Environmental Ethics: the Case for Animal Rights

Subject: Sociology
Pages: 15
Words: 3891
Reading time:
14 min
Study level: College


The evolution of the society is partly reflected in the transformation of people’s attitudes toward animals. Modern philosophers and thinkers continuously raise questions about the ethical obligations of a person towards different biological species. Thus, it is vital to assess the models developed by different researchers and animal rights advocates.

Moral Issues

Prior to critiquing different theories, I would like to discuss various ethical questions that can reflect some of my principles and convictions. For instance, I would like to mention animal hunting and trapping. In most cases, I would strongly object to such practices because I cannot tolerate the cruel treatment of animals just for the purpose of entertainment. In this case, one can hardly speak about any utilitarian ideas such as the pursuit of the greater good. Moreover, this practice cannot be accepted even if people follow the principles of fair chaise.

In other words, they may leave the animal a certain loophole for escaping. Yet, it seems to me that even this form of hunting should be legally prohibited. Certainly, one should also speak about hunting practices which play a critical for the sustainability of many families living in less advanced countries. In my view, such activities can be partly accepted because they can be explained by economic conditions. Additionally, I can tolerate the hunting of animals provided that they pose a threat to the lives of people. For instance, it is possible to mention the hunting of various predators. However, such cases are mostly the exceptions from the rule.

Another contested issue is the use of animal for research. Certainly, scientists can mention the need to test new drugs. In this way, they can identify potential after-effects of a certain drug. Additionally, vivisection of animals can be required in order to help medical students develop their skills. Nevertheless, modern scientists try to find alternatives to this practice. For example, one can speak about the use of tissue engineering or the development of in-vitro organs. This is why such practices should be reduced to the minimum.

However, in some cases, the experiments conducted by researchers do not have any practical value. For instance, in the past, there were many studies during monkeys could simply be staffed into metal tubes for approximately a month. The goal of the study was to understand how these primates will respond to these experiences. It seems to me that the duty of legislators is to prohibit such studies. Moreover, animal studies should be scrutinized by ethics committees; their task is to make sure that animals are not exposed to any unnecessary suffering.

Eating animals is another topic that is often debated by vegetarians and non-vegetarians. I am not a vegetarian, and it is rather difficult for me to criticize people who may be eating animals. Nevertheless, there are some important restrictions that one should accept. In particular, people should not eat the meat of animals that are considered to be endangered species. In my view, this behavior is both cruel and irresponsible. Additionally, people should make sure that animals that are raised for slaughter are not exposed to any suffering. Therefore, it is important to adopt strict regulations that provide guidelines for their treatment.

There are many questions related to the maintenance of animals. Overall, I should first mention that I have often kept cats as pets. Therefore, I cannot object to such practices. Nevertheless, I have sometimes observed the cruel treatment of pets, especially dogs. Certainly, it may be difficult to put a stop to such practices. However, it seems to me that people, who act in this way, deserve condemnation. Moreover, much attention should be paid to the role played by zoos.

In my view, this issue has several important dimensions. On the one hand, zoos can be important for the preservation of various endangered species such as black rhinoceros or Philippine eagles. Nevertheless, I would like to emphasize that animals should not exposed to discomfort. For example, many of them are forced to live in cages. This is why I would support the idea of establishing wild animal parks. In this way, people can significantly improve the experiences of animals.

Anthropocentric approach to the treatment of animals

Kantian rationality

The ethical obligations of human beings were of great concern to Immanuel Kant. Nevertheless, this prominent thinker argues that the moral obligations of a person should be extended only to rational beings, in other words; he refers only other people. As far as human interactions, Kant lays stress on the principle that a person must not be viewed as “a means to be arbitrarily used” for reaching a certain goal (Kant 55). He adopts the deontological approach which implies that a person should adhere to the rules which can be accepted as universal law.

Nevertheless, these duties are not extended to animals, regardless of their differences. In his opinions, people’s ethical obligations to animals are only “indirect duties to humanity” (Kant 56). Kant’s views can be critiqued for several reasons. First, the intelligence of various biological organisms is currently discussed by scientists who note that this topic has not been fully investigated. Furthermore, Kant’s emphasis can lead to very cruel practices. For instance, one can mention the forced euthanasia of people who may have some mental disabilities. This is one of the problems imbedded in Kant’s anthropocentrism.

Narveson’s views on animal rights

The anthropocentric approach to the treatment of non-human animal is also advocated by Jan Narveson. This thinker claims that ethics is driven primarily by human self-interest. In his view, humanity is the main criterion which can give a living organism the right to moral worth. Other species that do not meet this criterion do not have any moral values, even though they can differ in terms of behavior and intelligence. Overall, this philosopher adopts the consequentialist approach to ethics according to which the actions of a person should be evaluated by the effects that they produce.

Therefore, a person may avoid doing harm to non-human animals, only if this behavior brings distinct benefits to him/her. For instance, this individual may refrain from eating meat in order to protect one’s health (Narveson 193). This thinker does not differentiate animals in terms of their moral value. The problem is that the interests and desires of a person are not necessarily shared by other people. For instance, some people treat animals in a sadistic way. In this way, they do not directly harm other people. However, Jan Narveson’s model does not explicitly condone this behavior, and this drawback significantly undermines its validity.


Guthrie also focuses on the idea that ethics is supposed to govern the interactions between human beings. Similarly to Jan Narveson, Guthrie focuses on humanity as the criterion which distinguishes entities that are entitled to moral worth. This scholar explicitly notes that such entities as non-human living beings such as weeds, wolves or deer can be viewed as “amoral bodies” (Guthrie 283).

Additionally, Guthrie believes that by accepting ethical obligations to non-human animals, people can create unnecessary challenges for themselves. This author justifies his position by relying on the utilitarian ethics according to which it is necessary to maximize the benefits received by different stakeholders. Still, Guthrie’s approach shares limitations with the model advanced by Jan Narveson since it does not prohibit the cruel treatment of animals.

William Baxter

The anthropocentric model is also advocated by William Baxter. In his opinion, humanity is the main cut-off point that marks the differences between moral and amoral beings. Therefore, non-human animals can be viewed only as instruments that should serve the interests of human beings (Baxter 2). This philosopher does not provide clear guidelines for differentiating the moral weight of entities that are above the cut-off point.

The author accepts the premise that in some cases, the minimization of harm done to animals is beneficial to human beings. For example, people can minimize waste in order to reduce risks to their health. At the same time, such activities are important for the preservation of wildlife. Nevertheless, this author lays stress on the premise that such activities should not be regarded as the obligations that can be imposed on people. Again, this model does not eliminate the cruel treatment of animals.

Rodey Peffer

In turn, Rodney Peffer points out that the anthropocentric interpretation of animal rights can be dangerous because it does not even eliminate doing harm to other human beings. This argument is partially relevant if one speaks about Kantian emphasis on rationality as the main cut-off point. Furthermore, this scholar points out that the anthropocentric view is partly based on the agreement between different members of the community. Nevertheless, the notion of the social contract does not eliminate the possibility that people can assume some ethical obligations to non-human animals.

Animal liberation

Peter Singer

Peter Singer advances a new approach that can be applied for the treatment of non-human animals. This thinker rejects such criteria as rationality and humanity because they do not fully reflect the behavior of non-human animals. Instead, he attaches more importance to sentience or ability to perceive and feel (Singer 7). In this context, Peter Singer focuses on the ability to feel pain. In turn, the moral weight of different animals should be evaluated according to their ability to perceive pain. Admittedly, Peter Singer considers the needs of human beings as the top-most priorities. Nevertheless, this author cannot explain how one can categorize different living organisms in terms of their sentience.


Gary Varner believes that Peter Singer’s model provides better protection to non-human animals (163). To a great extent, this model is much more inclusive than the anthropocentric approach. However, Gary Varner also points out that Singer’s reasoning is based on utilitarian principles. This logic can be used to justify various acts, even a murder if it serves a certain higher purpose.

Rodney Peffer

In turn, Rodney Peffer notes that scientists may not be able to measure the ability to feel pain. For example, one can speak different organisms that have a rather primitive nervous system. The main issue is that at present, researchers have not gain deep insights into such a question as the perception of pain. Some living organisms may not have mechanisms for displaying their response to pain. Nevertheless, one should not suppose that the moral weight of such entities should be viewed as something negligible.

Strong Animal rights theory

Tom Regan

Tom Regan sets a new platform for advocating the rights of animals. He introduces such a concept as subject of a live. This notion indicates that certain animals have distinct goals such as self-preservation, nutrition, or reproduction. These living organisms tend to avoid those factors that cause pain (Regan 149). This behavior can be observed among various species. Thus, one can say that being a subject of life is the main cut-off point.

However, the author does not provide clear guidelines that can show how a person should treat different entities that are above the cut-off point. Overall, Tom Regan relies on deontological ethics according to which is not permissible to use other people as instruments for achieving a certain goal. The main distinction is that Tom Regan expands the scope of a person’s ethical duties. The main weakness of this theory is that such a notion as subject of life does not have specific categories that can be considered by people who use animals.

Gary Varmer

Gary Varmer pays much attention to the ideas expressed by Tom Regan. In particular, he raises a concern that the criterion identified by Tom Regan can actually become very exclusionary. The problem is that a very few biological organisms can fit this category. In this case, one should speak primarily about human beings and other species with a highly-developed nervous system. The behavior of such organisms has a certain pattern that appears to be understandable to researchers. This is one of the limitations that this author distinguishes.

Rodney Peffer

The lack of clarity in Tom Regan’s theory also attracts the attention of Rodney Peffer. In particular, this scholar mentions that this model does not clear guidelines for evaluating the worth of various living entities. This lack of clarity can become particularly problematic when it is necessary to weigh the interests of human beings and other biological species. Moreover, Tom Regan’s model is not quite clear regarding such an issue as inherent value of a living entity.

Weaker animal rights theory

Bernard Rollin

Many scholars attempt to reconcile the need for humane treatment of animals and people’s interests. For example, Bernard Rollin explores this issue from an economic perspective. This author recognizes the need to use animals for various agricultural purposes. Moreover, this author admits that producers can be driven by the need to improve their efficiency and reduce costs (Rollin 76). Nevertheless, this philosopher relies on the principle that it is necessary to minimize the harm done to animals.

Bernard Rollin does not distinguish any criteria that can mark living entities which are eligible for moral rights. Moreover, he does not mention the way in which the moral weight of a living entity should be evaluated. Admittedly, this approach does not provide clear guidelines for making ethical decisions about the treatment of non-human animals. Nevertheless, this approach is non-exclusionary; in other words, no biological specie can be treated as a mere object on the basis of its intelligence or the development of the nervous system.

Mary Ann Warren

Mary Warren offers a critique of the strong animal rights theory advanced by Tom Regan. This author rejects such a concept as the “subject of life” (Warren 339). She argues that the moral weight should be given to biological organisms “whose natural mode of life includes the pursuit of certain satisfactions” (Warren 339). Apart from that, the author pays more attention to the needs of entities that are capable of experiencing suffering.

These are the main cut-off points that this thinker focuses on. Nevertheless, the writer attaches more importance to the interest of human beings. This is why this author believes that the interests of non-human animals can be sacrificed if there is a “compelling reason” for doing intentional harm to other biological species (Warren 339). The main problem is that the degree of sentience may be difficult to measure. Nevertheless, one should keep in mind that the author acknowledges this limitation.

Mary Midgley

This approach is partly supported by Mary Midgley. This author does not single out any criteria which can be used to distinguish living entities that have a certain moral weight. Nevertheless, she insists that people should minimize the harm done to animals. She applies her argument to such a question as animal research. This scholar mentions that in many cases, the studies using biological organisms do not create any significant value. The main problem is that in the course of such experiments, animals can be permanently crippled (Midgley 222). Still, Mary Midgley accepts the utilitarian principles and the need to use animals for research. Overall, the strengths and weaknesses of this model are similar to the advantages and disadvantages imbedded in Bernard Rolllin’s model.

Rodney Peffer

Rodney Peffer accepts the need to find a balance between the interests of humans and non-human living organisms. Nevertheless, the author mentions that the weaker animal rights theory leaves too much room for the subjective interpretation of animal rights. Furthermore, this approach does not enable to evaluate the moral weight of a living entity.

Two-factor egalitarianism

Van de Veer

The model developed by Van de Veer is aimed at examining the way in which people can resolve a conflict of interests at the time when one has to meet the needs of human beings and other biological organisms. This scholar identifies three groups of interests, namely basic, serious, and peripheral ones. For instance, such a term as basic interest is related to the survival of a living organism. In turn, the author mentions that serious and peripheral interests are related to physical comfort and luxury.

In Van de Veer’s opinion, it is not permissible to deny the basic interests of animals in order to promote the peripheral needs of human beings. In his view, such behavior can be described as speciesism. Nevertheless, it is possible to sacrifice the basic needs of non-human beings in order to support. Van de Veer’s cut-off point is the degree of psychological development; in turn, a human being occupies the top place in this hierarchy. The main limitation is that the degree of psychological development cannot be accurately assessed. Nevertheless, this method is helpful for making ethical decisions about non-human animals.

Rodney Peffer

Rodney Peffer recognizes the benefits of Van de Veer’s model as a decision-making tool. Nevertheless, this scholar also points out that it is not often applied in real life. The problem is that the peripheral interests of human beings can be regarded as a greater priority, even in comparison with the basic needs of non-human animals. For instance, animals can be used in cosmetics research, even though such experiments can permanently damage their health.

Four-factor ecological ethics

Rodney Peffer

Rodney Peffer notes that people’s decisions about the treatment of animals should be driven by several important factors. On the one hand, an individual should determine whether a living organism has any moral standing. This scholar emphasizes the priority of human needs. Additionally, in his opinion, a person should be able to evaluate the moral weight of a living entity. In this case, much attention should be paid to the degree of psychological development.

Additionally, policy-makers should pay attention to the nature of interests that are at stake. Again, these interests can be peripheral or basic. Sometimes, it is possible to sacrifice peripheral needs of human beings, if in this way, one can serve the basic interests of people. Finally, Rodney Peffer urges decision-makers to consider the importance of various environmental processes. Certainly, these mechanisms cannot be viewed as moral entities. Nevertheless, policy-makers should keep in mind that these mechanisms can be of great value to human and non-human animals.

Biocentric Egalitarianism

Albert Schweitzer

Albert Schweitzer argues that every living entity has certain moral value. Therefore, being alive is the main cut-off point identified by this thinker. More importantly, this author does not want to differentiate the moral weight of different species. For instance, he does not accept the anthropocentric views advocated by various researchers. Therefore, it is not permissible to harm a non-human animal, even if this action can serve the basic interests of people (Schweitzer 109). The main limitation of this model is that people will find it rather difficult to fulfill such ethical obligation.

Kenneth Goodpastor

The principles of biocentric egalitarianism are also supported by Kenneth Goodpastor. In particular, he also believes that being alive is the main criterion that distinguishes an entity which deserves moral rights. Goodpastor is convinced that plants should not be denied the right to protection. Overall, Goodpastor’s model does not show how a person should distinguish the weight of various biological organisms. However, this approach can make it impossible to take any ethical decisions. Therefore, this drawback can completely invalidate this theory of animal rights.

Paul Taylor

While examining the question of moral rights, Paul Taylor notes that the intelligence of human beings raises high moral standards for them. In other words, they should recognize their obligations to other forms of life. Moreover, this author does not identify a distinct cut-off point. Instead, he notes that people’s duties are extended to both plants and animals (Taylor 237). The major shortcoming of this approach is that it does not provide any guidelines for reconciling the conflicting needs of human beings and other species.

Hard-nosed,” Naturalistic Ecocentric Views

Aldo Leopold’s model

Aldo Leopold argues that animal rights ethics should not be exclusionary; this is why this author believes that every component of the environment has a certain moral value. For instance, one should not speak only about different species; this author also lays stress on the need to protect forests, rivers, and so forth. However, this theory does not account for the complexity of situations involving the conflict between human and non-human interests. This is why one can say that this model is unrealistic.

Holmes Rolston III

Holmes Rolston attempts to take a more balanced approach to the relationships between human beings and nature. In particular, the author believes that the interests of a human being include the protection of the environment. This scholar does not specify a cut-off point which enables decision-makers to single out living organisms that have moral worth. The approach taken by this author is more practical because it includes people’s welfare as the main priority for decision-makers.

Baird Callicott

Baird Callicott points out that various types of animals are eligible for moral obligations. Nevertheless, he does not believe that the ethical obligations of a person can be related to plants. In his view, this perspective significantly complicates people’s decisions. It should be noted that this scholar expresses conflicting opinions on the question of animal rights.

For instance, this author notes that people have different obligations to domesticated and wild animals. In particular, he believes that individuals should pay more attention to the needs of domesticated animals because their behavior is shaped by the actions of human beings. Later, he elaborates this argument by mentioning that the interests of wild animals cannot be overlooked. The main drawback of this model is that it does not show how people can settle a conflict of interest.

Mark Sagoff’s interpretation of animal rights

Mark Sagoff does not offer a distinct model that can be applied for ethical decision-making. Instead, this writer offers a critique of various models advanced by other scholars. For instance, this scholar criticizes the assumption according to which only domesticated animals can be entitled to ethical rights. Thus, it is a direct reference to Callicott’s arguments.

Apart from that, Mark Sagoff points out that it is vital to distinguish environmentalist and animal rights movements. In particular, he believes that many animal rights advocates do not distinguish these notions. In particular, they believe that environmentalists should attach more importance to the protection of different species and liberation of animals. In turn, Mark Sagoff notes that environmentalists are more concerned with such questions as the protection of air, water, as well as soil. Their task is to eliminate the influence of factors that pose a threat to the lives of many species. For example, one can speak about CO2 emissions and water pollution. The main problem is that Mark Sagoff does not provide guidelines for treating non-human animals.

The most optimal moral theory

In my opinion, two-factor egalitarianism is the most suitable ethical model which can be applied for promoting animal rights. This theory is beneficial because it enables to take decisions, especially at the time when conflicting needs are involved. By distinguishing basic, serious, and peripheral interests of different stakeholders, one can decide which course of action is the most appropriate one. For instance, it is possible to mention different cases related to the use of animals for research purposes. Certainly, this approach has not been applied to every possible case. Nevertheless, the principles identified by Van de Veer can be applied to choose the most urgent priorities. This model is partly based on the principles of anthropocentrism; however, it does not tolerate the cruel treatment of animals.

Works Cited

Baxter, William. People or Penguins. The Case for Optimal Pollution. New York: Columbia University Press, 1974. Print.

Guthrie, Richard. “The Ethical Relationship between human and other organisms”.n.d. Web.

Kant, Immanuel. Rational Beings Alone Have Moral Worth. n.d. Web.

Midgley, Mary. “The Case for Restricting Using Animals.” Animal Rights and Human Obligation. Ed. Tom Reagan and Peter Singer. Eaglewood: Prentice Hall, 1999. 216-222. Print.

Narveson, Jan. A Defense of Meat Eating. n.d. Web.

Regan, Tom. “The Case for Animal Rights”. The Environmental Ethics and Policy Book. Ed. Donald Van DeVeer. New York: Cengage Learning, 2002. 143-149. Print.

Rollin, Bernard. “Animal Production and the New Social Ethic for Animals.” Journal of Social Philosophy 10.25. (1994): 71-83. Print.

Schweitzer, Albert. Reverence for Life, New York: Ardent Media, 1979. Print.

Singer, Peter. Animal Liberation: The Definitive Classic of the Animal Movement, New York: HarperCollins: 2009. Print.

Taylor, Paul. “In Defense of Biocentrism.”. Environmental Ethics 5.3 (1983): 237-243. Print.

Varner, Gary. “The Prospects for Consensus and Convergence in the Animal Rights Debate”. The Environmental Ethics and Policy Book. Ed. Donald Van DeVeer. New York: Cengage Learning, 2002. 163-168. Print.

Warren, Mary. “A critique of Regan’s Animal Rights Theory.”Basic Ethics in Action Ed. Michael Boylan. Prentice Hall: Upper Saddle River. 2001. 331-339. Print.