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Environmental Ethics Concerning Animal Rights Report (Assessment)

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Updated: Dec 3rd, 2021


Life on the Earth is nowadays dominated by human beings. It seems that people ignore the fact that they are only one of the animal species inhabiting our planet, and that all the species mentioned should be equal in their rights and freedoms. Those human beings who are concerned with these issues develop various activities to defend the rights of animals in the modern world. One of the means to do it is to study the problems present and suggest proper solutions to them. This is exactly the task of environmental philosophy and ethics. Accordingly, this paper will focus on the aspects of the environmental philosophy and ethics that are integrally connected with animal rights.


Environmental philosophy is the branch of philosophy dealing with such abstract concepts as ethics, morality, and proper activities about human beings and nature. In a wider context, this branch of science tries to explain how people can cooperate and peacefully live in the natural environment without sticking to the harmful and dangerous concept of anthropocentrism. As far as the latter is a traditional worldview for the numerous generations of people, it is the task of the environmental philosophy and environmental ethics to overcome the stereotype that nature is the raw material from which human beings should make their living.

This issue has been a trouble for scholars since ancient times when famous Greek philosophers like Aristotle and Plato expressed their ideas on it. They stressed the necessity of the cooperative behavior of human beings in the natural environment and emphasized the dangerousness of such processes as forest destruction, water, and air pollution, population concentration, etc. Nowadays, the issues stressed by the Ancient Greeks are much more significant as the population of the world has recently exceeded 6 billion people, and the anthropocentric idea of human life has not yet disappeared. Environmental ethics and rights of animals are under the threat now.

Environmental Ethics

Accordingly, numerous scholars stress the necessity of the new environmental ethics which would change the balance between the human destructive influence on the environment and the development of the latter. For example, Richard Sylvan states that society is nowadays in need of “an ethic dealing with man’s relation to land, and to the animals and plants which grow upon it.” (Zimmerman et al., p. 29) However, he considers both pros and cons of the new ethics needed and concludes that the negative sides might convince people to live according to the old environmental ethics. For instance, if the new ethical considerations are accepted, human beings will have to limit the number of their children as they will be concerned with the excessive population of the Earth and its negative impacts upon the environment.

On the other hand, positive sides of the new environmental ethics can also be observed. They include the understanding of the three possible roles of a human being in relation with the nature – “a dominant tradition, the despotic position, with man as despot (or tyrant), and two lesser traditions, the stewardship position, with a man as custodian, and the co-operative position with man as a perfecter.” (Zimmerman et al., p. 30) However, animal rights are not taken into consideration in these traditions.

Animals are Equal

Thus, the concept of the rights for animals comes into play as, at the first sight absurd, but, at a closer look, rather an important issue. People are mistaken to consider all other species on Earth to be animals as the human being species is also an animal species. Drawing from this, equal rights for men and women should self-evidently presuppose the equality of rights for any other species of animals. However, in reality, it is not so because each human being “operates so as to benefit one group – usually the one to which we ourselves belong – at the expense of another.” (Zimmerman et al., p. 31)

To overcome this state of things, numerous liberation movements are set up to defend animal rights. The basis of all of them is the assumption that animals should have equal rights with human beings with the only exceptions being the rights that are inapplicable to animals. For example, dogs or cats do not need the right to vote as they are not involved in this process. At the same time, the right for defense from violence and suffering is vital for all animal species including human beings: “The basic principle of equality, I shall argue, is equality of consideration; and equal consideration for different beings may lead to different treatment and different rights.” (Zimmerman et al., p. 32)

Animal Rights

Accordingly, the idea of rights for animals is developed by other scholars who consider its different sides – beginning from the socio-historical and ending with the biological one. The ideas expressed by Tom Regan also present substantial interest for those who study environmental philosophy as far as this author examines the concept of Animal Liberation. The development of this movement can bring substantial results but it faces considerable challenges on its path: “Animal Liberation will require greater altruism on the part of mankind than any other liberation movement, since animals are incapable of demanding it for themselves, or of protesting against their exploitation by votes, demonstrations, or bombs.” (Zimmerman et al., p. 33)

Drawing from this, the major obstacle in the way of Animal Liberation is the public attitude towards it as an absurd idea. It is necessary to show people the integral connection that human beings and other animal species have. Only after this, people will be able to help animals in the aspects in which the latter can not help themselves. In this idea, the paramount role is attributed to the development of the new human morality compatible with the environmental philosophy.


Thus, morality in this respect can be characterized as the consideration of the interests of human beings, animals, plants, and other representatives of the natural environment. On the whole, moral consideration and the idea of interests are mutually connected as human beings should consider the morality of their actions by the interests of either sentient or insentient beings. Thus, sentience is another significant concept in this respect. However, sentience can not be basic for the definition of morality in environmental philosophy. To exemplify this, the situation with a dehydrated person and a plant can be considered. If a sentient person is given water, it is given for the survival of the person, while any medications necessary to overcome the dehydration effect are given drawing from moral consideration. Accordingly, if a plant is given the water, it is not given any medication due to its being insentient.

These considerations are wrong as far as both human beings and plants have interests, in survival in this case, and water should be given to them based on this idea. Morality thus should also be developed based on this criterion: “In the face of their obvious tendencies to maintain and heal themselves, it is very difficult to reject the idea of interests on the part of trees (and plants generally) in remaining alive.” (Zimmerman et al., p. 39)

Respect for Nature

Further on, it is necessary to state that the ideas of morality and ethics in treating the environment have their extreme manifestations. One of the latter is the concept of the “respect for nature” developed by Paul W. Taylor. This concept is based on moral norms that are basic for determining the mutual relations of human beings and the natural environment: “I hold that a set of moral norms (both standards of character and rules of conduct) governing human treatment of the natural world is a rationally grounded set if and only if, first, commitment to those norms is a practical entailment of adopting the attitude of respect for nature as an ultimate moral attitude, and second, the adopting of that attitude on the part of all rational agents can itself be justified.” (Zimmerman et al., p. 42)

Also, this idea presupposes the elimination of the anthropocentric worldview according to which human beings rule the planet while nature pays its dues to them. This idea is wrong and, according to Taylor, it should be replaced with the life-centered worldview according to which human beings are considered integral parts of the whole environmental system.

Environmental Ethics Challenges

Accordingly, having developed into such a multidirectional discipline, environmental ethics faces considerable challenges. The majority of them can be reduced to the list of opposing social attitudes on the environmental ethics issues, the vagueness of the major definitions of the discipline, and the priority of this or that idea in the environmental ethics further development.

The first challenge is at the same time the most important one because until the public opinion on environmental matters is changed from the anthropocentric to an environmentalist one, it will be impossible to solve the other two issues. In more detail, definitions of the basic notions and their hierarchy in environmental ethics can be determined, but the practical application of these definitions will be far from effective (Zimmerman et al., pp. 43 – 46). Moreover, if the above issues are not solved, it might need another century to make people think of the environment; of course, if they’re still is something to think of.

So, it is evident that the challenges faced by the environmental philosophy should be overcome to ensure the proper functioning of this discipline in society. Scholars and ordinary human beings should define their priorities and build the human society by the natural laws and taking the interests of other animal species and plants into consideration.

Land Ethics

As a result, the most important of the environmental ethics challenges can be solved with the help of the concept of land ethics. Developed as an alternative to the current attitude of mankind towards the resources of nature as its property, this idea tends to combine the definitions of ethics used in both ecology and philosophy: “An ethic, ecologically, is a limitation on freedom of action in the struggle for existence. An ethic, philosophically, is a differentiation of social from anti-social conduct.” (Zimmerman et al., p. 46)

Giving the examples from the Odyssey by Homer, the author of land ethics, Aldo Leopold states that through its development, mankind has adopted the property relations with nature, and their relations should be eliminated if the sound environment is to be preserved. By these ideas, Mr. Leopold formulates his land ethics theory as follows: “In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it.” (Zimmerman et al., p. 47) Moreover, Mr. Leopold stresses that land is more than soil in someone’s property; it is rather a member of the environmental development process which demands its native animals and plants to be preserved on it while the human-activity effects to be minimal.

Holistic Environmental Ethics

However, the ethics of land, although a rather popular movement among conservationist scholars, has its drawbacks and is widely disputed by specialists. One of the ideas tending to complete the land ethics is the so-called “Holistic environmental ethics” developed as an attempt to include all the elements of the environment into its comprehensive consideration. Moreover, according to the founders of this idea, including Callicott and others, it explains the points which the land ethics, evolutionary theory of the development of species fail to explain. For example, Darwin, as the first evolutionist, states that the survival of species depends on their strengths, aggressiveness, and ability to fight for their territory and means of living. However, the present development of mankind suggests that human beings are less aggressive than they were in the pre-historic times but their population increases (Zimmerman et al., pp. 48 – 51).

To explain this fact, the holistic ethics supporters use the so-called collectiveness approach saying that to survive human beings, as well as all other animals species, unite in communities and develop in the struggle with the individually stronger species. Accordingly, holistic ethics recognizes the rights of animals for equality with human beings as they are similar and should be treated in the same way.

Other Concerns

Having considered all the above issues, it is possible to state that the problem of Animal Liberation is rather important nowadays. Animal Liberation as such has emerged in the middle of the 20th century as a movement for granting the animals the same rights as human beings already possess. Drawing from the pure scholar considerations, such scientists as Callicott, Warren, and others develop the idea of making animals the rightful members of the world community (the term human society is inapplicable here as far as the society should, according to this scholar, consist of all the animal’s species to which human beings belong).

Warren, however, considers the idea which is pluralistic and somewhat different from the one expressed by Calllicott: “She argues that animals, like human beings, have rights. But she also argues that animals do not enjoy the same rights as human beings and that the rights of animals are not equal to human rights.” (Zimmerman et al., p. 51) Such a distinction is based on the value that a certain animal species has for the environment and the psychological and material needs of this species. There is a great level of probability that the ideas of this kind lead to more significant global problems in the sphere of animal rights.

Global Issues

Thus, one of the global issues is the destruction of all animal species, either wild or domestic, around the world. According to Gruen, only the United States of America kills several billion animals every year to satisfy the needs of its human population in food of the animal origin: “An estimated 200 million animals are used routinely in laboratory experiments around the world annually. A large proportion of the research causes animals pain and discomfort while providing absolutely no benefit to human beings.” (Gruen and Jamieson, p. 281)

Hunting, a legal and especially illegal one, is also are a serious threat to animal rights as far as 250 million animal species in the wild nature are killed by hunters annually only in the US. All these issues cause one more, the most critical, issue to happen – nowadays approximately 650 animal species are on the edge of extinction (Gruen and Jamieson, p. 281). It is now about the preservation of these species and maintenance of their existence rather than about fighting for their rights. Human society has developed such a set of institutions that does not allow any other species other than human beings to dominate nature. The rights of animals are not considered, or even not viewed to be worth consideration, and one of the institutions limiting the freedoms and rights of animals is a zoo.


In their essence, zoos are “public parks which display animals, primarily for the purposes of recreation or education”. (Gruen and Jamieson, p. 291) The first zoos were established in Europe in the 18th and the USA in the 19th century. Developing as mainly amusement facilities, zoos turned into prisons for animals where their freedom is limited and they are kept in captivity irrespective of their interests and natural needs. However, there are supporters and opponents of zoos’ existence in the world.

The supporters typically refer to the four most common positive sides of zoos including “amusement, education, opportunities for academic research, and help in preserving species” (Gruen and Jamieson, p. 296). However, the opponents consider such important points as animal liberty, rights, and freedoms of all living beings as the basic values for mankind. Drawing from this, the supporters of animal liberation struggle for the elimination of zoos and liberation of animals. This liberation should lie in both placing them back to the wild nature and, in the more general sense, in giving the animals the rights equal with human beings.


To make the respective conclusion to this paper, it is necessary to state that environmental ethics is the science dealing with the issues observed in relations between human beings and nature. Animal rights constitute one of the major areas of concern for environmental ethics. Despite numerous controversial and competing theories, the scholars agree on a single point – human beings are one of the animal species and because of this, all other animal species should be equal in their rights and freedoms to humans. This paper focused on animal rights and numerous theories developed for their defense. The paper found out that the modern world is on the way to Animal Liberation, elimination of zoos as the means to violate animal rights and limit their freedoms.

Works Cited

Zimmerman, M., J. Callicot, K. Warren, I. Klaver, and J. Clark. Environmental Philosophy: From Animal Rights to Radical Ecology. Prentice Hall, 2005.

Gruen, Lori and Dale Jamieson. Reflecting on Nature; Readings in Environmental Philosophy. Oxford University Press, USA, 1994.

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