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Ethics Don’t Hold for Animals

Bijgewerkt op: 22 nov. 2023

Critical voices on the relationships of humans with nonhuman animals have long shaped how we relate to co-inhabitants of the earth. The main question: what is right and what is wrong in these relationships? From Aristotle to more recent scholars like Peter Singer, all have tackled the problem from an ethical angle. Their landmark works have influenced public discourse on animal rights and animal use in diet, up until today. Equally, ethical considerations regarding animal experimentation enable the proper use of animals in the sciences. However, in both cases, at a rather early stage of trying to solve problems regarding human-nonhuman relations questions about the rights, needs, or desires of the animal involved arise and how they differ from that of humans.

While this might seem like a logical step, asking this question carries within it an assumption that is not often scrutinized: why are interactions between nonhuman animals and human animals suitable for ethical consideration? On closer observation, it seems that our perception of ethics is more so applied to these situations, without giving its suitability a lot of attention. While the climate catastrophe as a consequence of human actions is nearing a point of no return – dare I say, has reached it already –, questions about how we treat nature and nonhuman animals are of unmatched importance. Therefore, the very foundation on which we formulate answers to human-nonhuman relationships equally need thorough inspection. This, too, holds for their inclusion in ethical consideration.

Subjecting animals to ethical consideration seems to come with three inherent assumptions:


  1. non-human animals should be included in ethical discussions because it allows us to treat them properly; 

  2. in this discussion, human animals are the ones that are entitled to make the decisions; 

  3. human animals can make this decision based on their ability to make rational decisions and have abstract discussions (as will become clear later).

This essay will explore all three of these claims and elaborate on the presuppositions that go with them. It will do so by taking on the question of rationality first, whereas this is the human asset that distinguishes us from nonhuman animals – or so is the argument by ample ethicists. Thereafter, an inquiry into entitlement will be made. Lastly, the question whether it is legitimate to include nonhuman animals in ethical discussions will be assessed. Through this exploration, the fundamentals of ethics and their application to nonhuman animals are questioned. In doing so, it will show that the above aims are built on a shaky foundation, to say the least. As such, it opens up a space that allows for a different assessment of our relationship with nonhuman animals.

Is Rationality and Abstract Discussion the Answer for Ethical Questions?

Besides Peter Singer, many other philosophers on animal ethics take the position that the rationality of humans is decisive in ethical considerations, not necessarily the irrationality of nonhumans: ‘in the trajectory that connects Aristotle to Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Domingo de Soto, the animals’ irrationality is used to argue that animals can—or even should—be exploited: yet, the emphasis falls on the agency of the rational human being, rather than on the animals’ lack of rationality.’ The rational ability of humans is seen as the very thing that allows us to think about these matters, which then extends into the field of ethics. Rationality is herein equalled with reasoning, and in turn this reasoning is equalled with intelligence. This, of course, is by no means a new argument. The premise that reasoning is given to us because of our rationality, is an argument that has gained popular acclaim in societal design since the Enlightenment. 

From 1685 onwards, reason, science, and individualism became more emphasized in societal design. As such, rationality became a basis for scientific questions. No real division in epistemology can be seen between ethical questions and mathematical questions in regards to their mechanisms for establishing truths in their respective realms: it’s all rational. It is true that a persuasive argument can be made for rationality being used within the realm of hard sciences. Take mathematics, or quantum physics: linear reasoning that could go on practically forever. The initial, rational, observation herein enables the development of many different theories, after which great minds can eventually settle on a certain ‘truth’ – like some theories of Einstein. After this ‘truth’ is agreed upon, the line can move forward to an even more profound or abstract level (e.g. from protons to quarks). Whether these explorations are all-encompassing of life is highly debatable. However, things outside of the object to which rationality is applied are excluded or stable per se. Truths are, hence, formulated within the static boundaries of the initial observation and subsequent rational reasoning, and their field of application isn’t subject to change outside of this rational realm. Therefore, little arguments can be made that these ‘truths’ are untrue in their particular discipline or language. 

The same assumption is made in the realm of ethics. And of course, it is true that ethics has a certain starting point from which it can reason about certain assessments needing to be made. If ‘logical continuity’ – or thought consistency – through rationality is the modus operandi within ethics, the argument is that a more abstract level of reasoning will be reached if continued; leading to more fundamental truths as is the case in mathematics and the like. The observation is therefore that ethical questions and ideas get more complex and abstract when different factors are added. This abstractness, however, seems not to become apparent on a linear basis; it is more so on a lateral basis. After all, ethics are considered integral to the person, but it is only in relation to other persons, nonhuman animals, and living subjects that it gains a right to exist. Hence, the action that is aimed to be enabled through ethical consideration reaches further than the person itself. For this reason, the language of rationality seems less relevant in a field where the area of application is constantly subject to change. Indeed, relations between entities and how they change have to be taken into account, which are influenced by many different things, including social and natural environment, feelings, emotions, neurological diversity, and much more. 

If the argument is that the rationality of humans is the right tool to assess human-nonhuman relations, one might wonder whether that’s still the case if the field of application doesn’t seem to be fit for pure rational judgment: it can’t be static. And this shouldn’t come as a surprise, since many ‘irrational’ approaches to human-nonhuman relations have been critically acclaimed by large academic audiences. Yet, the most popular views promoted through the most acclaimed philosophers remain based on pure rationality. 

Theory of Multiple Intelligences

Besides its field of application being changeable, it is also evident that humans themselves have different experiences with knowledge and intelligence that reach wider and further than solely rationality; allowing for a wider assertion into interactions between entities and their inherent diversity. Why not open up the discussion and resort to those? To give an idea of what this would mean, we can turn to one of the most acclaimed views on this topic: the theory of Multiple Intelligences (MI) by Howard Gardner. In this theory, intelligence is defined as the potential to process information. Additionally, it is developed through a focus on biopsychological processes, and acknowledges that ‘all individuals have several, relatively autonomous intelligences, which they use in varying combinations to solve problems or create products that are valued in one or more cultures’. 

Following Gardner, intelligence is only deemed ‘intelligence’ after careful consideration. This consists of looking at its expression in neural structures and functions, as well as its role in core information processing. As such, Gardner was able to distinguish eight different forms of intelligence and kept the door open for including more. The eight intelligences that were identified included (1) linguistic intelligence, (2) logical-mathematical intelligence, (3) spatial intelligence, (4) musical intelligence, (5) naturalist intelligence, (6) bodily-kinesthetic intelligence, (7) interpersonal intelligence, and (8) intrapersonal intelligence. 

To clarify, all the intelligences as described above are not just an intelligence because they are related to a sensory system in the human body. That is to say, spatial intelligence is not merely an intelligence because humans are able to see. Actually, many blind persons show excellent spatial intelligence. In the same sense, deaf persons show excellent musical intelligence. It is not so much about what your body can and cannot process. Rather, it refers to the complex interplay of physical and social environment, as well as biological feats. Through this, every being on earth obtains its own unique combination of intelligence – including the logical-mathematical (or, rational) intelligence to different extents. 

Can a Fish Climb a Tree

A variety of critiques have been raised against the theory of Gardner that would justify the position of the ethicists mentioned before. Ironically, the majority of such critiques circle around the fact that the intelligences cannot be scientifically proven, or aren’t subjectable to randomized controlled trials. This also, quite obviously, holds for emotions and spirituality.

Without giving too much attention to these critiques, it is the classical situation in which one tests the skills of the squirrel and the fish by letting them climb a tree. Indeed, a measurement that is of little use, because the fish doesn’t have the bodily tools to perform the task. But, does this mean the fish is less than the squirrel? In relation to the thesis, does this mean that other ways of knowing shouldn't be included for ethical consideration because they are measured differently, if at all? If there is more than one intelligence that emerge in the field on which ethics is applied, why does the approach within ethical reasoning remain predominantly purely rational? If there is more than one intelligence, can we be sure that we are still the ‘haves’ and nonhuman animals the ‘have nots’? 

Emotion and Spirituality

Still, arguments will be made that the forms of intelligences as described by Gardner all fall under the concept of rationality. In that case, one might argue that resorting to multiple intelligences doesn’t disable the argument in favor of rationality as the informer for ethical considerations; rationality brings together all of the above for structured reasoning. 

If the above is still deemed as unpersuasive, the focus can shift to spirituality and emotions in relation to ethical decision making. Firstly, emotions have been identified by some as the very thing that allows ethics to be assessed on a lateral instead of lineal level, affirming comments made earlier. Because of that, letting emotions (partly) inform ethical decisions doesn’t seem to be a farfetched suggestion. In addition, studies have shown that spirituality is a strong predictor for ethical decision making. While both emotion and spirituality do not affirm the necessary irrational base of ethics, it does challenge its purely rational base. That is to say, the idea that rationality comes before spirituality doesn’t seem to have a solid base whereas the latter is one of its predictors. Therefore, the two should be considered at least as being intertwined on an equal basis when talking about ethical decision making in spiritual humans.

The assumption that rationality is the answer to ethical questions therefore seems to loose ground, if (1) changes in its field of application, (2) the rationality of humans is seldom expressed in a pure form, and (3) irrational behavior is identified as influencing ethical decision making. 

Are Human Animals the Ones Entitled to Make the Decisions?

Still, this doesn’t mean that animals shouldn’t be subjected to ethical consideration as a whole. In relation to the philosophers mentioned earlier, Muratori emphasizes that rationality informed ethics ‘tends to become at least two things at once [...]: the smartness of the strongest in the battle for survival; and a synonym for humanity (a divine gift of uniqueness, dispensed by God).’ Both of these aspects seem to play a strong role in the entitlement of making decisions in assessing human-nonhuman relations. While it is certainly true that we carry an aspect of rationality in ourselves, the former paragraph indicated that it’s redundant to use this aspect to make decisions in these situations. Indeed, we would be selling ourselves short if doing so. Still, the traditional argument of many philosophers has been that exactly this rationality gives us the entitlement to make decisions in the aforementioned realms. As indicated before, some arguments are even made that this rationality expands beyond pure rational reasoning. With this in mind, we now turn to the points emphasized earlier: is it rightful to see ourselves as the smartest because of our rationality, and are we unique in that very aspect? 

Smartness of the Strongest

The idea that humans are smarter than all other animals on a rational level is a debatable premise at best. In fact, it seems to be entirely false. Therefore, the first idea of being the smartest in the realm of rationality can be put down rather easily.

Time and time again, aspects of what is considered rational are identified in a wide range of animals – from primates to octopus’. Such observations suggest that, if we strictly consider rationality for ethical considerations, other animals should also be included if they are the subject of discussion. If our rationality is more complex than we thought it to be initially, why not theirs? The fact that we didn’t develop tools to inquire into this – or refrain from using them – doesn’t mean we aren’t obliged to do it if we stick to the dominant argument in ethical philosophy.

The Uniqueness of Humans

But still, knowledge on rationality in nonhumans might not have been available to the discussed ethicists at the time they were active. Or, if they were aware of this idea, the rationality of men could be defined as infinitely more unique than those of other animals. The positioning of Aristotle, Singer, and many others, is therefore back to the point where we started: it is rather the rationality of humans as opposed to the irrationality of the animals that entitles us to make the decisions. But, what is exactly the thing called ‘rationality’ that is attributed to humans?

Generally, our thoughts are explained alongside two systems that are widely accepted in broader scientific circles. The first system is deemed fast thinking, or intuitive. The second system is deemed slow thinking, which is believed to be largely rational. The first system considers thoughts that pop up, which are later checked and modified by the second system. Indeed, the predominantly rational system overrides the intuitive system if necessary. 

Students and Professors

To what extent can we be certain that this controlling mechanism is so unique to humans that it supersedes anything that can be found in other entities? This will be explored through the idea of a student writing an essay for university: a test of scientific skills, which is often considered rational per se. 

Without instructions, the student can write an essay without a certain person in mind. In such a case, an essay might consist of half sentences, be haphazard, and not follow the classic beginning, middle, and end structure. While the first version might not yet be fully logical after being read by the student, it will be so after a couple rounds of editing. This shows that surpassing an unconventional structure doesn’t mean that the writer of the thoughts doesn’t understand what has been written. The writer – in this case the student – can come back to it at any time, understand what it means, and enjoy its unconventional but logical set up. Others can too, as long as the construction is known to the reader. 

However, if it has to be handed in for grading, it must be molded in a certain way so that the thoughts of the students are sufficiently structured; even specified to the likings of specific individuals like professors. The intuitive set up that was later checked by the second system might carry in it great value, but only if it is structured in a certain way this value will be converted into a good grade – i.e. will be acknowledged as acceptable by an inherently rational institution.

Such a scenario shows that personal logic and rationale has to be overridden by a new way of thinking in order for it to be recognized by rational institutions. Hence, pattern recognition relating to the hierarchical ladder has to be applied to understand how ‘logical’ should be interpreted. While involving pattern recognition is not a problem, it should be noticed that tis is never attributed to the rational system. Rather, it finds its home in the intuitive system. While rationality reaches beyond the university, it is without a doubt that these institutions are the proponents of rational thought – equally expressed in the relation between science and rationality expressed in the first paragraphs of this essay. If, then, the competency of its students is tested with an inherent form of pattern recognition, one might wonder to what extent the disciplines within the university are based on rational principles. Indeed, the angle that test answers adopt carry in them an aspect of ‘intuitive’ pattern recognition – focussed on understanding how to structure writings and how to read preferences of the ones judging the work. Professors make students, which then (could) go on to become scientists or professors themselves. If ones’ reasoning is based on the above described principles, one might wonder whether their output is actually allowed to be expressed in a fitting way. Rather, the options of how ideas can be expressed seem to be limited to the recognized patterns.

Permeability of Boxes 

For that reason, the boundary between the two systems becomes vague to say the least. To some extent, it becomes permeable, or it even dissolves. Rationality has intuitive characteristics and vice versa. As such, the argument for rationality seems to be merely genealogical: because we have been doing it for so long in a certain way, legitimacy is sequestered in the concept. What we have been doing for so long, however, is not really clear: it’s decided by individuals that experience highly differentiating ways of being. Do we therefore have a ‘unique’ form of rationality that entitles us to make decisions, or do we just have our own rationality that is made up by our species?As formulated by humans, rationality can be seen as a certain set of things that can be played with and certain rules players have to abide by. It might be that you don’t know the rules, but if you are interested, they can be learned. However, if you find yourself among a radically different group, the rules of the game are most likely to be different than the ones you have learned. In theory it’s the same game, but in practice it's different. Of course humans are smarter in a game that is formulated in the language of humans, because no nonhuman has been allowed to participate as a player or understand it as such. Equally, primates or octopus are smarter in a game that is formulated in the language of their respective species, because no human has been allowed to access it as of yet. The claim that humans are ‘smarter’ or ‘unique’ therefore seem to have little influence on whether we are entitled to be the only one making decisions in our relationships with nonhuman animals.

Should Nonhuman Animals be Included in Ethical Discussion for Proper Treatment?

One of the central arguments that is made by Signer in his landmark book ‘Animal Liberation’ is to treat animals ethically. This brings us to the more meta-physical point of view: should nonhuman animals be included in ethical discussion to begin with? We've observed that relying solely on rationality – be it pure or mixed with other forms of reasoning – is insufficient for formulating ethical responses relating to relationships among humans and nonhumans. Equally, our entitlement seems to vanish, as indicated before. Being ‘ethical’ or ‘unethicaĺ’ towards nonhuman animals, or in what way, is therefore a useless question: the foundation for asking this question seems to vanish and excludes in its definition the lived realities of nonhuman animals; for the simple fact that we are not them.

This brings us to the following. Ethics is, indeed, a concept made by humans; just like pleasure and suffering. This, in and of itself, will not change. Since ethics is – in its most prevalent forms – believed to be rooted and affirmed by human rationalism, the question arises why such a shallow perception of life would be applicable to other-than-human entities. If the argument is to ‘liberate animals’, it misses the fact that such a liberation can’t be done if the degree of liberation is expressed within the boundaries of human genealogical reasoning. Therefore, it might be wiser to focus on the capabilities of the animals – not those of humans – to answer these questions, or at least to treat their lived reality as equals.

While Peter Singer's argument results in veganism, Aristotle's argument leads to almost the exact opposite. The range of outcomes of ethical considerations in relation to nonhuman animals therefore seems to be unjustifiably diverse: it allows space for the formulation of arguments that end up being severely harmful for non-human animals. By using ethics to make an argument about our relation to nonhuman animals, we discard our dependence on these other species. Such a reasoning tells a story that nonhuman animals are more dependent on the decisions humans make than the other way around. As such, it regards their lives as being of a lower quality per se when compared to ours. 

If not Ethics, What Else?

As demonstrated earlier, the existence of diverse intelligences can readily be acknowledged within the human species. This necessitates contemplation not only on the basis of ethical consideration more generally, but also on the intrinsic value of nonhuman species. Not only is this necessary to strengthen the capabilities of ethical philosophy; it is necessary to appreciate nonhuman animals for their proper capacities within philosophical discussion. 

Surprisingly, there is a lack of comprehensive research investigating how these alternative forms of intelligence manifest in nonhuman animals. Moreover, there is a notable absence of studies exploring aspects of intelligence in nonhuman animals that go beyond what can be identified in humans. Lastly, meaningful inquiries into how nonhumans interact with human animals are rare and rarely find application in the design of societal structures. Building on such questions can create a path for assessing relationships with nonhuman animals on a basis that reaches beyond ethics.

Alternative Vision

To be clear, the arguments of some ethicists are important contributions to philosophy, increase nonhuman wellbeing, and allow us to think about the topics as described in this essay. However, the point is that a different way of relating is needed in the light of our contemporary problems. For these reasons, it is unjustified to subject nonhuman animals to ethical consideration out of – as it seems – mere convenience. While ethics with regards to human relationships can be influenced by anyone that is subject to the outcome of discussion, the same discussion relating to nonhuman animals does not. 

So, what are other ways to approach this matter? Not building on ethical principles is obviously not easy, since (1) it moves away from conventional ways to fill the knowledge gaps; (2) it cannot be formulated within the genealogy of rationality; and (3) it might lead to discarding all we know about human and nonhuman relationships. But, again, it being hard isn’t an argument to continue in this line of reasoning.

Essential aspects when it comes to discovering how to relate seem to move away from the conventional forms of thinking as we know it. That is to say, we should move away from what humans ought to do when relating to nonhuman animals and move towards how animals relate. While our world or rational design thereof might be different, an effort should be made to surpass this overfocus. In the same sense, its not about thinking about what to do, it's about conveying your highest regard for the other and go from there.

Many Indigenous groups have readily lived in similar modes, and there seems to be little reason to look away from such assessments of relationships – especially because they are easily the best protectors of biodiversity. In philosophies that include animism and the like, relating to nonhuman doesn’t have to be controlled by thoughts, as is inherent to ethical discussions. Rather, the relation is allowed, like the beating of a hearth. This, too, can become a reality in conventional philosophy through exploring the aforementioned questions on diverse intelligence and relationships. Allowing people to relate to other animals – and allowing other animals to relate to people – does not only contribute to the wellbeing of nonhuman animals, it contributes to the wellbeing of all on earth.

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