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Fiona Ouma
Introduction to Ethics
April 22, 2015
Moral Status of Animals
Introduction
One year ago, I would not have considered writing a paper on the moral status of animals.
This is because I believed that there were other important tangible issues to discuss such as
poverty, our education system, gender equality, or homosexuality. Today, I am surprised that I
am eager to explore this topic. Part of my interest is sparked by the fact that this has been a
controversial topic lately, not just in the United States, but internationally. This topic has also
come up in my sociology classes and ignited a great debate every time. This paper will define
the moral status of animals, discuss relevant facts about moral status of animals, and explain why
this is such a debatable topic today. This paper will also discuss Utilitarian and Kantian ethics
and how they can be applied to the above animal welfare issue. I will also include my personal
viewpoints to add on to the discussion. I will argue that animals have a moral status and thus
they should have rights that promote their safety and well-being.
Explanation of the Moral Status of Animals
When discussing animal ethics, it is almost impossible to not compare humans to
animals. If I was to choose between saving a human being and an animal, with no hesitation I
will choose the former. However, that does not mean that I should disregard the feelings of
animals. Like the author of Animals Capacities and Moral Status, I strongly agree that
animals have the ability to feel pain and undergo other positive and aversive experiences;
[which] means that they have an experiential well-beinghaving an experiential well-being is

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sufficient for moral status.1 Simply said, because animals can express emotions and react to
certain experiences grants them a moral status just like humans.
To dive into the reasons why moral status of animals is such a controversial topics, it is
necessary to have a working definition for this paper. Mary Anne Warren provides a suitable
definition that states to have a moral status is to be an entity towards which moral agents have,
or can have, moral obligations. If an entity has moral status, then we may not treat it just in any
way we please; we are morally obliged to give weight in our deliberations to its needs, interests
or well-being. Furthermore, we are obliged to do this not merely because protecting it may
benefit ourselves or other persons, but because its needs have moral importance in their own
right.2 This topic is an ethical issue because people still continue to debate whether animals
have a moral status or not which sets a foundation on how people treat animals.
Explanation of Utilitarianism and Kantianism
As mentioned earlier, this paper will discuss two theories, the first one being utilitarianism. The
idea of utilitarianism was first written by Jeremy Betham (1748-1832) who was an English
philosopher.3 Betham studied law and was a leader of philosophers in England where his goal
was to modify laws according to his utilitarian beliefs. Unfortunately, Bethan died at an early
age of 26.4 However, the concepts of utilitarianism were further explored by John Stuart Mill

1 Palmer, Clare. Animal Ethics in Context. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010, 9.
2 Ibid
3 Rachels, James, and Stuart Rachels. The Elements of Moral Philosophy. 7th ed. New York:
McGraw-Hill, 2012, 98.

4 Rachels, James. The Right Thing to Do: Basic Readings in Moral Philosophy. 6th ed. New
York: McGraw-Hill, 2012, 28-29.

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(1806-1873) who knew Bethan relatively well. Mill wrote a book called Utilitarianism which is
widely used by students who study ethics.5
According to John Stuart Mill, utilitarianism is The creed which accepts as the foundations of
morals, utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as
they tend to promote happiness and wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.6 In
this definition, Mill defines happiness as pleasure (which includes the ability to feel good).7
Happiness is also the lack of pain.8
There are three main points of classical utilitarianism. The first one is that all that matters in
morality is the consequences promoted by an action. The intention behind the action or action
itself is not important, what matters is strictly the consequences of an action. The second main
point is that happiness is the only thing that matters. The third point is that each persons
happiness counts the same.9 For instance, when faced with challenges, someone cannot put their
familys happiness over that of a stranger.
In Act Utilitarianism, if someone was in a dilemma or they had a list of actions that they should
choose from, act utilitarianism requires them to carry out the action that would generate net
happiness. To decide which action promotes the most happiness, someone has to count the

5 Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, 98-99.


6 Rachels, The Right Thing to Do: Basic Readings in Moral Philosophy, 29.
7 Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, 111.
8 Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, 129.
9 Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, 110.

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happiness of the people involved and weigh them equally. The action that makes most people
happy is the one that should be performed.10
In relation to the topic of discussion, below is a chart that shows how utilitarians would evaluate
if animals should have a moral status or not. A scale of 1-5 is used to determine the animals
happiness with 5 being the most happiness.
Those affected

Treat animals with respect,


protect, and love them

Mistreat animals, be
inconsiderate of their feelings

Domesticated animals
Wild animals in the jungle
Wild animals in the zoo
Humans
Total

5
3.5
4.5
3
16

0
2
1.5
2
5.5

Based on the total, protecting animals and treating them with respect and love would generate a
net happiness of 16 which is more than 5.5 which would be gained if animals were mistreated.
Utilitarians would therefore conclude that animals should be treated well because that promotes
the most happiness among the animals and also humans.
The second theory is called Kantian ethics. As the name suggests, the ideas of
Kantianism were designed by Immanuel Kant who was one of the most popular German
Philosopher who lived between 1724 and 1804.11 Kant argued that there are two types of
imperatives: hypothetical and the categorical. In hypothetical imperative, people need to do
certain tasks in order to achieve their desires. For instance, if a student wants to graduate with
honors, then they have to work hard in their academics.12 Categorical imperative on the other
hand has a demanding moral obligation which does not take our desires into account. Instead,
10 Ibid
11 Rachels, The Right Thing to Do: Basic Readings in Moral Philosophy, 59.
12 Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, 128.

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categorical imperative stipulates what people ought to do despite their desires. For instance,
instead of telling people not to commit murder because they will be punished. The moral
obligation in categorical imperative requires people not to commit murder, period.13
The categorical imperative has two versions: universal law formulation and humanity
formulation. The first version states, act only according to that maxim by which you can at the
same time will that it should become a universal law.14 In other words, Kant is suggesting that
people should only perform the actions that they would be perfectly fine with if those actions
were made a universal law. And of course that means that if someone would not will for
everyone to repeat their actions, then they should not do those actions in the first instance. For
instance, if someone wanted to steal, they would have to be fine with others stealing even from
them. If they are not fine with that, then they should not steal. The humanity formulation says,
act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an
end and never as a means only.15 This formulation basically forbids us from taking advantage
of other people because others have values and they deserve respect just like we do.
Application of Utilitarianism and Kantianism to Moral Status of Animals
Several philosophers have different takes on this controversial debate about the moral status of
animals. Utilitarians argue that we should consider the interests of all beings, human and nonhuman.16 As mentioned earlier, utilitarians are mainly concerned about promoting the greatest
happiness possible; this is not limited to humans only. For utilitarians, what matters is not
13 Ibid
14 Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, 129.
15 Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, 137.
16 Rachels, The Right Thing to Do: Basic Readings in Moral Philosophy, 116.

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whether an animal has a soulall that matters is whether it [animal] can experience happiness
and unhappiness.17
Betham and Mill, the founders of utilitarianism, also acknowledged that there are
fundamental differences between humans and animals which determines the different ways of
treatment between the two. They argued that human beings have intellectual capacities that
enable them to enjoy certain things such as literature, mathematics, and strategy games that
animals cannot enjoy. They believed that humans can enjoy these special activities while putting
into consideration how they treat animals because animals suffering counts equally as human
suffering.18
Betham and Mill compared human beings to animals. They asked, If a human is tormented,
why is it wrong? [then answered,] Because that person suffers. Similarly, if a nonhuman is
tormented, it also suffers. Whether it is a human or an animal that suffers is just as irrelevant as
whether the animal is black or white. To Betham and Mill, humans and nonhumans are equally
entitled to moral concern.19 They strongly believed that since animals can suffer, humans have
to put animals into considerations while making decisions.20
On the other hand, Kantians have different beliefs concerning the moral status of animals.
Immanuel Kant, the founder of deontology or kantian ethics believed that humans have no direct
obligations to animals. He thought that animals are there to be used as a means to an end; that

17 Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, 106.


18 Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, 107.
19 Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, 106.
20 Ibid

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end being man21. As mentioned earlier, using someone as a means to an end simply means that
you can take advantage of them and not respect their feelings or values. So according to Kant, it
is fine to use animals as a means. In fact, Kant said that we may therefore, use animals in any
way that we please. We dont even have a direct duty to refrain from torturing them.22 Kant
saw animals as mans instruments worthy of protection in order to help humans with their
relationship with each other.23
Despite his views that seem to favor humans more than animals, Kant was still against animal
abuse. However, it was not because he was concerned about animals suffering. Kant was
worried about how humans would turn if they mistreated animals.24 To capture his concern, he
said, he who is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men.25 So in other
words, Kant was concerned that if humans were cruel to animals, they would transfer their
cruelty towards their fellow humans.
Discussion
Utilitarian and Kantian ethics have extremely different viewpoints in regards to the subject of
moral status of animals. Personally, my views on the issue align most with utilitarianism.
Utilitarianism challenge the assumption that human beings alone are worthy of moral
consideration and insist that the moral community must be expanded to include all the creatures

21 Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, 136.


22 Ibid
23 Sunstein, Cass R. Animal Rights: Current Debates and New Directions. Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 2004, 3.

24 Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, 136.


25 Sunstein, Cass R. Animal Rights: Current Debates and New Directions, 3.

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whose interests can be affected by what we do.26 I think that since we share this world with
non-human animals and other living things such as plants, we should always be aware of how
our actions affect everything around us. In regards to animals, they have experiential life which
means that they give birth to live ones, most of them take care of their young ones and are
protective of their surroundings, and they definitely express emotions when they are subjected to
experiences that are hurtful and un-normal from their regular lifestyles. So I think it is extremely
disrespectful to expose animals to situations that takes away their moral status. I agree with
utilitarians when they say thatthere can be no moral justification for regarding the pain (or
pleasure) that animals feel as less important than the same amount of pain (or pleasure) felt by
humans.27 Humans and animals have different experiences because their anatomy,
surroundings, and values are different. And I think it is unfair to disregard animals feelings
simply because they are not humans. As long as they experience pleasure and pain, their feelings
need to be put into consideration by humans.
I find it hard to identify with kantian views on this issue because I do not agree with their
reasoning and also I find their ideas contradictory. Kant thought that animals are too primitive
to have self-conscious desires and goals.28 He also believed that human beings are the only
rational agents that exist on earth; non-human animals lack free will, and they dont guide their
conduct by reason because their natural capacities are too limited.29 I completely disagree with
the above statements by Kant. First, we it is unfair to compare humans to animals because we
26 Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, 108-109.
27 Rachels, The Right Thing to Do: Basic Readings in Moral Philosophy, 124.
28 Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, 137.
29 Ibid

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have completely different experiences and environments. Some of the things that humans are
interested in include the use of technology and attainment of formal education. However, these
two things might be irrelevant in an animals life experience. However, that does not mean that
animals are primitive and lack goals as Kant mentioned. Animals might have their own goals
that are important to them and with the goals have their own rational ways to achieve those
goals. I think saying that animals dont guide their conduct by reason is a very generalized
statements. There are many animals who are very reasonable and that can be seen in the way
they live and interact with other animals. And Kantian ethics really makes me wonder how Kant
defined moral status. This is because his argument seems to be mainly focused on reason with a
complete disregard to feelings that the animals might experience when subjected to different
conditions.
Conclusion
In this paper, I explored the issue of moral status of animals by first explaining the key points
about utilitarianism and Kantianism. I also examined how utilitarian and kantian ethics would be
applied in the discussion of the moral status of animals. I discovered that utilitarians and
kantians have extremely opposite standpoints on this issue. I preferred the utilitarian viewpoints
because I believe that animals should have a moral status just like humans. This is because
animals experience pleasure and given a choice they would rather avoid pain.

Bibliography
Palmer, Clare. Animal Ethics in Context. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.

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Rachels, James, and Stuart Rachels. The Elements of Moral Philosophy. 7th ed. New
York: McGraw-Hill, 2012.
Rachels, James. The Right Thing to Do: Basic Readings in Moral Philosophy. 6th ed.
New York: McGraw-Hill, 2012.
Sunstein, Cass R. Animal Rights: Current Debates and New Directions. Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 2004.