Ethics & Animal Rights

“The question is not, Can they reason? Nor can they talk? But, can they suffer?”

– Jeremy Bentham

Imagine growing up in 18th century America. Your family might own slaves, your friends’ families might own slaves, and it would be entirely normal to grow up around slaves. Most people did not worry about the ethics of slavery, until the Abolitionists came along and made it an issue.1

It’s probable that you and I wouldn’t have kicked up a fuss about it. Protesting would have risked social ostracisation.

In the same way that people didn’t think of black people as people until somebody else forced them to look at what was right in front of them, most people didn’t think of animals as worthy of moral consideration until Peter Singer came along and sparked the animal liberation movement in the West. It’s still a minority view. I grew up eating meat; my friends all eat meat; my parents grew up eating meat; and so on. Eating meat is normal.

This will eventually change.

The more you examine it, the more our attitude to animals seems logically inconsistent.2 Most people would be outraged if they were out in the park walking their dog, and some random stranger came up to them and shot the dog dead. But when it’s someone else killing an animal after putting it up in living conditions that amount to torture, we look the other way.

Perhaps, however, you would kill an animal yourself for the sole purpose of eating it. If this is true, I’m still willing to bet that you wouldn’t kill and eat a human. So there must be some important distinction between humans and animals, such that eating animals is OK but eating humans isn’t.

But what is that distinction? It can’t be intelligence, because otherwise eating infant babies would be OK. The obvious answer is that we don’t want to harm things that feel pain, and humans feel pain. But so do animals. If harming one is wrong, then harming the other is wrong too.

‘The circle of empathy’ has widened over time. Society went from only valuing the preferences of certain classes of people, and ignoring the preferences of other classes of people (brown people, black people, gay people etc.), to treating all humans equally. I think eventually we’ll come to realize that animals, too, should be included in that circle. There is no good reason to exclude them.

Further Reading

  • I highly recommend Peter Singer’s work. All of the above is basically an informal statement of his philosophically rigorous case.
  • A great exploration using the medium of short fiction is done by JM Coetzee in his Tanner Lecture ‘The Lives of Animals’.
  • Jonathan Safran Foer explores the broader questions nicely in his book Eating Animals.


  1. A few weeks after writing this, I came across the late Aaron Swartz’s essay, ‘Against Reflective Equilibrium‘, which takes a similar line of argument. It’s a common manuever, so the similarity isn’t that surprising, but it’s still striking.
  2. Amusing example from David Foster Wallace (pdf):

    “It occurs to me that I had bacon yesterday and am even now looking forward to my first corn dog of the fair. I’m standing here wringing my hands over a distressed swine and then I’m going to go pound down a corn dog(…) I can imagine what (the swineherders) think of us, cooing at the swine: we fairgoers don’t have to deal with the business of breeding and feeding our meat; our meat simply materializes at the corn-dog stand, allowing us to separate our healthy appetites from fur and screams and rolling eyes. We tourists get to indulge our tender animal-rights feelings with our tummies full of bacon…”

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