Ethical Orientations Towards Animals: What We Say Vs. What We Do
Have you ever heard someone declare their belief in something, but then they act in a way completely at odds with that stated belief? When it comes to how people relate to animals, this is particularly common. To begin unraveling this puzzle, researchers in Denmark sought to identify the ethical frameworks in play as people consider how animals should be used and treated.
Human use of animals is increasingly controversial. We have vegans at one end of the food preference spectrum and adherents of meat-intensive diets at the other. Between these extremes, animal-welfare friendly farming practices offer a middle ground to other consumers. The use of animals in scientific testing, hunting, as companions, as exhibits in zoos and circuses, and for clothing such as leather and fur are also coming under ever more scrutiny.
Meanwhile, how we use ethics to develop attitudes and guide behavior towards animals is not well understood. The researchers in this study proposed four animal ethics orientations: (1) animal rights; (2) anthropocentrism; (3) animal protection; and (4) lay utilitarianism. These four orientations differ as to whether and how animals matter. The focus is on attitudes and values about animals rather than specific uses of animals.
The two extreme positions are anthropocentrism and animal rights. Anthropocentrism defines humans as the center of the moral universe. While animals may be seen as having some intrinsic worth, they are mainly a means to a human-centered end. At the other extreme, animal rights claims that non-human sentient animals matter in the same way that humans do. Since humans have rights, so do animals. In this view, animals should not be sacrificed for human interests.
The other two positions are considered the middle ground. Animal protection allows for the use of animals for human purposes but those animals must be treated humanely and have decent lives while in human custody. Some forms of suffering may be allowed if deemed necessary. Lay utilitarianism allows all forms of animals use as long as the human gains outweigh the burdens and suffering placed on the animals. This view has been observed in the use of animals for medical research and in pest control and wildlife management.
To further expand on these definitions, researchers conducted three studies, the first of which confirmed the presence of the four ethical orientations in the Danish public. The second and third studies also looked at the links between the four ethical orientations and the formation of attitudes and reported behaviors on several animal-related issues and activities. These included viewing animals as exhibits or entertainment, their use in medical research, frequency and source of meat consumed, views on Danish NGO animal welfare or Danish farmers’ association campaigns, trust in current animal husbandry laws and companion animal guardianship.
Of the four ethical orientations, the animal protection orientation was most prevalent in the general Danish population. Women were more likely than men to report being animal-rights oriented. Less educated participants were more likely to favor an animal rights orientation rather than one of the other three orientations. Previous research suggests that this may be due to an “underdog” mechanism where those who have less power and status in society sympathize more with animals.
The four ethics orientations were shown to be associated with clearly different opinions and behaviors in relation to animals. The result supported the researchers’ initial assumptions that it was important to characterize the ethical frameworks people use to respond to animal-related issues.
Animal advocates should perhaps be most intrigued by the finding that people who identify as strongly animal protection-oriented still distance themselves from the cruelties of meat eating. They convince themselves that there are more important issues on the political agenda. This group doesn’t favor animal-welfare friendly meat either – they may persuade themselves that current government standards are adequate to protect the welfare of farm animals. Advocates can consider these findings as they work to craft effective advocacy on farm animal issues.