The limits of animal ethics

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One of the most important ethical debates of the next decades will be, no doubt, the one about our moral obligations towards non-human beings, and in particular, towards the members of other animal species. Very likely, not only philosophical discussions, but even the attitudes of a big portion of citizens about this topic, are going to experience a significan transformation with respect those attitudes that were dominant till the recent past. I think, however, that it would be too naive to assume that it is possible to interpret this trend as a case of linear progression, as many seem to assume. I will resume here the main arguments that lead me to be skeptical about what we might call ‘ethical animal maximalism’ (see, for example, Singer 2009 1).

I agree, to begin, with the idea that the progress of civilization will tend to condemn in a more and more severe way the cruelty towards animals, both in the more literal sense of ‘cruelty’ (enjoying the pain of others), and in the wider sense of causing an excessive and unnecessary amount of suffering in others (even if not because one enjoys directly the contemplation of that pain). This trend will contribute to the diffusion of animal welfare laws and to their stricter application, but it seems almost impossible that this progress leads to the extreme of conferring to animals exactly the same legal and moral status as subjects of fundamental rights that we confer to humans, i.e., to ourselves. For example, it is totally unlikely that laws will mandate as equally compulsory to save a human life than the life of a non-human animal; non-humans will always be, in a way, second order moral subjects, even if each future society might to some extent specify in a different way what are the implications of this ordering.

In the second place, it is true that some possible technological advancements, such as synthetic flesh, and social changes such as a growing preference for diets with less products of animal origin, may lead to notably lessen the demand of animals for human consumption, but it is very difficult that, in the not-too-long term, this demand totally or almost totally disappears at the global level. Once there is a warrant that the animals that we kill have lived a live more or less pleasant, and have suffered a non-painful death (in particular, as compared to the lives and deaths they could have expected in the wild), the moral scruples for their consumption or utilization would be too limited for being an impeding counterweight to the desire or the necessity of consumption, including their use in scientific experimentation, for example.

I wouldn’t discard, either, that the development of a new ethics more focused on our intimate connection with natural cycles may popularize in the not too far future the vision of a ‘ritual’ or ‘mystical’ meaning to the intake of animal flesh, as many primitive, hunter-gatherer societies seemed to do. After all, death is just an unavoidable and natural part of the cycle of life, and the suffering that death causes to most non human animals (I mean, death in itself, not the pain that causes the process leading to death, a pain that I have already assumed that has been minimized) is substantially lower than the one that it causes to us, both in the case of the fear to our own death as individuals, and in the case of the death, actual or feared, of our beloved ones, and also taking into account the duration, intensity, and especially the signification that we attach to mourning.

In the third and last place, we have to take into account some additional arguments regarding practices not directly related to the consumption of animal products, in particular hunting and bullfighting. In the case of the latter, the most probable hypothesis about the next future is that it will experiment a quick extinction, because it survives now only thanks to substantial public subsidies, for the private demand of bullfighting shows is clearly insufficient to sustain by itself the enormous costs associated to the necessary infrastructure. So, perhaps it is not a topic on which we need to insist too much, independently on our opinion about its moral significance.

Hunting, instead, is a totally different case. On the one hand, it is an activity that can sustain itself through private funding, at least in a much bigger proportion than bullfighting, so that, if we wanted to eliminate it, it would be necessary to forbid it and prosecute it very actively and costly. On the other hand, the suffering that hunting by humans causes to the prays is essentially comparable to the suffering caused by being captured and devoured by natural predators; this entails that the arguments based on criteria of animal welfare are much less applicable in a case like this one. But this is not the most important point: the fundamental question is that in the most part of the territory of advanced states, natural big predators have almost completely disappeared (luckily, we may add, for we wouldn’t like to transform an innocent country trip into an activity that entailed the risk of being devoured by wild beasts), and hence the populations of many big herbivores simply tend to exponentially grow, endangering not only our crops, but even the natural ecosystems. Hunting, then, is the only adequate control population mechanism of many big species in the absence of natural predators. If we want to forbid “sport” hunting for moral reasons, this will force us to use other control mechanisms, from much more difficult and expensive ones like selective sterilization, to other forms of hunting that are not “sportive” and hence carry with them less intense moral scruples (for example, substituting private hunters by some kind of administrative staff, or, who knows, some kind of hunting priests of a new ecologist rite), or just re-introducing lions and hyenas in the fields of Europe, a proposal to which I don’t foretell a thriving future. In conclusion: facing the need of killing thousands or millions of animals per year is not something that future generations will be able of dispensing with, no matter how much “animalist” their ethics become.


  1. Singer, P., 2009, Animal liberation, New York, Open Road.

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