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Humanities LibreTexts

1.2: Moral Questions

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  • In this book we will attempt to reasonably answer moral or ethical questions concerning the treatment and use of animals.1 Some of these questions are general2, e.g.:

    • Morally, how should we treat animals?
    • Which uses of animals, if any, are morally permissible, and which are morally wrong?
    • Do we have any moral obligations toward any animals?
    • What is the extent of these obligations? Why do we have these obligations (if we do)? What is it about (various kinds of) animals that make them such that how we treat them matters morally?
    • Are there different obligations toward different animals? Might certain uses of some animals be morally permissible, whereas using other animals in similar ways would be wrong? (E.g., might some experiments be wrong if done on chimpanzees, whereas morally permissible, or perhaps “less wrong,” if done on mice?
    • Morally, should we be concerned only with certain kinds of animals, e.g., those who are conscious and have feelings? What about insects? What about unicellular organisms? On what basis do we decide?

    Other questions deal with specific uses of animals, e.g.:

    • Is it morally permissible to trap and skin animals for their fur in our society, where alternatives to fur coats are readily available? If we lived somewhere where there were no such “alternative” means to keep warm would that make a difference to the morality of using animals for their fur?
    • Is it morally permissible to raise and kill animals to eat them in our society, where nutritious alternatives to animal foods are readily available? If we were somewhere where there were inadequate non-animal foods would that make a difference to the morality of using animals for food?
    • If it could be known, with certainty, that some experiments on animals would save the lives of many human beings (or even just one?), would these experiments be morally permissible? If there was only a slight chance that these experiments would lead to such benefits, or no chance, would this make a difference to the morality of these experiments?

    While everyone has answers to these questions, we are not interested in anyone’s mere “opinions” or “feelings” about how they should be answered. We want to find out which answers are backed by the best moral reasons or strongest moral arguments, i.e., the arguments that we have the strongest reasons to believe are sound. We want to know why we should accept some answers to these questions and reject others. To do this we will attempt to improve out skills at reasoning morally.3

    1 The terms ‘ethical’ and ‘moral’ will be used synonymously throughout this course.

    2 These questions might be described as being about the “moral status” of animals. I will not use this term however, since it is better to just ask straightforward questions about whether some treatment or use is morally permissible or not (and why), whether some treating some being (e.g., some animal) one way would be better or worse than treating another being (e.g., some human being) in a similar way, and so on.

    3 We will challenge our own answers to questions like these above and arguments in favor of them by considering contrary answers to these questions (i.e., answers that contradict your, and perhaps our, answers). If we carefully identify evaluate the arguments given by people we disagree with, we may find that their arguments are stronger than our own and so we should change our minds! Another possibility is that their beliefs about how animals should be treated should change and, perhaps, their behaviors toward animals should change also. Although change – in belief, attitude, feeling, action and policy – is a focus of this course, it is not about persuasion in the way that a course on advertising, marking, propaganda, and public / media relations might be. It is about persuasion, however, in that we are trying to identify which views people should persuaded to accept, if we wish to think critically and carefully about what we morally ought to do. If we are capable of such critical moral thinking (and, if so, how this is done) will be discussed below and in the readings on logic and argument analysis and practiced throughout the course.

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