restricted access 7. Animals in Moral Space
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THE NEED TO RESITUATE ANIMALS IN ETHICS The idea that nonhuman animals have some kind of moral status has hovered on the fringes of philosophical discourse for quite some time. Since the beginnings of both Western and Eastern thought, there have been voices willing to affirm that animals are unique beings that should be treated with decency and respect. Apart from the edicts of emperors and selective scriptural injunctions, however, such precepts were kept alive by only a few eccentric thinkers until the enactment of the first humane (or anti-cruelty) statutes in various constituencies during the seventeenth century and those following. These regulations made minor inroads into human beings’ consciousness of their abusive, exploitative and oppressive treatment of animals. But recently, some scholars have argued that even anti-cruelty laws regard animals for the most part as property, as things or, at best, as expendable resources that merely require some special handling in order to prevent what’s designated as “unnecessary suffering” (i.e., suffering in excess of what is required in order to fulfill particular human goals). A growing number of people believe that this is not good enough: animals deserve to be the subjects of moral concern for their own sake. Consequently , in the past few decades there has been a variety of attempts to find a way to integrate nonhuman animals into the moral sphere. The dominant strategy for achieving this objective has been to re-examine the criteria for moral considerability that are implicit in traditional normative moral theories, then see whether animals measure up to these 145 7 Animals in Moral Space michael allen fox lesley mclean 146 Michael Allen Fox and Lesley McLean and, if they do, significant moral standing can legitimately be extended to them. A classical utilitarian approach, for example, looks for evidence of pain and suffering in members of other species and, if identified, these indicators qualify such creatures as sentient beings whose experiences count, morally speaking, and should be factored into our determination of which outcomes we should pursue or avoid. A rights approach, on the other hand, tries to discern signs of mental life that go beyond sentience, perhaps even as far as personhood. Nonhuman animals that exhibit such signs have earned a degree of moral status that compels us to bestow certain fundamental moral and/or legal rights upon them. These approaches are of value to the extent that they do not just seek to figure nonhumans as being, or being like, failed, marginal or second-rate humans, but instead give due recognition to the basic needs of organisms that, while different in their welfare (or quality of life) requirements, are nonetheless constituted in many respects like ourselves. All such ethical approaches must be regarded as preliminary, however, for the reason that we do not yet know very much about the mental lives of animals, nor have we learned to decipher much about their systems of communication. A moral outlook that is adequate to the complex behaviour and experiences of animals, and that stands a chance of being durable and gaining widespread acceptance, is still very far in the future. A NEW DIRECTION The viewpoint advanced in this essay is that humans must develop a new image of what nonhuman animals are like, and correspondingly develop new ideas about how we ought to relate to them. But in order to provide a foothold for a new ethics that adequately embraces animals, a radical alteration in our conception of moral reasoning is needed. All too often and too predictably, moral arguments are treated as if there is some “objective ” set of considerations that, ideally at least, will settle a dispute or resolve a dilemma. It may be difficult to locate, but that is nonetheless the point and purpose of ethical problem-solving, according to the received opinion. We believe this assumption is mistaken in general, and that it has led animal ethics in the wrong direction in particular. This is not the place to conduct a full-scale critique of ethical theorizing, however; we are concerned here only with how we ought to reflect on our relationship with members of other species. A different standard of relevance has to be adopted. We propose that the way into the real world of human/animal interactions is through opening ourselves to a complex kind of seeing and feeling. Most of the moral context in which animals’ lives are played out has been missed by...


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Subject Headings

  • Animal welfare.
  • Animal welfare -- Moral and ethical aspects.
  • Human-animal relationships.
  • Animal rights.
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