Article Image
Illustration by Deniz Rosenberger

I was recently reading a book about the moral obligations that humans have towards animals, and I had a reaction that deeply disturbed me: I laughed. I laughed at the idea that human beings have moral obligations toward animals.

I take this laughter very seriously. I care about animals and therefore believe that I should treat them morally. I've always felt that animals have a peculiar vulnerability—and, therefore, like everything vulnerable, they deserve my most conscientious treatment.

But to laugh at the idea that humans have moral obligations to animals—that, I thought, is a problem. Does it not reveal in me a kind of sociopathy—so to speak, a zoosociopathy—or a crass disregard for the interests of animals? Am I really as heartless as this?

Let me first explain why I laughed at the idea that humans have moral obligations to animals.

The book that I was reading was Can Animals Be Moral? by philosopher Mark Rowlands. In his book, Rowlands claims that animals are moral agents—beings who can act on the basis of moral reasons. (It is for this reason that humans are moral agents.) Animals, Rowlands writes, have moral emotions like grief, empathy, kindness, and tolerance. Additionally, animals act on the basis of these moral emotions.

Rowlands then claims that, because animals are moral agents, humans must respect them. (And, similarly, it is because humans are moral agents that they must respect one another.) Respecting animals entails appreciating their capabilities and talents and promoting, rather than impeding, the exercise of their capabilities and talents—in other words, helping animals to flourish.

I am not exactly sure what the source of my laughter was, but I think it had many sources.

It may, perhaps, have been the idea that animals have moral emotions. This idea is funny not simply because it applies emotions that are patently human to animals—consider the contexts in which one learns what these emotions are—animals are not involved. More than that, it applies to animals' emotions that were articulated, at a very precise moment in history, as the emotions that the ideal human being should have. Grief, empathy, kindness, and tolerance make up the sensitive, philanthropic heart prized by the liberal 18th century. Then animals are envisioned in not only a human way, but also an ideal human way! I began to imagine a sea otter, or my dog, being perfectly at home at a French salon, speaking to Voltaire or Rousseau, and to the philosophers' delight, exhibiting all of the virtues of the humane heart. 

It may also have been the idea that animals have capabilities, and in particular, talents. What, I wondered, are my dog's talents? What does she do very well? What future is promised to her? When I was her age, I had interests in magic tricks, chess, and the Romans. “Perhaps,” I began to think, “she has interests just like mine, but I had no idea about them, because I neglected them, because I didn't respect her.”

The issue here—and the source of my laughter—is that when we apply a moral vocabulary to animals (emotions that make us esteem a human being, and talents that, in young people, we owe it to them to cultivate) something ridiculous results. What results is almost identical to the classic definition of the joke: A combination of words that stand in an incongruous or absurd relation to one another (sea otter, tolerance; dog, talent).

However, the problem is that, by treating this application of a moral vocabulary to animals as ridiculous, I am heartless—even openly contemptuous—toward animals. It's as though I am someone who finds his dog to be pathetic because I find it ridiculous that she could be tolerant or have talents. Even worse, what I find ridiculous is the very basis of my moral obligations to animals: It is the idea that they have moral agency, and by not recognizing their moral agency, I am also immoral.

But I do not think I am this kind of person. If I could defend myself—and defend my laughter—I would say something like this: Yes, I do find it funny that I should think of my dog as talented, tolerant, and a moral agent. She is none of those things. But this does not mean that I feel any contempt for her—that I find her pathetic, or animal. Rather, I love my dog, and this love is not based on any moral understanding I have of her. I love her—like everything I truly love—for a thousand reasons. And because of this love, I am willing to treat her “morally”—if you want to call it that. I am willing to protect her, to never hurt her, and to make her as happy, as far as I can understand her happiness (if it is happiness), as I can.

There is a problem with this defense. I am saying that I have moral obligations to animals because of my love, and yet love is probably one of the most untrustworthy sources of moral obligations. Love is, for example, directed towards things with which we are particularly intimate—but, therefore, not to strangers. It is inconstant, and so might disappear, taking along with it the moral obligations it supports. The real problem is very few people have love, especially love of animals. For every person who does love animals, there may be a hundred others who do not.

Perhaps, then, I should begin to believe in ridiculous things. 

The author is a Core lecturer in the philosophy department. After Office Hours runs every Friday.

To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact

Animal Rights Philosophy Core After Office Hours
From Around the Web