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The Proceedings of the Twenty-First World Congress of Philosophy

Volume 3, 2007

Human Rights

Elisa Aaltola
Pages 219-225

The Moral Value of Animals
Three Altruistic Versions

Altruism has often been thought to be the reason we treat animals with a certain moral respect. Animals are not moral agents who could reciprocally honour our well being, and because of this duties toward them are considered to be based on other-directed motivations. Altruism is a vague notion, and in the context of animals can be divided into at least three different alternatives. The first one equates altruism with benevolence or "kindness"; the second one argues altruism is based on recognising inherent value in others; and the third one emphasises identification. Out of these three the first one seems the poorest, for it ultimately falls into egoism: we treat animals with respect out of a need to cultivate our "humanity". The second option is well justified and has been defended thoroughly in the field of animal ethics. Still, it has been criticised recently for being too theory-dependent and even abstract. The third alternative seems tempting in its willingness to give room to practice instead of emphasising abstract moral notions. However, this willingness also comes with a price, for it seems unclear what the mere concentration on contexts and practice can tell us about duties and norms. The main problem is fitting together identification as a practical grounds for moral sentiment with the need for "codified" and even abstract moral principles. One way to do this, the paper suggests, is to use a three-level approach that seeks to take both sides into account.

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