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Nonhuman Animals in Moral Equality Theories Essay

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Updated: Dec 5th, 2019


The place of non-human animals in an acceptable moral system often attracts different moral views. The nonhumans lie on the borderline of human moral theories and principles; sometimes they are accorded a high moral status and other times they are denied any moral recognition (Pluhar, 1995, p. 67). Accordingly, the philosophical views on the moral standing of nonhuman animals are diverse.

The three broad categories of philosophical theories on animal moral standing include indirect theories, moral equality theories, and direct theories. Indirect theories hold that, due to lack of reason, consciousness, or autonomy, animals cannot be accorded equal moral status as humans. Arguments of Immanuel Kant and Descartes belong to this category.

In contrast, direct theories, though they accord some moral recognition to animals, they fail to accord them full moral status because of their lack of autonomy, rationality, and self-consciousness. These theories argue that animal sentience is enough reason not to harm animals.

The moral equality theories extend equal moral status for animals and humans based on the concept that, animals and human infants bear similarities in their mental and physiological capacities (Pluhar, 1995, p. 71). They refute the moral relevance of rationality, consciousness, and autonomy-qualities of being human.

This category comprises of the arguments formulated by philosophers Tom Regan and Peter Singer. The philosophers employ divergent perspectives in advocating for equal moral status for both human beings and animals.

Peter Singer: Equal Consideration of Interests Principle

Peter Singer has been an active advocate for nonhumans’ rights and ethics. In his article, “The Place of Nonhumans in Environmental Issues”, Singer discusses various environmental issues in the context of nonhumans; moreover, he relates their interests to those of humans (2003, p. 191).

He attacks the argument that animals should be accorded less moral status than humans should be accorded. He argues that, according unequal consideration to animal interests will result to unequal consideration of interests of different humans, which contravenes the common claim that all humans are equal.

Consequently, Singer suggests that, the concept of equal consideration of interests as applied among human beings should apply to animals, as well. He describes the essence of this principle as; human actions involve prior moral deliberations regarding the interests of other human beings who are likely to be affected by our actions.

Singer mentions environmental issues such as environmental pollution (air and water), global warming, and destruction of animal habitats as harmful to humans and animals, as well. He argues that environmental issues should be addressed from the perspective of nonhuman’s interests or feelings (2003, p. 193).

He contends that nonhumans such as birds and mammals have sentience; they can feel pain or suffering, as they possess a similar nervous system as humans. Therefore, these animals have interests that humans must recognize and respect just as people respect the interests of others because of their sentience and consciousness.

Additionally, people employ inhumane methods in slaughtering, transporting, and raising animals for meat. Singer argues that, this inhumane treatment has no moral basis as it inflicts pain and suffering to animals. Humans have a moral obligation to avert pain and suffering of other people and nonhuman animals (2003, p. 197).

Singer contends that, the maxim of equal treatment of concerns should be employed to both humans and nonhumans. He suggests that equal consideration “does not imply treating nonhumans equally but rather considering the interests of humans and nonhumans equally” (2003, p. 193).

In other words, humans must consider the total effect of their action(s) on all groups of individuals before making the decision. For instance, Singer argues that, between a dog and a human being, a decision must be made to save the human as the human and his/her family will undergo more suffering than the dog. In this regard, this decision must consider the interests of the dog and the human from an equal front.

According to Singer, often, humans disregard the interests of animals in a bid to satisfy their own interests. As such, they fail to accord equal consideration to the pain and suffering of animals. To emphasize this, he gives an example of mass poisoning of crop pests such as rabbits with cyanide.

Although he subscribes to the need for pest control, he contends that it should be humane and considerate of the interests of the animal pests. From this perspective, Singer argues that, since animals can suffer, people should accord them similar treatment as accorded to other humans.

People classify animals into species rather than as individuals. Singer calls this tendency speciesism, which he points out, is similar to the idea of racism. In the slavery era, the slave owners failed to consider the interests of the slaves and instead treated them as nonhumans; a practice, which Singer claims, is accorded to nonhumans today.

He compares speciesism to racism; both involve a practice where people perceive themselves as superior to a given race or species. He argues that people should reject speceisism for the same reasons they reject racism. He reasons that speceisism amounts to sacrificing of the nonhuman’s interests to satisfy the human interests; which is not morally defensible.

Tom Regan and the Animal Rights

Tom Regan’s article, “Animal Rights: What is in a Name”, argues that animals, just like humans, have rights. Regan, like Singer, attacks the indirect moral theories and the unequal status theories, which infer that only humans have rights.

He attempts to discredit the concept that equal moral status should be accorded on Utilitarian grounds. He argues that, the moral status should be based on rights rather than Utilitarian concepts. Regan’s argument relies on the principle of inherent value. According to Regan, “both human and animals have inherent value and as such have rights” (2004), p.122).

The inherent value of a being means that, it must be accorded respect; showing respect implies not using it as a means to our ends rather such a being should be considered an end in itself. This means that inherent value confers a being with rights.

Regan questions the basis for human rights. He rejects the common claim that a being must have the capacity to pursue its interests based on the conception of rights as posited under the marginal cases arguments (2004, p. 123). Marginal cases of humanity possess rights founded on humans being moral agents (DeGrazia, 1996, p. 78).

According to Regan, the only thing that confers marginal cases with moral rights similar to normal human beings is the “subject-of-a-life” (2004, p. 125). He contends that a subject-of-a-life being “has desires, memory, perceptions, emotional feelings (pain and pleasure), interests as well as a conception of the future” (2004, p. 128).

The subject-of-a-life is the basis of human rights; however, according to Regan, animals have this property as well and as such deserve animal rights.

The Distinction between the Two Arguments

Although Regan’s position appears similar to Singer’s position with regard to recognition of the interests/rights of animals, Regan largely discredits Singer’s Utilitarian approach. Singer posits that, we should ensure equal consideration of the interests of humans and nonhuman animals in our deliberations.

However, Regan indicates that this can be erroneous; the central focus is the individual with interests, not the interests themselves. Thus, by solely focusing on the interests, immoral actions can be done on Utilitarian grounds. Regan believes that a being with inherent value cannot serve as a means to an end but rather as an end unto itself.

However, this does not imply that rights are absolute in Regan’s view. Instead, when rights conflict, then one party’s rights may be denied priority. While singer contends that the level of suffering or pain takes determines whose rights must be overridden, Regan argues that in circumstances where rights of different parties (human and nonhuman) conflict, attempts must be made to minimize the effects.

However, Regan argues that humans should not violate another individual’s right merely because, by doing so, everyone will benefit. In Regan’s view, this action is not permissible as it implies sacrificing individual rights for utility. In contrast, Singer holds the opposite view; the violation of another individual’s interests is permissible in the broader context of the other’s interests.

In brief, Regan’s argument with regard to animal rights revolves around the ‘inherent value’ concept while Singer contends for the equal consideration of interests of humans and nonhumans. Regan holds the view that raising animals for human food is simply treating them as means to our ends.

Thus, according to Regan, humans should not rear animals for food, scientific experimentation, or hunting as a sport. In contrast, Singer argues for a humane treatment of animals when raising or slaughtering them for food with respect to human interests versus animal interests.

Therefore, from Singer’s perspective, humans must consider the effects and interests of all individuals (humans and animals) in their deliberations before making any decision.

Regan Vs Singer’s Perspective

I think Singer supported his arguments remarkably well throughout his article. In particular, his argument that mammals and birds are prone to pain and suffering subjected by humans and that, as humans, we should consider them as individuals, was most convincing. Additionally, it is evident that exploitation of the environment for economic purposes has adverse impacts on humans and nonhuman animals.

As such, we should take into account the interests of animals, as they are part of a self-sustaining natural system. Indeed, mammals and birds have sentience and feel pain as humans. However, I think Singer’s argument that all nonhuman animals (reptiles, fish, and amphibians) have the same level of consciousness is not convincing.

While these animals may bear a similar nervous system as humans, it is nevertheless, less developed and, as a result, cannot exhibit a similar level of consciousness or suffering as humans or birds and mammals do.

Singer’s argument on speceisism is an appealing one especially where he compares it to racism. In my opinion, it is evident that nonhuman animals cannot speak or think like humans. In contrast, all human races can think and have speech, and thus, racism is not comparable to speceisism.

Additionally, Singer argues that, the pain and suffering underwent by nonhumans is equal to that of humans, but, pain or suffering is not measurable and from a human perspective, humans undergo more pain than animals due to their developed sensory system.

In contrast, Regan presents and supports the “inherent value” concept particularly well as a basis for his argument that animals have rights like humans. In my opinion, his arguments that moral standing is based on rights, not on Utilitarian concepts, is most convincing. By according a being with ‘inherent value’ respect, then we cannot use it as a means to justify our ends.

Additionally, his disapproval of the notion that the capacity to pursue individual rights qualifies a being for the recognition of its rights is riveting. I think his use of marginal cases in arguing that the subject-of-a-life is what confers marginal cases moral rights and on that basis, animals should be accorded rights, lends his argument more weight.

From the perspective of not using animals as means to justify our ends, I think Regan convincingly argues that, rearing animals for food (meat) is morally wrong as it contravenes their fundamental rights. Singer, on the other hand, in my opinion, is not convincing especially with regard to humane treatment of animals when raising, transporting, and slaughtering them.

In my opinion, devising humane ways to raise or transport animals as well as the process will allow people to continue eating meat. Thus, Singer’s argument does little to convince society to stop meat eating compared to Regan’s argument.


Moral equality theories recognize that the nonhuman animals have equal rights/interests just like humans. Singer articulates his argument on the principle of equal consideration of interests; where both humans and animals (birds and mammals) must be accorded equal interests with regard to the environment.

Regan, on the other hand, relies on the concept of inherent value to argue that, utilizing animals as means to our ends is morally wrong as it denies them their rights. In my opinion, Regan presents a more convincing argument than Singer does as he objects to raising animals purposely for food.

Reference List

DeGrazia, D. (1996). Taking Animals Seriously: Mental Life and Moral Status. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pluhar, E. (1995). Beyond Prejudice: The Moral Significance of Human and Nonhuman Animals. Durham: Duke University Press.

Regan, T. (2004). The Case for Animal Rights: What is in a Name. Berkeley: University Of California Press.

Singer, P. (2003). Not for Humans Only: The Place of Nonhumans in Environmental Issues. Ethics and Problems of the 21st Century, pp. 191–206.

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