Vet Ethics: Man’s dominion and the worth of animals

In his book Animal Welfare: A Cool Eye Towards Eden, the well-known welfare scientist John Webster criticises the contribution of moral philosophy to the question of the treatment of animals and their welfare. Webster writes:

The moral philosophy approach to animal welfare – i.e. based upon our thoughts and values, not theirs – tends to generate broad, bold (and careless) conclusions such as ‘Man has no right to cause any animal to suffer’”.

He gives just two examples of such “moral philosophy”: A book by Andrew Lindsay, a Christian author who has attempted to interpret the meaning of “Man’s Dominion” in a way favourable to animal rights; and the famous book Animal Liberation by Peter Singer. While admitting that he admires and shares a passion for animal welfare with these authors, and is also well disposed towards aspects of Singer’s utilitarian philosophy, Webster claims that their work is not really helpful. In fact, their work is all too easily debased into empty or wrong-headed slogans. Webster holds a view that “Man” rightly and necessarily has “Dominion” over the animals. He broadly favours traditional forms of animal use, like animal agriculture, so long as they treat animals humanely and fairly.

Although Webster’s criticisms of philosophy are brief and undeveloped, they are useful to us for thinking about the place of philosophy and ethics in debates over animal treatment and welfare. Most of Webster’s book is about animal science, welfare, and advocacy (and worth reading on this score). He thinks that this approach – in contrast with the “self-indulgent moralizing” of moral philosophy – is a “constructive”, “practical”, and “realistic” approach to important problems of “Man’s Dominion”.

Webster’s dim picture of moral philosophy might be corrected by noting the following points:

1. Moral philosophy, or ethics, does not lead automatically to any particular position on animals. Interestingly, many of those who study animal ethics have indeed come to more “animal-friendly” views. However, moral philosophy necessarily requires us to think independently and rigorously about the nature of ethics and its practical implications. This could lead to an acceptance of animal rights, or to a rejection of them.

Philosophy is light years away from empty or kneejerk “slogans” about animals and humans. Moreover, the very meaning of “rights” is something that requires examination. For some people, animal rights entail a rejection of many or most forms of animal use. For others, animal rights involve more of a case-by-case approach.

Peter Singer argues that a properly thought-out utilitarianism opposes many industrial farming processes due to the animal suffering they cause, but is open to some kinds of animal experimentation. That is because utilitarianism – which Webster says he finds very helpful and practical – tells us to impartially and equally count similar interests, regardless of the type of being to whom those interests belong. As utilitarians might say, “pain is pain” – or, more broadly, “welfare is welfare”, no matter whose welfare it is. But, of course, many philosophers are critical of utilitarianism. Again, philosophy requires thinking hard and impartially about things that matter, not blindly endorsing any particular point of view.

2. On the other hand, Webster thinks that moral philosophy which talks about animal rights and animal consent tends to ignore the “individuals whose rights and whose consent are under discussion” and whose perspectives are therefore “not allowed to contribute to the argument”. In contrast, animal welfare advocates like himself do investigate and count the animals’ own point of view, including what animals feel and prefer.

It is well worth appreciating the fact that animal welfare science represents a revolution in the way animals are studied. Welfare science investigates animal sentience and cognition, not just at aspects like physiology, pathology, function, and health. Its motivation is to inform our ethical decisions about the treatment of animals.

Yet the endeavour to understand animals’ inner lives is not opposed by moral philosophy. Animal ethics has sought to pay more attention to animal feeling and cognition. Webster quotes with approval that famous utilitarian philosophy, Jeremy Bentham, who long ago said that the important question is not whether animals can talk, but whether they can suffer. Philosophy and welfare science can work together on our moral relations to animals.

3. Moral philosophy is also not inherently opposed to what is practical, realistic, or constructive. Philosophers are fond of saying that “ought implies can” – meaning that we can only be held morally accountable for actions which are achievable, not for actions which are impossible. And many ethical approaches can deliver quite clear practical recommendations (which obviously does not mean that they can give us the kinds of details that animal welfare science investigates).

At the same time, no-one has a monopoly on judging what is realistic or practical. That is, what we see as realistic and practical can depend to some degree on our own moral points of view. Interestingly, it has been philosophy itself that has partly given rise to the circumstances in which people like Webster judge what is constructive, practical, and realistic.

Take the idea of “Man’s Dominion” that Webster favours. This idea, of course, emerged historically some two thousand-plus years ago from the religions of Judaism and Christianity. But the idea was given form and intellectual grounding by the enormously influential works of ancient Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle.

Later, the moral idea of Man’s Dominion received powerful support from the seminal writings of the Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant. Kant argued that human beings have an incomparable dignity and worth. This philosophical view has had major effects on Western culture, including international law. Kant also taught that animals have no moral worth at all. The latter view is something that many philosophers, welfare scientists, and advocates have started to oppose.


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