Animal welfare ethics focuses on the morality around the treatment of non-human animals. The issue of animal welfare ethics is closely related to the concept of animal rights. The concept of animal rights can be traced back to the 18th century when philosophers and scientists first brought up the issue of animal rights. The issue elicited mixed reactions and debates. However, animal rights became an issue of both national and international public concerns during the last decade of the 20th century. The concept has since been incorporated into national legislation and laws concerning the treatment of animals. Animal welfare ethics should aim at minimizing pain in the treatment of non-human animals more so those that possess sentience.
The question of whether animals have rights is closely intertwined with the issue of animal welfare ethics. Many scholars and philosophers hold divergent opinions on the issue of animal rights. Anti-human rights scholars and philosophers such as Tibor Machan argue that rights and liberties are abstract political concepts that only apply to moral agents. They further argue that since non-human animals are not moral agents, they cannot have rights (Machan 163). Moral agents apply their rights and liberties in a moral space which is a sphere of moral jurisdiction where one’s authority to act is respected and protected (Machan 163). In the moral sphere, moral agents govern themselves without external interference. Since animals cannot fully and competently govern themselves, they cannot possess rights (Machan 164). On the other hand, pro-animal rights activists and philosophers argue that animal rights exist by the mere fact that human rights exist. Since human beings are animals and have rights and liberties, animals also have to possess inherent rights by the mere fact that they are animals like humans (Singer 2). Thus, pro-animal rights activists call for the complete respect of animal rights and the establishment of rules to regulate the welfare of animals.
Regardless of one’s position on the question of animal rights, there is a clear moral issue on the treatment and relation of animals by human beings. Machan (166) argues that human beings have domesticated animals since the Neolithic Age some 10,000 years ago. The relationship between animals and humans is by large a symbiotic relationship mainly aimed at serving the needs of human beings. Human beings domesticate and feed animals and then rely on them as their source of food. The treatment of animals is a contentious issue in the contemporary world with opinions divided on how animals should be treated. Pro-animal activists hold dear three goals including the total abolition of the use of animals in science; the total dissolution of commercial animal agriculture; and the total elimination of commercial and sport hunting and trapping (Machan 165). Conversely, anti-animal rights activists argue that animals should be used as a source of human food and be utilized as a means of advancing human medical and scientific needs. Amidst all these divergent arguments lies the issue of whether animal pain and suffering should be ignored during the use of animals as a means to serve vital human purposes.
Animal welfare ethics should focus on minimizing the pain and suffering animals are subjected to in their relation with human beings. As a utilitarian, concerning the issue of animal treatment by human beings, I am of the view that only actions that maximize pleasure and reduce pain and suffering in animals should be utilized in their treatment. Singer (5) asserts that utilitarianism defines morally right acts as those whose consequences maximize the total balance of pleasure minus pain when considering all beings affected. Therefore, utilitarianism focuses on interest satisfaction while trying to limit interest frustration. Since utilitarianism is only aimed at maximizing pleasure while minimizing pain, the ethical theory can only be applied to sentient animals. Sentience is the ability of a living thing to feel and perceive (Singer 5). For a living thing to be deemed sentient, it has to have sensory awareness or consciousness and reflective capacity to aid in its perception (Singer 6). Singer, who is a major proponent of utilitarianism in animal welfare ethics, suggests that only vertebrate animals are sentient (6). The spinal cord, which is present in all vertebrates, is what enables sensory perceptions in animals. This is because it coordinates neurons and nerves together with the brain of any given organism. Animals that lack the spinal cord such as oysters and snails are insentient. Thus, ethics and morality can only be extended to animals that are sentient and have consciousness.
The possession of sentience by non-human animals negates the basis for differential treatment of animals by human beings. Singer (7) states that sentience does not provide a morally arbitrary reason for the differential treatment of individuals or members of a given species. Sentience is not a superficial or substantive characteristic such as sex or skin color that can be observed or experimented but is rather an innate characteristic. The innate nature of sentience makes it immoral and indifferent for human beings to mistreat or subject animals to painful experiences such as torture. The interest of non-human animals with sentience has to be considered due to the existence of a semblance of moral equality between humans and those animals that possess sentience (Singer 7). The principle of the Equal Consideration of Interests has to be applied in the regulation of animal welfare. The principle holds that identical interests must be given equal moral weight regardless of the type of being they occur. Since sentient animals possess a semblance of morality that is equal to that possessed and advocated for by humans, the interests of animals have to be secured. The interests of animals have to be secured and protected in such a manner that minimizes pain and frustration on their part and maximizes pleasure and satisfaction. Singer (8) maintains that giving moral preference to the interests of members of one’s species, over identical interests of members of a different species is tantamount to speciesism. Speciesism is an unjustified bias for members of a different species and is both unethical and immoral.
That animals and human beings are factually different does not mean that humans have the moral authority to mistreat animals. Singer (8) contends that the fact that humans and animals are different does not negate the feat that they have morally similar interests to those possessed by sentient animals. Although humans possess more advanced characteristics and features such as intelligence than most animals, this does not provide a blank cheque for speciesism (Singer 8). Moral equality between species does not require the similar factual identity of the species under investigation. Generally, humans are considered equal though they are factually different with others tall and others short. If moral equality relied on factual identity, people with low intelligence capacities such as imbeciles would not be considered human. The fact that humans and animals are not equal should not be used to negate moral equality between the two species as the concept of equal treatment does not necessarily entail identical treatment (Singer 9). Singer (10) presumes that though humans have to subject animals to differential treatment due to their innate nature, they have to safeguard their interests and minimize their frustrations. I believe that humans have to treat and relate to animals in such a manner that minimizes the frustration of animals.
Even though humans still depend heavily on animals for their survival, they have to do so in a manner that is responsible and aimed at minimizing the pain and frustrations of animals. Animals are the main source of proteins for human beings. Based on U.S. livestock and poultry slaughter statistics from the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service, more than 500 million animals are slaughtered for consumption annually in the U.S. (Machan 165). Animals are also important in scientific advancement, particularly in the field of medicine as their genetic composition is close to humans than any other living organism. Machan (165) argues that most animals are used in the process of developing human drugs and medicines. The above dependence of humans on animals can be termed moral as animals enable humans to survive and to make advances in the field of medicine. The reliance of human beings on animals is justified as it increases the general welfare of humans and saves millions of lives. However, humans should take care to minimize the pain that animals undergo as they use them for their survival. Humans can minimize animals’ suffering and frustrations by outlawing all forms of animal torture and abuse.
A major objection and criticism of the utilitarianism theory of animal welfare ethics is the concept of moral equality between animals and human beings. Singer holds that sentient animals have interests that are morally equal to those of human beings (Singer 8). On the other hand, Machan (166) criticizes Singer’s argument stating that treating the interests of humans and that of animals the same way only leads to absurd consequences. Machan (167) argues that if animals’ interests were morally equal to those of animals, animals should also be given the same rights and liberties as humans such as voting and education. According to Machan, utilitarianism by declaring that both human and animal interests are morally equal only tend to unjustifiably anthropomorphize animals (163). Therefore, utilitarianism treats animals as if they are equal to human beings by equating the interests of the two species. Humans are factually different from animals. Thus, they cannot have morally equal interests as animals are not moral agents in the first place.
Animals are central to the survival of human beings, and will continue to be part of the human environment for years to come. Therefore, the relationship between humans and animals has to be one that is focused on maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain and frustration for both humans and animals. Utilitarianism provides the best ethical approach to dealing with the moral issue that arises between the relationship between humans and animals.
Machan, Tibor R. “Do animals have rights?” Public Affairs Quarterly 5.2 (1991): 163-173.
Singer, Peter. “All animals are equal.” Philosophic Exchange 5.1 (1974): 6.