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  • Writer's pictureCrone

Third wave animal ethics

Here I will start to bore you with my latest Work in Progress attempt....


In this paper I will seek to demonstrate that in animal ethics it is necessary but not sufficient to consider animals (I will use this term to refer to non-humans) as individuals: an ethical response also needs to consider animals as embedded in their social and environmental context. I will further suggest that the focus on individual interests or rights is related to an anthropocentric perspective that struggles to address the interdependence of life-forms and instead reasserts human dominance through various dichotomies: self and other, human and animal, society or culture and nature and so on.

The argument proceeds as follows. In Section I, I will briefly recap the most influential approaches to animal ethics, demonstrating that while the first and second waves of animal ethics have made great strides, there are limitations. I will focus on one aspect: namely that the moral considerability of individual animals as independent beings does not represent anything but a small area of the moral landscape. In Section II, I will draw on empirical evidence to demonstrate that an individual approach underdetermines the ethically relevant interests of animals. Finally, I will suggest that there is a need to reconsider animal ethics.


My aim in this section to show that theories of animal ethics conceive of animals as atomised independent individuals, and to suggest that this approach falls short of recognising all the moral reasons we have with respect to animals.

Firstly, one caveat: environmental ethics privileges a species or an ecosystem rather than regarding the individual animal as a morally relevant unit. This has some advantages, as we shall see when I come to consider the empirical evidence, but fails in consistency. While humans are granted certain inviolable rights, animals are not. This is an archetypal case of Kantianism for humans, consequentialism for the rest. Without proving the moral relevance of anthropocentrism, which seems unlikely, it seems to me that such a position is unsustainable. In addition, environmental ethics can perpetuate a rigid distinction between what is perceived as ‘natural’ and what is ‘unnatural’. I will not expand on the problematic nature of this division, but some of the evidence in Section II alludes to the interweaving of human impact (‘unnatural’) and animal evolution and adaptation (‘natural’). Nonetheless, the importance of the ecosystem does need to be borne in mind.

As for animal ethics, consequentialists (for purposes of brevity, I am assuming hedonistic utilitarianism), are concerned with sentient beings (briefly, those who can experience pleasure and pain). The amount of pain and/or pleasure experienced by an animal, conceived of as an atomised individual, can then be put into an overall calculation to determine the appropriate moral response in a given situation. A consequentialist might consider that the interests of a wolf, while deserving of equal moral consideration with those of a philosophy professor, may well be deemed to weigh less where the survival of one or the other is at stake, as the wolf can experience fewer pleasures. How the consequentialist knows this is uncertain, but the common sense assumption is that a wolf is a simpler creature, with less cognitive complexity, than a philosophy professor and cannot daydream about writing an influential treatise or recall the delicious Vinho Verde she drank on her honeymoon in Portugal. On this basis, sacrificing the wolf - or some number of wolves, depending on the weight the ethicist gives to the ‘richer’ experiences of the professor - for the life of the philosophy professor would be acceptable. However, it would be considered wrong to sacrifice a wolf for the mere sartorial pleasure of wearing a wolf-fur ruff. In most situations, as animals have morally relevant interests in not being harmed or killed and as humans do not require their flesh or skin to survive, it is morally wrong to harm or kill them.

In rights theory, the animal is the individual rights holder or subject of a life. Tom Regan’s theory does confer inviolable rights to subjects-of-a-life. Subjects-of-a-life are those beings who perceive and remember, have beliefs, desires and preferences, a psychological self over time and a sense of the future. All such beings have ‘inherent value… and all have an equal right to be treated with respect’ (Regan 1984). Regan initially opted to restrict the force of his argument to a category of animals with the strongest claim to having that status - mammals over a year old, but, with further evidence, is willing to expand the parameters to include other animals, for example, birds. As every subject-of-a-life has an equal right to life, this confers a negative duty on humans - not to kill or harm other animals.

Both the consequentialist and deontological approaches aim to establish the philosophical grounds for the moral considerability of animals. They are thus making a vital contribution to ethics. Nonetheless, these theories underdetermine morally significant aspects of animal lives. For example, I want to say that the death of a wolf is not just a wrong done to that wolf but to her pack, as wolves are highly social animals with strong familial bonds and co-operative hunting strategies. If she is an alpha female with pups, the wrong done is compounded. If she is an alpha female who is also a repository of knowledge (has gained experience in her lifetime that is of survival value to her pack), the wrong done has even greater implications.

A similar case could be made for humans: that the wrong done in killing a mother is also a wrong done to her dependent children and so on. Societies do indeed take this into account where damages are paid, for example. However, while there is no difference in kind, I would argue that there is a difference in degree. The lives of animals, even those animals who demonstrate behavioural flexibility, like rats and crows, or evolutionary adaptations, like rock swallows (who have evolved shorter wings in populations inhabiting urban areas to allow for a more rapid take-off) or pigeons (urban pigeons have darker wings than rural pigeons as the colour absorbs more heavy metals) appear more circumscribed by their social and physical environment. An orphaned wildebeest calf will not be taken in by the neighbours (although a baby rat, baboon or bear cub might (MASSON)). A herd of elephants without their experienced matriarch cannot use Google maps to find directions to the only remaining waterhole during a once in thirty year drought. A cuckoo cannot use Deliveroo to make up for the loss of hairy caterpillars.

Further, by applying an inevitably anthropocentric humanist ethical theory to non-humans, there seems to be a clear tendency to favour those animals deemed more like humans in various ways. A kind of multi-species identity politics ensues: great apes and dolphins maybe have more rights or weightier interests than rabbits and tuna; who in turn are preferred to worms and cockroaches. This constant exercise of line-drawing (who shall we care about and how much?) comes to be foregrounded at the expense of action (what shall we do?).

The problem is further compounded because the beneficial or harmful impact humans have on animals as individuals tends to be limited to domesticates. Sure, one can take evasive action to avoid running over a fox or take an injured rabbit to a wildlife vet, but, on the whole, the human impact on animals is on groups of animals, on species or habitats. Thus, to consider them as individuals with interests or individual rights-holders, though valuable, seems to be hitting the wrong target when it comes to decreasing the suffering or improving the well-being of animals.

Various other approaches fare no better. I do have great sympathy with James Rachels’ version. He states:

It is appropriate to direct moral consideration toward any individual who has any of the indefinitely long list of characteristics that constitute morally good reasons why he or she should or should not be treated in any of the various ways in which individuals may be treated. (Rachels 2004)

This could be stretched to include the animal’s familial, communal and environmental interests. And yet, it is known as Moral Individualism for a reason. The animal is still essentially considered independent of her context. The force of Rachels’ work is to privilege the individual and expanding it to incorporate all that which I will show is relevant is to over-inflate the theory to bursting point.

Those theories which foreground the role of relationality, care or empathy also have strengths. For example, Mary Midgely, whose emphasis on relationality rests on her view that any moral vision should incorporate the social as well as rational side of our animal nature (McElwain 2020)). However, they tend to focus on the relationality, care and empathy of the human moral agent - rather than on the relationality, care and empathy of animals in their social groups.

Many theorists claim that humans should simply not interfere with wild animals. However, given the devastating impact of habitat destruction and climate change, fully recognising the moral considerability might demand some form of reparation for past harms.

Further, theorists who insist that wild animals should be left alone fail, as Kymlicka and Donaldson point out, to acknowledge that many non-domesticated animals live with humans in human environments. Such ‘liminal’ animals have adapted to city, village or farm life. We cannot pretend they are not there and are not impacted positively or negatively by human actions. Like the myrmecophile insects that have adapted to live with ants, some exploit human environments, others have a commensal relationship with their human neighbours. As there is adaptation (urban animals tend to be more tolerant, neophilic and better at problem-solving than their rural conspecifics in order to exploit the food sources and habitats created by humans), it may be that such animals merit, as Kymlicka and Donaldon suggest, a particular and distinct place in ethical thinking. Or it may be that a third wave animal ethics, appreciating the distinct interconnections between species, without privileging humans, could successfully embrace wild as well as liminal animals.

The various complexities are too involved for me to untangle here: my aim is simply to draw attention to the limitations of the individual approach. It is beyond the scope of this paper (and writer) to construct an entirely new theory. Nor will I further address predation, which brings in further theoretical complications - especially for those theorists who take to heart new research related to insect sentience. It would then not just be the antelope and mouse one would have to worry about but also the hoverfly and hairy caterpillar (favourite prey of warblers and cuckoos respectively).

In the following section, I will draw attention to aspects of the lives of some animals which suggest that to consider the individual independent of relationships or context may be theoretically beneficial, in that it ignores a great deal of real life complexity, but it leaves completely unexplored a wide variety of morally relevant issues.


You can look forward to the rest tomorrow!!

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