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Elizabeth Watt, PhD student in the School of Archaeology and Anthropology, School of Arts and Social Sciences, Australian National University, Acton, Canberra 2600

Paper presented at the Australian Veterinary Association Annual Conference, Perth 25-30 May 2014
Posted Flock & Herd June 2015


The place of animals in human society is central to veterinary ethics. The views of philosophers, who have long debated the welfare and rights of non-humans, provide an essential background for this conversation. 

In this paper, I will discuss the status of animals according to two overarching philosophical theories: deontological ethics and consequentialism. I will outline the views of two classical theorists from both schools of thought, Immanuel Kant and Jeremy Bentham respectively. I will then look at how two modern philosophers, Tom Regan and Peter Singer, have applied these ethical frameworks to animals in second half of the twentieth century. 

Defining Deontology

Deontology and consequentialism as key terms in philosophical debate, which describe two opposing approaches to ethical issues.  Derived from the Greek word deon, or duty, deontology presumes that actions are right or wrong regardless of consequences. The father of these ‘duty-based’ ethics, Immanuel Kant, argued that subjective and situation-specific assessments are not a reliable source of morality.  Universal laws are therefore necessary to govern our behaviour. 

Kant’s universal laws were born from the notion that humans have intrinsic worth, or dignity, by virtue of their unique rationality. To violate their autonomy- by deceiving them, slaying them or enslaving them- is to disrespect this dignity. In Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals he wrote: ‘Every rational being exists as an end in himself and not merely as a means to be arbitrarily used by this or that will.1 

The classic example of Kant’s deontological ‘extremism’ is the example of a murderer knocking on your door, looking for someone you know to be hiding in your house. Kant argues it would be wrong to lie to a murderer about the location of their potential victim, even if it might save that person’s life.2  

Defining Consequentialism 

Deontological ethics are best understood in opposition to consequentialist ethics. As the name suggests, consequentialist philosophers believe that an action should be judged by its consequences: The better the consequences of an action, the more moral it is. 

Perhaps the most important consequentialist was Kant’s contemporary, Jeremy Bentham. Bentham was the originator of the highly influential utilitarian stream of consequentialism. Utilitarians argues that the best consequences are those that ‘maximise utility’- or produce the most happiness or pleasure for the most people. 

In the interests of promoting the ‘greatest good for the greatest number’, utilitarians argue that certain circumstances may call for moral ambiguous actions (such as lying to a murder about the location of their potential victim). For this reason, utilitarians avoid binding moral laws or universal rights. In his Collected Work, Bentham wrote: ‘There are no other than legal rights; no natural rights- no rights of man, anterior or superior to those created by the laws. The assertion of such rights, absurd in logic, is pernicious in moral.’3  

Deontology and animal ethics

Kant’s deontological ethics did not extend to non-human animals. His moral laws referred specifically to humans, because he believed humans were uniquely rational. Continuing the quote from Groundwork, he writes: ‘Beings whose existence depends not on our will but on nature have, nevertheless, if they are not rational beings, only a relative value as means and are therefore called things. On the other hand, rational beings are called persons inasmuch as their nature already marks them out as ends in themselves.’1 

By talking about the ‘relative value’ of non-rational beings, Kant implies that animal only have indirect moral worth. Human should refrain from harming them not for the animal’s own sake, but because it may upset humans, or lead them to treat rational beings in the same way.  

In his 1993 book, modern deontological ethicist Tom Regan claimed that Kant’s argument about intrinsic values can encompass animals. While Regan agreed that animals are not rational in the same way as humans, he argues that they still have dignity because they are ‘subjects-of-a-life’- with preferences, feelings and expectations. He writes: ‘All animals are somebody-someone with a life of their own. Behind those eyes is a story, the story of their life in their world as they experience it.’5  

The implications of Regan’s view are that animals, like humans, should have their autonomy respected, and not be used as a means to another’s end. Rather than calling for an amendment of the current system of animal use, this rights perspective leads to abolitionism: no animal should be the property of a human. In 2004, Regan writes: ‘When it comes to how humans exploit animals, recognition of their rights requires abolition, not reform. Being kind to animals is not enough. Avoiding cruelty is not enough. Whether we exploit animals to eat, to wear, to entertain us, or to learn, the truth of animal rights requires empty cages, not larger cages.’6 

Consequentialism and animal ethics

The utilitarian focus on pleasure and suffering has also led them to challenge the idea that animals have no moral status. Jeremy Bentham agreed with Kant’s assumption that animal lack rationality, but for him this was not the primary concern. In his oft-quoted passage from Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, Bentham argued: ‘The question is not, Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but Can they suffer?’7 

Undoubtedly, the most important successor of Bentham is Australian ethicist, Peter Singer. In his influential treatise, Animal Liberation, Singer argued convincingly for the extension of the ‘greatest good for the greatest number’ principle to include animals.8

Unlike deontological theorists, who have a blanket approach to living beings, Singer promotes animal interests on a selective basis. His first consideration of an animal’s suffering is their sentience: can they feel pain? If a dog feels a kick with the same force as a child, he argues, then they have equal claim not to be kicked. As Singer writes: ‘The capacity for suffering and enjoyment is a prerequisite for having interests at all, a condition that must be satisfied before we can speak of interests in meaningful way. It would be nonsense to say that it was not in the interests of a stone to be kicked along the road . . . A stone does not have interests because it cannot suffer. If a being is not capable of suffering, or of enjoyment, there is nothing to take into account.'8  

Rationality is, however, relevant to Singer’s second consideration of suffering. Singer makes distinctions within the class of sentient beings, because he claims ‘people’- those who possess self-consciousness, rationality and a sense of the future- are more likely to anticipate and reflect on their suffering. Returning to the example, it could be argued that the child will suffer more from a kick that a dog, because they will fear it beforehand and dwell on it afterwards. 

Unlike deontological philosophers, consequentialists like Singer make no hard and fast rules about animal use. Rather, they argue we should use sentience and self-conscious as guidelines for creating a system that maximises happiness and pleasure. Singer’s main targets in Animal Liberation were factory farming and vivisection. However, more recently, Singer and Mason show a willingness to accept the use of animals in agriculture, so long as this involves pleasurable lives and a humane death.9


It is beyond the scope of this paper to provide a comprehensive defence of deontological philosophy or consequentialism as an ethical system.  However, consequentialism, or a ‘liberation’ approach, would seem to provide a more workable framework for ethical animal use in Australia than a deontological or ‘rights’ based approach. 


  1. Kant, I. Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, first published in 1785, translated by Mary Gregor, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1998, p428
  2. Kant, I. Absolutism and the Suppose Right to Lie, first published in 1797, in Absolutism and its Consequentialism, edited by Joram Graf Habeb, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 1994 p15
  3. Bentham, J. The Works of Jeremy Bentham, published under the superintendence of his executor John Bowring, Volume III, Edinburgh: William Tait, 1843, p221
  4. Regan, T. The Case for Animal Rights, (Berkley: The University of California Press, 1983)
  5. Matthew KA, Interview with Tom Regan, The Satya Magazine, 2005 www.ecomall.com accessed February 2014
  6. Regan, T Empty Cages: Facing the Challenge of Animal Rights, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2004, p10
  7. Bentham, J. An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, Chapter XVII, 1789; reprint, New York: Hafney, 1948, p311
  8. Singer, P. Animal Liberation: An End to Man’s Inhumanity Towards Animals, (New York: Harper Collins, 1975, p14
  9. Singer, P and Mason, J. The Ethics of What We Eat (Melbourne: The Text Publishing Company, 2007


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