckoff
Category: Ethics
Word Count: 942

Human beings interact with non-human animals in a variety of ways. Some animals, like dogs, cats, and hamsters, live in our homes under our care. Others, like mice, often live in our homes as unwelcome residents. Still others, like cows, pigs, and chickens, are bred for human consumption of their flesh, milk, or eggs. Other animals are experimented on by humans in laboratories, hunted by humans for sport, or used for entertainment purposes in circuses, zoos, and films.

Some people believe that at least some—maybe all—of these interactions are morally problematic, while others believe that at least some—maybe all—of them are morally permissible (meaning not wrong). Here, we will examine the range of viewpoints on the ethics of human-animal relations, and explore some reasons in support of each view.

Adam naming the animals
Adam naming the animals

1. Exceptionalism: No Moral Duties to Animals

We can distinguish between three sets of views on the moral status of animals, arranged on a spectrum. At one end of this spectrum is exceptionalism, according to which non-human animals have no moral status, and humans owe no direct duties to animals. (In other words, humans are exceptional, and any moral duties involving animals are derivative; if it’s wrong to injure your dog, it’s only because doing so wrongs you and not because it wrongs your dog.) Exceptionalists hold that animals fail to satisfy some necessary condition for being moral subjects—those to whom moral duties are owed. Exceptionalists might, for example, believe that moral duties are determined by a social contract and that animals, because they cannot enter into contracts, are excluded. Or they might believe that in order to have morally considerable interests one must have preferences, or be able to articulate moral claims, or have a capacity to reason about ethics, and that animals lack the relevant feature or capacity (see Carruthers 1992; Cohen 1986; Frey 1979). We can put the argument this way:

  1. We have moral obligations to an individual if and only if that individual has some particular property P.
  2. All human beings have P.
  3. The non-human animals in question (dogs, pigs, cows, mice, chickens, etc.) all lack property P.
  4. Therefore, we owe moral duties to human beings, but not to non-human animals.

The exceptionalist’s task is to tell us what P is and why it’s morally significant.

2. Duties to Animals: Abolitionism and Welfarism

At the other extreme is abolitionism, according to which non-human animals have a moral status that is incompatible with the use of animals as the resources of human beings, and animal use must therefore be abolished (see Francione 2000, Regan 1983). Abolitionists are committed to veganism—the abandonment of practices that involve the instrumentalization of animals for humans’ ends. Arguments for abolitionism will be explored below.

All views in between exceptionalism and abolitionism are versions of welfarism. Welfarists reject the exceptionalists’ claim that we owe no direct duties to animals, but are not opposed to using animals as resources provided that the animals are not made to suffer unnecessarily. Obviously, there is room for tremendous variation among welfarists, depending on how they each elucidate notions like “unnecessary suffering.” Some welfarists are vegans or vegetarians, while many others engage in or support animal farming, hunting, or animal experimentation.

3. Arguments for Abolitionism and Welfarism

Abolitionists and welfarists may argue as follows: for any criterion (intelligence, self-awareness, ability to use language, etc.), there are some humans who lack this trait to at least the same degree that many non-human animals lack it. If it’s wrong to treat those humans in the ways that we treat non-human animals, then it seems arbitrary to think that we are morally permitted to treat animals in those ways, since the only difference between the two kinds of beings (human and non-human animal) is species membership, which doesn’t seem morally relevant in itself since “species” is a biological category, not a moral one (see Norcross 2004; Singer 1990).

That argument, if sound, would answer the exceptionalist. But what might abolitionists and welfarists say in support of their own positions? Consider a simple example of an argument that animals matter morally:

  1. Animals can experience pain.
  2. Pain is bad.
  3. It is wrong to impose something bad on any being without a good reason for doing so.
  4. Therefore it is wrong to cause pain to animals without a good reason.

If this or some similar argument is persuasive, then our moral duties to animals will depend on what counts as a good reason for causing pain (cf. Bentham 1988 [1781], 310-11). Here, abolitionists and welfarists might disagree. Welfarists might, for example, think that if animal experimentation leads to cures for deadly human diseases, then animal experimentation is morally justified because there is a good reason behind the pain caused to animals. Abolitionists maintain that there is not a good enough reason in this case, and the evidence for that claim is that we would think it’s wrong to cause a similar amount of pain to a population of humans against their will in order to develop cures for the same diseases (Marks 2012).

Abolitionists and welfarists also frequently disagree about whether premature death is bad for animals in the same way that it is bad for humans. Many welfarists believe that if animals cannot think about their futures, then they cannot be harmed by being (painlessly) killed. Abolitionists tend to hold that an animal can have an interest in her future even if she cannot contemplate her future, and so being killed can be bad for that animal. Therefore, abolitionists tend to oppose even the painless killing of animals for human purposes (see Francione and Garner 2010).

4. Conclusion

The moral status of animals is complex and contested terrain; unsurprisingly, there are more than two sides to the debate (see, e.g., MacKinnon 2005 and Adams 2010 for additional perspectives). Here, we have sketched the contours of that debate. Hopefully, this sketch will inspire the reader to consider the issue further, beginning with the works below.


Adams, Carol J. 2010. The Sexual Politics of Meat: 20th Anniversary Edition. New York and London: Continuum.

Bentham, Jeremy. 1988 [1781]. The Principles of Morals and Legislation. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Carruthers, Peter. 1992. The Animals Issue: Moral Theory in Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cohen, Carl. 1986. “The Case for the Use of Animals in Biomedical Research,” The New England Journal of Medicine, vol. 315.

Francione, Gary L. 2000. Introduction to Animal Rights: Your Child or the Dog? Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Francione, Gary L. and Garner, Robert. 2010. The Animal Rights Debate: Abolition or Regulation? New York: Columbia University Press.

Frey, R.G. 1979. “Rights, Interests, Desires and Beliefs,” American Philosophical Quarterly 16:3.

MacKinnon, Catharine. 2005. “Of Mice and Men: A Feminist Fragment on Animal Rights,” in Martha Nussbaum and Cass Sunstein (eds.), Animal Rights: Current Debates and New Directions. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Marks, Joel. 2012. “Accept No Substitutes: The Ethics of Alternatives,” Animal Research Ethics: Evolving Views and Practices, Hastings Center Report Special Report 42:6.

Norcross, Alastair. 2004. “Puppies, Pigs, and People,” Philosophical Perspectives 18.

Regan, Tom. 1983. The Case for Animal Rights. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Singer, Peter. 1990. Animal Liberation, 2nd Edition. New York: New York Review of Books.

Related Essays

Speciesism by Dan Lowe

Theories of Moral Considerability: Who and What Matters Morally? by Jonathan Spelman

“Can They Suffer?”: Bentham on our Obligations to Animals by Daniel Weltman

The Badness of Death by Duncan Purves

(Im)partiality by Shane Gronholz

Applied Ethics by Chelsea Haramia

Principlism in Biomedical Ethics: Respect for Autonomy, Non-Maleficence, Beneficence, and Justice by G. M. Trujillo, Jr.

About the Author

Jason Wyckoff is an Associate Instructor of Philosophy at the University of Utah. He earned a PhD in philosophy at the University of Colorado Boulder, a JD at Georgetown University Law Center, and a BA from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Over the past several years he has published in the areas of ethics, social and political philosophy, feminist philosophy, and philosophy of religion. He has a taste for Scotch and a budget for Canadian whisky.

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