Times have changed. Twenty years ago discussing the moral status of animals probably would have qualified one as a kook. Today no moral philosopher can evade the subject. But despite increased attention to ethical issues involving animals, nothing approaching a societal consensus on their moral status has emerged. Opinions currently range from the view that the lives and welfare of animals are as important as those of humans, to the view that animals have no moral status. Thus, while ethical discussions concerning human subjects of research, for example, are quite refined—resting on substantial agreement about matters such as the importance of informed consent—academic debates about animals are at a more rudimentary stage.
In this article I offer a philosophical review of (1) leading theories of the moral status of animals, (2) pivotal theoretical issues on which more progress needs to be made, and (3) applications to the setting of animal research. Such an examination demonstrates, I believe, that the practical implications of leading theories converge far more than might be expected. In addition, I hope this review helps to clarify particularly troubling issues that remain so they can be treated adequately.
General Characterization of the Debate
The philosophical debate concerning animals is anomalous for a variety of reasons. First, the ethical theories underpinning the dominant views are polarized to an unusual degree: two of the contributors most commonly cited—Peter Singer and R. G. Frey—are among the purest utilitarians in philosophy; the theory of the other—Tom Regan—features rights that are nearly absolute. Their positions therefore run counter to the current trend of trying to bridge the gap between utilitarianism and rights theories (see, e.g., Griffin (1986), Sumner (1987), and Beauchamp and Childress (1989)) or at least to modify a version of one to bring it normatively closer to the other.1
Also striking is the fact that there is no well-developed theory explicitly addressing the moral status of animals that supports such current practices as factory farming, animal research, and hunting. No philosopher who has developed his or her views to the point of publishing a book on the subject has vindicated the status quo. Michael A. Fox did write a book calling for only modest reforms in current animal research practices (Fox 1986), but his argumentation was severely criticized. Within a year, he recanted his views and joined those opposing the status quo (Fox 1987). Widely perceived to be a staunch opponent of the animal welfare movement, R. G. Frey is often invited to conferences as the sole opponent of Singer, Regan, and others considered radically proanimal. Yet while Frey vigorously opposes Regan's argumentation for animal rights, his own argumentation suggests he is almost an antivivisectionist (see, e.g., Frey (1987a)). This surprising clustering of the leading theorists on the side of animal welfare changes the meaning of "radical," "moderate," and "conservative" as one moves from society at large—which generally accepts meat eating, for example—to the academic arena of animal ethics.
Some will no doubt argue that I note this convergence too quickly, that I have overlooked lesser known philosophical efforts that attempt to justify more conservative positions on these issues. They will most likely point to articles by Carl Cohen and H. J. McCloskey, whose positions I will briefly summarize later, indicating why I do not think they represent significant contributions.
Another distinctive feature of this debate is a relative dearth of rigorous, sustained philosophical exploration. Not enough is done in the way of conceptual analysis, moral epistemology, the philosophy of mind, the philosophy of science, and so on. (One understandable reason for this is a desire on the part of some writers to reach a much wider audience than academic philosophy.)2 In my opinion only five authors have made a significant philosophical contribution to the endeavor of placing animals in ethical theory: Singer, Frey, Regan, Mary Midgley, and S. F. Sapontzis.3
The First Generation: Singer, Frey, and Regan
What I call "the first generation" of theories consists of the views of Singer, Frey, and Regan. Despite their differences, they are all, in an important sense, philosophically mainstream. First, working in the tradition of liberal...