The Topic of Animal Rights in Relation to The Virtue Theory

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About this sample


Words: 2286 |

Pages: 5|

12 min read

Published: Jul 17, 2018

Words: 2286|Pages: 5|12 min read

Published: Jul 17, 2018

With the turn of the 21st Century, the topic of animal rights has become one of the controversial, frequently talked about items of controversy on the news. Year after year, society has made leaps and bounds in an attempt to better understand nature and the impact humanity plays on the lives of these creatures we share a world with. But as mankind had begun to try to act on behalf of the animal, the question became, what ethical rights can one assign to the animal? Evidence of acts of animal cruelty spread across the globe, and mankind went to defend the right of the voiceless animal. With that, the ethical problem grew – in the words of philosopher Jeremy Bentham, “The question is not, can they [animals] reason?, nor, can they talk? But, can they suffer?” (Bentham qtd. in Wise) If an animal cannot rationalize, is it unfit to receive ethical rights? Or following Jeremy Bentham, is the question actually can the animal still feel pain, regardless of its mental capacities? While the philosophical question over animal rights might never be answered, this essay will attempt to clarify some of the major arguments for and against the current debate. To achieve this, the different opinions are organized through the positions of virtue ethics, deontology, and utilitarianism.

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In examining what is virtue ethics or virtue theory, it is important to understand the main underlying principle – that every action one takes must aim at some sort of good. Ultimately, virtue ethics promotes that any action taken must be in order to promote one’s happiness or flourishing. But in respect to the animal kingdom, virtue ethics asserts that this happiness is only felt in the mind of man, not in the mind of a beast, according to one of virtue theory’s strongest voices, Aristotle. Aristotle stated that animals are incapable of rational thought, and that because of their instinctive mannerisms did not warrant moral thought in the same way mankind does. He felt that animals were merely a means to serve an ends for man’s happiness and needs on Earth. Similarly, fellow philosopher St. Thomas Aquinas believed that because animals were unable to make coherent decisions, humans were responsible for making choices for them. Furthermore, Aquinas said that animals were merely tools in the world for which mankind could use at his disposal. Being the Christian theologian, he found his rationalization sound because in the natural order, Aquinas felt that man should finish at the top as his God had intended, using the being of lesser power and rank, animals, as a means by which to achieve the existence man divinely and naturally deserved. However, in studying theoretical virtue ethics, one could argue contradictory to Aristotle’s and Aquinas’s claims, perhaps a traditional virtue theorist would defend the need to ensure the rights of the animal because it is the justified position to take, based on the fact that it is a virtuous position to have. For example, if one sees an animal being tortured and is in need of aid, virtue ethics would require human intervention on the grounds that a morally good person would not watch an innocent creature suffer when there is the possibility to step in and offer help. A virtue theorist would want to endorse the chance to maintain or create the action of righteousness in saving an innocent being, goodness in helping a creature in distress, dignity in showing humility toward the creature that is in need, and so on … Certainly the contemporary stance toward animal rights, given the speed at which the animal rights movement has taken off, has become more widely-accepted in that the way society now views the treatment of animals has dramatically shifted since the time of Aristotle and St. Aquinas.

Similar to virtue theory, deontology focuses on obtaining a morally justified answer to the ethical problem at hand. Also referred to as duty ethics, deontology is the focus on one’s duty to others, called the “perfect duty.” In doing this, one must achieve the “categorical imperative,” which is a universal law or principle that is morally just and sound. The leading voice in this belief, Immanuel Kant, wrote “act as if the maxim of your action were to become trough your will a universal law of nature” (Kant 89). Deontology firmly believes that one must always treat humanity as an ends, never a means - specifically that each person one encounters, regardless of their importance or social standing in the world, must be treated with equal respect, as they are help in achieving an ends. Continuing on this line of thinking, Kant wrote that animals are merely a means to an end. He, like Aristotle and Aquinas before him, saw animals as irrational beings, incapable of logical, coherent thought, which placed them physically and ethically in a different standing than humankind. Dr. Nelson T. Potter of the University of Nebraska wrote at length about Kant’s view on animal rights:

According to Kant we human beings are finite rational beings … Given that fact, all our duties are duties to possible experience. There are no human beings such that they have only duties and no rights – they would be slaves or serfs. And the apparent duties that we have to abstain from cruel treatment of (nonhuman) animals are, it turns out, not direct duties to such animals, but duties to ourselves, and merely indirect duties with regard to animals. (Potter 299)

Simply put, duty requires one to further their self-goodness and intervene on the behalf of the animal in need in the eyes of deontology. Kant does also believe that the want to desist from hurting animals is also an acceptable categorical imperative, because negative actions like animal cruelty would cause damage to one’s inner character. It would follow that in the eyes of a deontologist, the duty to one’s community and to one’s self would be to not be an animal abuser in any situation.

Dr. Nelson T. Potter also had the belief that Kant should re-consider his views that animals do not deserve the same ethical consideration that are given to men, following the division of all creatures on Earth in Kant’s writings, Metaphysics of Morals. Potter cites Kant’s words in defending his views that animals, due to their inability to produce rational thought, should be given the same moral rights as a nonfunctioning human, due to the fact that the lack of brain function and thought output is physically the same. Dr. Potter wrote in his article “Kant on Duties to Animals:”

Kant tells us that first, the relation of rights of human beings toward those who have neither rights nor duties has no members because “these are beings lacking reason, which can neither bind us nor by which we can be bound.” This empty classification is where Kant would put the moral relation between humans and animals. (Potter 305)

Further in his article, Potter introduces another category of being that Kant never specifically addresses in Metaphysics of Morals, those detrimentally ill and incapable of performing basic life functions. Dr. Potter writes that those who are so physically diseased that they are not capable of rational thought or essential brain processes too should be considered of equal ethical consideration to animals:

The conclusion with respect to both groups is that the classes of paradigm nonhuman animals and of humans permanently incapable of rational functioning must be treated ethically in the same way. For people, Kantians or others, with what I’ve called moderate views on animal rights this forces an unhappy choice: either greatly elevate the appropriate level of moral rights for paradigm nonhuman animals, or drastically lower the level of such rights accorded to humans permanently and seriously lacking in rational function. (Potter 305)

Following Dr. Potter’s line of thinking, if Kantians were to follow Metaphysics of Morals and apply Potter’s deductions, it would follow that Kant might have considered these two types of non-rational creatures as equals, affording animals the same ethical rights as humans. While today society has taken a general stance for the basic rights of animals, this might have been considered dangerous thinking in Immanuel Kant’s time.

Utilitarianism is the ethical view that one’s actions are justified if done in order to achieve the greatest good, without the presence of pain. “The Greatest Good Principle” states that utilitarianist’s goal is to try to achieve anything that promotes happiness without hurt. Further, one achieves their goal if the happiness created is greater than the consequences of their actions. John Stuart Mill, one of the most influential thinkers of utilitarianism, classified the levels of happiness one can obtain: higher pleasures, made up of intellectually-based stimuli, and lower pleasures, comprised of physically-oriented incitements. Higher pleasures, such as pride, liberty, and dignity, were of greater priority according to Mill. He wrote in Utilitarianism of the importance of these higher pleasures, such as dignity: “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, is of different opinion, it is only because they only know their own side of the question” (Mill 10). The lower pleasures, he concluded, man often gives into because of weakness, poor choices, and acting incorrectly. Instead, one should try to sacrifice happiness in order to obtain these higher pleasures, not reduce happiness, according to J.S. Mill. Along this line of thinking, the deprivation of life and liberty to animals to a utilitarianist would serve as a great injustice, regardless of the creature’s mental ability. In fact, it was the position of utilitarianism that the categorical imperative was to help those without rights, such as the poor and those in slavery, because it was one’s moral responsibility. Utilitarianism believes that each person should make voluntary sacrifices such as this, and to actively try to have a conscience, because the goal of utilitarianism is the ultimate happiness without pain.

J.S. Mill furthered his utilitarianist beliefs and expanded on these principles in his 1874 writings, “On Nature.” In these works, Mill develops on the basic idea that it is a utilitarian’s philosophical responsibility to sacrifice in the name of the better good for those (man, creature, or beast) who are in need. He asserts that in fact one should strive to respect nature so as to create a greater understanding of that which we do not understand, allowing for the ability for nature to help improve mankind. He then states that in studying nature, it is easy to conclude that man and nature are directly persuaded by one another, because every action by man is influenced by the laws of nature. Mill goes a step further, and claims that when one removes all other external powers, it is the laws of nature that govern mankind into one action over another. Simply put, when man is stripped of all he knows, he is left simply with the laws of nature. Therefore, an ethical respect toward nature is justified in the sense of utilitarianism in many ways to J. S. Mill, as summarized in “On Nature:”

To acquire knowledge of the properties of things, and make use of the knowledge for guidance, is a rule of prudence, for the adaptation of means to ends; for giving effect to our wishes and intentions, whatever they may be. But the maxim of obedience to Nature or conformity to Nature, is held up not as a simply prudential but as an ethical maxim; and by those who talk of jus naturae even as a law, fit to be administered by tribunals and enforced by sanctions. Right action must mean something more and other than merely intelligent action; yet no precept beyond this last can be connected with the word “nature” in the wider and more philosophical of its acceptations. (Mill 9)

Mill serves his ethical view well in finding a prima facie view on animal rights through utilitarianism that both protects the creature in question and offers the person their summum bonum, or highest end.

The arguments for and against animal rights have undeniably progressed since their inception as far back as with Aristotle around 400 B.C.E. While many of the common philosophical views will agree that the act of harming an animal is not ethically justified, it is difficult to determine whether or not one can give an animal the same amount of moral rights or considerations as one would a man, woman, or child. Furthermore, if one were to determine whether or not an animal was eligible for these considerations, what rights would they be? Which animals would receive them? So while today’s society is still in juxtapose around these problems, the original philosophical problem remains, could one reasonably give the same moral rights to an animal that are afforded a human? To this, the philosophers are at a draw. Modern day thinkers, such as C. S. Lewis however, have plenty to say on the subject:

And though cruelty even to beasts is an important matter, their victory is symptomatic of matters more important still. The victory of vivisection marks a great advance in the triumph of ruthless, non-moral utilitarianism over the old world of ethical law; a triumph in which we, as well as animals, are already the victims, and of which Dachau and Hiroshima mark the more recent achievements .... (C. S. Lewis)

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What one might say of philosophy is that there are never answers, only questions. And in the example of animal rights, there are even more questions left to be answered

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