Animal Morality: What It Means and Why It Matters

Publishing Authors : Susana Monsó,  Judith Benz‑Schwarzburg, Annika Bremhorst

Date Published : 24/10/18


It has been argued that some animals are moral subjects, that is, beings who are
capable of behaving on the basis of moral motivations (Rowlands 2011, 2012, 2017).
In this paper, we do not challenge this claim. Instead, we presuppose its plausibility
in order to explore what ethical consequences follow from it. Using the capabilities
approach (Nussbaum 2004, 2007), we argue that beings who are moral subjects are
entitled to enjoy positive opportunities for the fourishing of their moral capabilities,
and that the thwarting of these capabilities entails a harm that cannot be fully
explained in terms of hedonistic welfare. We explore the implications of this idea for
the assessment of current practices involving animals.
Keywords Nonhuman animals · Animal ethics · Animal morality · Moral emotions ·
Capabilities approach · Welfarism · Harm
Rowlands (2011, 2012, 2017) has recently argued that some nonhuman animals
(hereafter ‘animals’) may be moral creatures, understood as creatures who can
behave on the basis of moral motivations. He has argued that, while animals probably
lack the sorts of concepts and metacognitive capacities necessary to be held
morally responsible for their behaviour, this only excludes them from the pos
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malice, and spite”, as well as “a sense of what is fair and what is not” (Rowlands
2012, 32). If animals do indeed behave on the basis of moral emotions, they should,
he argues, be considered moral subjects, even if their lack of sophisticated cognitive
capacities prevents us from holding them morally responsible.1
The empirical evidence gathered until now suggests that Rowlands may be on
the right track and that some animals are indeed capable of behaving morally. Some
studies, for instance, have found that animals are sometimes willing to help others
when there is no direct gain involved, or even a direct loss. Such apparently altruistic
behaviour has been shown by rats (Church 1959; Rice and Gainer 1962; Evans and
Braud 1969; Greene 1969; Bartal et al. 2011; Sato et al. 2015), pigeons (Watanabe
and Ono 1986), and several primate species (Masserman et al. 1964; Wechkin
et al. 1964; Warneken and Tomasello 2006; Burkart et al. 2007; Warneken et al.
2007; Lakshminarayanan and Santos 2008; Cronin et al. 2010; Horner et al. 2011;
Schmelz et al. 2017). It has further been found that some animals will ofer apparent
consolation to individuals in distress, a behaviour that is thought to be triggered by
empathic processes and has been observed in primates (de Waal and van Roosmalen
1979; Kutsukake and Castles 2004; Cordoni et al. 2006; Fraser et al. 2008; Clay and
de Waal 2013; Palagi et al. 2014), corvids (Seed et al. 2007; Fraser and Bugnyar
2010), canines (Cools et al. 2008; Palagi and Cordoni 2009; Custance and Mayer
2012), elephants (Plotnik and de Waal 2014), horses (Cozzi et al. 2010), budgerigars
(Ikkatai et al. 2016), and prairie voles (Burkett et al. 2016). A few studies have also
found an aversion to inequity in chimpanzees (Brosnan et al. 2005, 2010), monkeys
(Brosnan and de Waal 2003; Cronin and Snowdon 2008; Massen et al. 2012), dogs
(Range et al. 2008), and rats (Oberliessen et al. 2016), which suggests the presence
of a sense of fairness in these species.2
While we believe that all this evidence provides prima facie support for Rowlands’
position, in this paper our aim is not to engage in an empirical or conceptual
assessment of the claim that animals can be moral subjects. Rather, we shall
grant that moral subjecthood in animals is at least a theoretical possibility with some
1 The idea that some animals have some degree of moral agency has also been defended by other
authors, such as Sapontzis (1987), Pluhar (1995), De Grazia (1996), Shapiro (2006) and Andrews and
Gruen (2014). We focus on Rowlands’ approach for present purposes because it is the most detailed philosophical
account of animal morality to date, and also because we fnd the distinction between moral
subjects and moral agents to be very useful when discussing animal morality.
2 In addition to these systematic studies, which document animals engaging in apparently moral behaviour
towards both humans and conspecifcs, one can easily come across many relevant anecdotes. For
instance, there are reports of dolphins helping other dolphins (Park et al. 2012), and even humans
(Bekof and Pierce 2009, 108).
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Animal Morality: What It Means and Why It Matters
empirical plausibility.3
Our focus, instead, is going to be on determining the ethical
consequences that follow from considering that a certain animal is a moral subject.
Morality has long been understood as a feature that distinguishes humanity from
the rest of the animal kingdom. It is not uncommon to fnd authors who use this distinguishing
characteristic as a basis for denying moral rights to animals. McCloskey,
for instance, argues that “[w]ithout a moral capacity, actually or potentially, there
can be […] no moral exercise or waiving of a moral right, and hence no moral rights
possessed by mammals that lack moral autonomy, actually and potentially” (McCloskey
1987, 79). The idea that only moral beings are entitled to moral consideration
is especially salient in the contract tradition in ethics, as exemplifed by the theories
of Hobbes, Locke, and Kant, and can be traced back to Epicurus, who claimed: “[w]
ith regard to those animals that do not have the power of making a covenant to not
harm one another or be harmed, there is neither justice nor injustice” (KD, §32).
This idea is also found in contemporary contractualism. For instance, Rawls states
that “equal justice is owed to those who have the capacity to take part in and to act
in accordance with the public understanding of the initial situation” in which the
principles of justice are chosen (Rawls 1971, 505). This means that, in his view, “it
is precisely the moral persons who are entitled to equal justice,” where moral persons
are understood as those beings who are “capable of having […] a conception of
their good,” as well as “a sense of justice” (Ibid.).
While any theory that requires individuals to be moral in order to matter morally
can be questioned (see, for instance, Rowlands 2002 for a critique of the
Rawlsian position), the fact remains that characterising humans as the only moral
creatures may contribute to justifying a view of our species as superior to the rest,
and of nature as being somehow at our disposal.4
This is exemplifed by Machan,
who states that “[n]ormal human life involves moral tasks, and that is why we are
more important than other beings in nature,” a claim he uses to justify making “the
best use of nature for our success in living our lives” (Machan 2002, 10–11). Any
research project that explores the continuity between our species and the rest of the
animal kingdom has the potential to deliver results that can serve to subvert this
view of humanity, and consequently question our widespread exploitation of animals
(Benz-Schwarzburg and Knight 2011; Benz-Schwarzburg 2012). Determining that
3 While the possibility of animal morality is gaining increasing support from scholars, there are authors
who have expressed dissenting views, on both empirical and conceptual grounds. There are, for instance,
empirical critiques of the ‘fairness’ experiments by Brosnan and De Waal (e.g. Penn et al. 2008), as well
as the ‘empathy’ studies on rodents (e.g. Schwartz et al. 2017). There are also conceptual critiques that
focus on whether these studies provide evidence of specifcally moral motivations (see e.g. Korsgaard
2006; Carron 2018 for critiques of De Waal’s interpretation of the relevant studies). For a comprehensive
overview of the conceptual disagreements in the animal morality debate, see Fitzpatrick (2017). For an
up-to-date discussion of the empirical evidence and the debates on how to interpret it, see Andrews and
Monsó (in preparation).
4 This line of thinking is deeply rooted in diferent cultures. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, for example,
human superiority has traditionally been interpreted as granting a right to dominate and exploit
nature. Some modern theologians, however, argue that human superiority should instead be interpreted
as implying a duty of stewardship (e.g. Linzey and Cohn-Sherbok 1997).
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morality extends beyond the human species would thus help undermine any claims
of human superiority that could be used to justify the mistreatment of animals.5
However, we will argue that this is not the only ethical consequence attached to
the idea of animals as moral subjects. It is generally assumed that the kind of ethical
treatment a certain being is entitled to depends upon the type of being she is. While
this idea has been questioned by some authors (e.g. Crary 2010), most ethicists consider
that a species’ features are the cornerstone of the type of ethical treatment its
members deserve. White, for example, links the very idea of ethics to the appreciation
of a species’ capacities. He does so by referring to the notion of vulnerability:
Ethics—our labeling actions as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’—is grounded in the idea
that the type of consciousness that we have gives us special capacities and vulnerabilities.
When we label something as ‘wrong’, then, we’re saying that it
crosses the line with regard to not respecting some fundamental feature that
makes us human. (White 2007, 155)
It seems, indeed, plausible to consider that the ways in which members of a species
can be harmed make them vulnerable in certain specifc ways, and, in turn,
shape the kinds of duties we might hold towards them. For instance, it makes no
sense to say of a non-sentient being that she has a right not to be subjected to unnecessary
pain. Taking this idea as our point of departure, we will argue that there is a
specifc kind of harm that can afect moral subjects as such, and that certain specifc
rights or entitlements follow from this. And, importantly, we will argue that this
specifc kind of harm cannot be captured merely by saying that the individual is suffering,
that her experiential welfare is impaired.
In order to defend this position, we are frst going to introduce what we shall term
the ‘welfarist’ position in animal ethics, which we will understand in a specifc, and
somewhat narrow, sense, and will constitute the focus of our critique. In the next
section, we will construct a hypothetical example of an animal who has the ability
to behave on the basis of a certain moral motivation and, thus, qualifes as a moral
subject. Using Nussbaum’s capabilities approach as our theoretical framework, we
will then illustrate the kind of harm that can afect this individual because she possesses
this motivation, and the entitlements that she has as a result of this. We will
subsequently return to the welfarist position and argue that a purely welfare-oriented
analysis of this individual’s case would not capture the full dimension of this harm.
In the fnal section before concluding, we will go back into the ‘real world’ and
examine some of the practices involving animals using these considerations as our
guide. Our aim will be to show how humans may be interfering with the moral subjecthood
of animals in a way that constitutes a violation of their entitlements.
5 One could object here by saying that full moral status depends on full-fedged moral agency, which
can be plausibly regarded as an exclusively human domain (barring any extraterrestrial moral agents).
However, we assume that anyone who defends this position would be unable to satisfactorily address the
so-called ‘marginal cases’ objection, namely, that some humans don’t possess full-fedged moral agency,
due to age or impairment, and yet we still want to grant them full moral status.
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Animal Morality: What It Means and Why It Matters
Welfarism and Animal Ethics
We are going to argue that the ethical implications that follow from moral subjecthood
cannot be captured solely in terms of welfare. The word ‘welfare’ has many diferent
meanings, stemming from debates in axiology, political philosophy, animal ethics,
and animal welfare science. For present purposes, we will use it in a narrow sense,
to signify ‘experiential welfare’ or ‘subjective quality of life,’ in the hedonistic sense
of these terms. Accordingly, the position that we shall call ‘welfarism’ boils down to
the idea that hedonistic welfare, or hedonistic quality of life, is the only variable that
matters when it comes to measuring well-being.6
This means that increases in wellbeing
are understood to correlate with an improvement in the hedonistic aspects of
an individual’s life, and conversely, decreases in well-being are understood to correlate
with a deterioration in these aspects. Thus, one cannot be made worse of (e.g.
by having one’s freedom or autonomy taken away) unless one feels worse of (either
immediately or as a later consequence).
Welfarism is not necessarily tied to a particular normative theory. It is a theory
about what is prudentially valuable, what constitutes well-being, but it does not tell
us anything about how this value ought to be pursued. Thus, there can, in principle,
be both consequentialist and deontological approaches to welfarism. What characterises
the form of welfarism that we are concerned with, and constitutes the focus
of our critique, is the endorsement of a hedonistic account of the good, according to
which the only intrinsic good is pleasure (understood, in a broad sense, to encompass
both physical pleasure and psychological enjoyment), and the only intrinsic bad
is pain (understood, in a broad sense, to encompass both physical pain and psychological
There are several well-known problems that follow from hedonistic accounts of
the good. These problems stem from two questionable claims involved in hedonism.
On the one hand, one can question that all forms of pleasure are intrinsically good,
for it seems that how one obtains pleasure also adds to its value or disvalue. On the
other hand, there appear to be many other things that we value as intrinsically good
besides pleasure. This is exemplifed by the classic “experience machine” thought
experiment (Nozick 1974, 42–45). This machine would provide us with a non-stop
fow of pleasurable experiences if we were to be plugged into it instead of living
our ‘real’ lives. The fact that we would not be willing to plug ourselves into it illustrates
that there are other things we value in life besides pleasurable experiences.
Among the things that are also proposed as intrinsically valuable, we can fnd freedom,
knowledge, achievement, as well as relationships of friendship, care, and love
(see, e.g., Rice 2013).
Some authors have developed more sophisticated forms of welfarism that are
not defeated by Nozick’s experience machine. For instance, Sumner has defended
6 We use the term ‘well-being’ to refer, broadly, to how well life is going for an individual. We thus
take welfarism to be a monistic theory that equates well-being with positive hedonistic welfare, and we
understand pluralistic theories as defending the existence of other prudential goods that contribute to
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a form of welfarism that “requires that a subject’s endorsement of the conditions of
her life, or her experiences of them as satisfying or fulflling, be authentic” (Sumner
1996, 139), which means that the subject has to be autonomous and properly
informed. This authenticity condition allows Sumner to escape Nozick’s objection.
However, Sumner appears to not merely consider pleasure as intrinsically valuable,
but also autonomy, since for him it is of high importance to preserve “the authority
of welfare subjects to determine for themselves which goods they will pursue in
their lives” (Ibid., 98). The value of autonomy appears to be intrinsic and not merely
instrumental, for he does not simply present it as a tool to ensure enjoyable experiences,
but appears to value it in itself (see, e.g. Ibid., 166 f.). If this interpretation
of Sumner is correct, then his theory does not qualify as ‘welfarist’ in the sense in
which we are using the term.
Regardless of how Sumner’s welfarism is best to be interpreted, our aim here is
to criticise a less sophisticated form of welfarism, in which the sole criterion for
determining the well-being of an individual is the presence or otherwise of pleasure
and pain, broadly construed. Welfarism, thus understood, is not very popular as
an account of human well-being, but it is a predominant approach when evaluating
animal husbandry procedures and other forms of human-animal interaction. Welfarists
consider that animals are harmed by humans only in those cases in which our
treatment of them generates pain or sufering, or removes opportunities for pleasant
or satisfying experiences. And conversely, an improvement in the way animals are
treated is thought to exist whenever there is a decrease in sufering or an increase in
joyful experiences. This is especially salient in scholars that attach to the so-called
‘feelings school’ within animal welfare science, for whom “welfare is all to do with
what the animal feels, with the absence of negative subjective emotional states […]
and […] the presence of positive subjective emotional states” (Duncan 2004, 88).7
Some animal ethicists also exemplify this position, like Rollin, who has argued that
“how the animal feels subjectively, what it experiences, is the key feature of welfare
or well-being” (Rollin 2004, 16). A further prominent example is Ryder’s painism,
which is founded on the idea that the property “that all bad things share […] is that
they all cause pain (in its broad sense)” (Ryder 1999, 36), and so the aim of animal
ethics “should be to reduce the pain felt by individuals” (Ryder 1999, 40).
We believe that there is some truth to welfarism. There are certain moral problems
with regards to which a welfarist approach provides us with a satisfactory analysis,
for it is undoubtedly the case that pleasure and pain are, respectively, goodand
bad-making properties of situations, other things being equal. Moreover, there
is an undeniable advantage to welfarism. For those concerned with how animals are
7 Following Schmidt (2011, 158), welfare scientists can be broadly categorised into those that focus on
the subjective aspects of animal well-being (e.g. Duncan 1993) and those that focus on objective aspects,
such as biological functioning, the ability to cope with the environment (e.g. Broom 1991), or quantifable
measures of animal welfare such as behavioural indicators (e.g. Dawkins 2006). However, there are
also welfare scientists that stress both (e.g. Webster 2005). Our critique of welfarism in this paper is
directed at those scholars that focus on the subjective aspects. It is important to note, though, that in animal
welfare science subjective quality of life is often considered a very dominant component of animal
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Animal Morality: What It Means and Why It Matters
treated, welfarism is a good position to adopt, strategically, insofar as most people
will agree that subjective quality of life matters to those animals who are sentient,
while the existence of other prudential values that apply to animals’ lives is a matter
of some controversy. We acknowledge this advantage, but do not consider this to be
sufcient reason, on its own, to fully embrace this approach. We consider that welfarism
is problematic if we pretend it to account for all the components of a good life,
and, conversely, it is also problematic if we pretend it to account for all the possible
harms that can afect an individual. In the specifc case of the moral subjecthood
of animals, the ethical implications that follow from it, we shall argue, cannot be
fully captured from a welfarist standpoint.
A Thought Experiment: The Case of Sustitia
We are going to defend the claim that if one is a moral subject, then one can be subjected
to a specifc type of harm that (1) cannot obtain when one lacks moral subjecthood,
and (2) cannot be fully explained in terms of welfare. In order to defend this idea,
we will use the example of a sow that we shall call Sustitia. To facilitate our critique
of welfarism, we are going to build this example in two steps. First, we will ofer a
characterisation of Sustitia as an individual who is being harmed in a way that can
be fully captured from a welfarist perspective. We shall call her Sustitia1. Then, we
will turn Sustitia into a moral subject, for the purpose of illustrating how welfarism
cannot give a proper account of the ethical implications in this case. We shall call
this second individual Sustitia2. Both Sustitia1 and Sustitia2 may resemble actual
sows in certain respects, but it is very important to bear in mind that they are not
meant to be real, or even realistic, sows, but rather two hypothetical constructs that
we will use to illustrate our point.
Sustitia1: A Sentient Being
Let us begin, then, with Sustitia1. We shall start from the assumption that Sustitia1 is
a rather simple being, whose abilities are largely limited to the basic needs of nutrition,
rest, and reproduction. What is noteworthy about Sustitia1 is her possession
of sentience. This means, frst of all, that she has an ability to experience physical
sensations. She can experience pleasure, and she can also experience pain, where
these have a subjective ‘felt’ quality to them. Pleasure feels good to Sustitia1, and
pain feels bad. Sustitia1 can further experience afective states, and these too have
a concrete phenomenal character. Some of these afective states are moods with
no intentional object. Her happy moods and her sad moods also feel good and bad,
respectively, to Sustitia1. Other afective states are emotions with intentional objects.
There are things in her environment that she enjoys or feels happy about, and there
are other things that she dislikes, that make her feel distressed, or sad, or angry,
or fearful. Sustitia1 experiences diferent things in her environment as good or bad,
depending on how they make her feel.
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Sustitia1 lives on a farm. Since the moment she reached adulthood, she has been
kept in a stall that is too small for her to move around freely. All she can do is stand
up and lie down, which causes her stress and pain. To facilitate cleaning, the foor of
her stall is slatted, which causes her claws to overgrow, resulting in painful leg and
claw injuries, shoulder lesions, and teat damage. The food she is fed is low in fbre,
leading to painful stomach ulcers. She is forced to urinate and defecate in the same
place where she sleeps, which she fnds extremely unpleasant. A couple of times per
year, she is made pregnant through artifcial insemination. Her human handlers are
not always properly trained, and the insemination is often painful and scary. When
she is about to give birth, she is put into a farrowing crate, where she will be kept for
four weeks in a row, and which restricts her movements even further, causing even
more distress and pain. Once the piglets are weaned, she is put back in her stall, and
the cycle begins again.8
As we can see, Sustitia1 is often in pain or distressed, and this psychological and
physical sufering is a direct result of the way in which her human owners keep
her. Theories in applied animal ethics tend to include a prohibition against causing
unnecessary pain and sufering to animals. For instance, David DeGrazia’s principle
of nonmalefcence states that “[i]t is wrong to cause extensive unnecessary harm to
others without their consent” (DeGrazia 2005; see also DeGrazia 1996, chapter 9).
Given that—we are supposing—Sustitia1’s sufering is un-consented and extensive,
as well as questionable with regard to its necessity,9
the practices that give rise to it
should consequently be brought into question.
As things stand in this example, it seems reasonable to say that Sustitia1 is being
harmed by her owners, given that these husbandry conditions lead her to sufer
almost continuously. The harm that Sustitia1 undergoes is by no means negligible.
On the contrary, a plausible case could be made to argue that a fundamental right of
Sustitia1—the right not to be subjected to extensive and unnecessary sufering—is
being violated. We do not want to lessen the importance of this harm. However, we
do want to highlight that this is a harm that can be fully accounted for in terms that
refer solely to Sustitia1’s subjective experience. Of course, one could argue that, on
account of being a farm animal, Sustitia1 is also being harmed because she has had
8 Even though Sustitia1 is a hypothetical example, her life conditions do not difer much from those of
sows in industrial farms. See EFSA (2007) for a comprehensive review of the welfare problems involved
in pig husbandry.
9 What constitutes unnecessary sufering is, for sure, debatable. Farm animals are routinely subjected to
a series of painful or stressful procedures that are deemed necessary out of economic interests. Farrowing
crates, for instance, are used to prevent the sows from rolling over and crushing the piglets. However,
studies have shown that sows kept in an enriched environment, with more space and access to straw and
sand, are less likely to crush their piglets and more likely to respond to a piglet’s distress cries by standing
up (Herskin et al. 1998). Providing such environmental enrichment, together with the extra space
required, would entail extra costs for the farmers, thus ultimately raising the price of pork. Are farrowing
crates then “necessary”? It depends on the normative ethics one subscribes to. From the perspective
of some utilitarian welfare ethics, it might be permissible to weigh the sows’ interest in not sufering
against the farmers’ interest in earning a living. In contrast, from the perspective of other ethical accounts
(including other consequentialist approaches, and for sure an animal rights approach), this might not be
permissible, as the interest in not sufering ranks in principle higher than economic interests (at least as
long as the latter do not constitute a matter of life or death for the farmer or consumer).
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Animal Morality: What It Means and Why It Matters
her freedom taken away from her, or because she is being commodifed or exploited.
These are fair points, but we want to bracket the harm that comes from her overall
life experience and focus on the specifc harm that results directly from her husbandry
conditions: the inadequate fooring, the restricted space, and so on. The latter
is a harm that takes the form of a subjective negative experience. Because these
conditions make her sufer, and her sufering is a bad thing, Sustitia1 is harmed by
them. If Sustitia1 were to fnd these living conditions pleasant or enjoyable, then
they wouldn’t harm her (although, of course, it might still be wrong to exploit her).
The harm that Sustitia1 undergoes as a direct result of her husbandry conditions consists
of her sufering. It is a welfare problem.
Sustitia2: A Moral Subject
Our characterisation of Sustitia1 has not provided us with any reason to think that
she is a moral subject, for she has been described as a fairly simple individual with
entirely self-centred interests. Now, let’s turn Sustitia into a moral subject. Accordingly,
we shall now refer to her as Sustitia2. What makes her diferent from Sustitia1
is that Sustitia2 does not just sufer due to her own life conditions, she is also concerned
with the well-being of the sows and piglets in her environment. She is surrounded
by sows who are kept in the same conditions as her, and who are thus
displaying continuous signs of distress. She also has to witness piglets undergoing
tail-docking, teeth-clipping, and castration without anaesthesia or analgesia,10 and
she is not indiferent to their pain and distress.
Sustitia2 is characterised by the possession of a mechanism in her brain that
ensures that whenever she witnesses a conspecifc in distress, she too undergoes
a form of distress11 that (1) is intentionally directed at the distress of the conspecifc,
and (2) has an urge to engage in afliative behaviour built into it. This means
that, when Sustitia2 witnesses the distress of any of the conspecifcs in her environment,
she automatically feels distressed about their distress, and this reliably compels
her to comfort them. We are going to refer to this capacity of Sustitia2 as her
10 In this respect, these hypothetical piglets are not so diferent from real piglets, as these are all routine
procedures in livestock management (RSPCA 2016). 11 Sustitia2 may share this capacity with actual pigs. Recent studies suggest that pigs possess a capacity
for emotional contagion, for they tend to display behaviours associated with negative emotions (e.g.
escape attempts, defecation) or positive ones (e.g. play behaviour, barks) depending on whether they are
paired with a conspecifc who has undergone a negative or a positive treatment, respectively (Reimert
et al. 2013; Reimert et al. 2015; Goumon and Špinka 2016). In fact, she also appears to share this capacity
with chimpanzees (Parr 2001), geese (Wascher et al. 2008), dogs (Yong and Rufman 2014; Huber
et al. 2017), mice (Langford et al. 2006; Jeon et al. 2010), rats (Knapska et al. 2006; Atsak et al. 2011),
prairie voles (Burkett et al. 2016), and chickens (Edgar et al. 2011). Studies on emotional contagion often
involve animals undergoing negative stimuli in order to determine whether the witnessing animals get
stressed, too. While this is an issue that goes beyond the scope of this paper, we would like to note that
these sorts of experiments may be ethically problematic and should not remain unquestioned.
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‘sympathy’12 and we shall suppose, for the sake of upcoming arguments, that this is
a common characteristic to her species, even though the jury is still out on this.
We can plausibly classify Sustitia2’s sympathy as a moral emotion, given that it
is an emotion that has the other’s welfare as its focus (i.e., the other’s welfare is its
intentional object), and motivates a response that is meant to act upon the other’s
situation (i.e., Sustitia2 wants to improve her conspecifcs’ situation, and not just her
own, as was the case with Sustitia1). And, indeed, on account of her possession of
sympathy, Sustitia2 now fulfls the minimal conditions put forward by Rowlands to
count as a moral subject:
X is a moral subject if X possesses (1) a sensitivity to the good- or bad-making
features of situations, where (2) this sensitivity can be normatively assessed,
and (3) is grounded in the operations of a reliable mechanism (a “moral module”).
(Rowlands 2012, 230)
The possession of sympathy entails a sensitivity to the morally relevant property
of distress. The kind of sensitivity that Sustitia2 has to distress corresponds to the
one Rowlands requires of moral subjects, for he establishes that “[m]oral subjects
are ones who are sensitive to the good- and bad-making features of situations in
the sense that they entertain intentional content emotionally” (Ibid., 230, emphasis
by authors). Sustitia2’s sensitivity, in turn, can be normatively evaluated, both internally
and externally. From an internal perspective, we can say that, when Sustitia2
comforts her conspecifcs, she is doing so for morally right reasons, since her sympathy
implies experiencing as bad something that is, in fact, bad (i.e., the conspecifc’s
distress). At the same time, from an external perspective, Sustitia2’s sympathy
is morally good because it will tend towards alleviating her conspecifcs’ distress,
thus diminishing the amount of bad in the world. Moreover, her emotional reaction
to others’ distress is not merely accidental or contingent. Instead, it is a systematic
reaction grounded in the operations of a reliable internal mechanism—one which,
we are supposing, is shared by all members of her species. Due to all this, Sustitia2
qualifes as a moral subject, in Rowlands’ sense.13
Now, let’s imagine that one day, Sustitia2 witnesses a particular piglet having
his tail docked. The piglet squeals in pain, and Sustitia2’s sympathy kicks in. She
feels distressed at the piglet’s distress, and with this feeling comes a sudden urge
to engage in afliative behaviour, in order to calm the piglet down.14 However, the
12 When referring to Sustitia2’s mechanism as her ‘sympathy,’ we are following a trend within the animal
morality debate that considers sympathy to be a form of empathy that entails the (partial) adoption
of another’s emotional state, together with a possession of a clear self-other distinction, an understanding
that the other is in need or sufering, and an intention to ameliorate the other’s situation (see, e.g., de
Waal 2008, 283). There is, however, a big defnitional debate surrounding both sympathy and empathy,
which we do not intend to take a stand on. Referring to Sustitia2’s mechanism as ‘sympathy’ is meant for
ease of exposition, but we do not necessarily subscribe to any particular defnition of this term.
13 For a detailed explanation of the importance of these traits from a moral perspective, see Rowlands
(2012); also Monsó (2017). 14 Indeed, this is the usual efect when animals engage in afliative behaviour directed at a distressed
conspecifc (see, e.g., Kikusui et al. 2001; Fraser et al. 2008; Clay and de Waal 2013; Smith and Wang
2014; Burkett et al. 2016).
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Animal Morality: What It Means and Why It Matters
stall that Sustitia2’s caretakers have placed her in acts as a physical barrier and separates
her from the piglet, thus preventing her from comforting him. This situation is
repeated over and over again. Whenever Sustitia2 sees, hears, or smells any of her
conspecifcs in distress, she wants to comfort them, but is prevented from doing so
on account of the existence of this barrier. Given that, under normal circumstances,
her sympathy would result in afliative behaviour, we can say that the barrier prevents
this moral motivation from operating fully or correctly.
As in the case of Sustitia1, it is undoubtedly true that Sustitia2’s welfare is being
compromised here. Her sympathy encompasses feelings of distress, so she will suffer
whenever she perceives a conspecifc in distress. As before, we do not intend to
lessen the importance of Sustitia2’s psychological sufering. However, we believe
that there is something more going on in this example, something that can’t be
specifed in terms of welfare alone. We are going to argue that, in such a situation,
Sustitia2 would be the subject of a type of harm that would not be captured
by merely saying that she is sufering; that her experiential welfare is being compromised.
This something more that is going on stems from the fact that Sustitia2 is
being prevented from exercising her moral subjecthood. In the following section, we
present a way of capturing the harm that this implies.
Moral Emotions and the Capabilities Approach
We are going to defend the idea that any theory that focuses solely on welfare won’t
be able to account for all of the problems present in the example of Sustitia2, and
other similar ones. The defence of this idea, which will take place in Theoretical
Implications: Moving Beyond Welfarism section, will rely on the use of an alternative
normative framework that can capture the harm we are speaking of. Rather than
attempting to build from scratch a theory that can capture our intuitions, we shall
make use of a well-known theory that has already proved quite solid: the capabilities
approach, which was introduced into animal ethics by Nussbaum (2004, 2007). We
have chosen this theory due to (1) its individualistic character, (2) the importance it
gives to social abilities, and (3) its reliance on a pluralistic theory of well-being, all
of which makes it a perfect candidate to use in support of our argument.
Since a defence of this theory is beyond the scope of this paper, we will proceed
by assuming its correctness. Those readers who are not entirely convinced by
Nussbaum’s approach should, however, bear in mind that the use of this theory is
for argumentative purposes and that alternative frameworks could also be employed
here. For example, Purves and Delon (2018) have recently given an account of how
animals’ lives can be meaningful that could be used to argue that a life in which an
animal is allowed to exercise her moral subjecthood is more meaningful to her, and
thus better.15 The integrity approach defended by Rutgers and Heeger (1999) could
also be extended to argue that a life in which an animal cannot exercise her moral
abilities violates the animal’s psychological completeness, and thus harms her. With
15 In fact, the authors themselves hint at this idea (Purves and Delon 2018, 329).
S. Monsó et al.
1 3
this in mind, let us now introduce the capabilities approach, and show how it can
be used to conceptualise the harm that afects Sustitia2 when she is prevented from
exercising her sympathy.
The Capabilities Approach
When Nussbaum introduced the capabilities approach to animal ethics, she placed
much emphasis on the idea that this approach doesn’t focus merely on considerations
related to pleasure and pain. Of course, this doesn’t mean that there isn’t importance
attached to the idea of sentience. In fact, Nussbaum considers that the possession
of sentience can be plausibly considered “a threshold condition for membership in
the community of beings who have entitlements based on justice” (Nussbaum 2007,
361–362). But the capabilities approach moves beyond theories that focus solely
on sentience, such as classical utilitarianism, by locating ethical signifcance in the
existence of complex forms of life, and thus aiming to “see each thing fourish as the
sort of thing it is” (Nussbaum 2004, 306).
Nussbaum considers that, for each species, there exists a series of capabilities,
made up of those things that members of that species are “able to do and to be”
(Nussbaum 2007, 71). Needless to say, if we are thinking of highly complex species,
such as our own, the list of capabilities is immense. But out of all these capabilities,
Nussbaum considers that each species has a set of “basic” capabilities, which are
distinguished from the rest in that they can be “evaluated as both good and central”
(Nussbaum 2004, 309), where “good” is understood as being intrinsically valuable,
and “central” as being essential to the fourishing of members of that species as the
sort of thing they are. In the case of human beings, the basic capabilities include
some that can be shared with many other species, like “[b]eing able to move freely
from place to place,” and “[b]eing able to have good health,” but also further capabilities
that are species-specifc, like “[b]eing able to use one’s mind in ways protected
by guarantees of freedom of expression,” and “[b]eing able to form a conception
of the good and to engage in critical refection about the planning of one’s life”
(Nussbaum 2007, 76–77). The key idea, for our purposes, is the following:
Because the capabilities approach fnds ethical signifcance in the fourishing
of basic (innate) capabilities—those that are evaluated as both good and central
[…]—it will also fnd harm in the thwarting or blighting of those capabilities.
More complex forms of life have more and more complex capabilities to
be blighted, so they can sufer more and diferent types of harm. Level of life
is relevant not because it gives diferent species diferential worth per se, but
because the type and degree of harm a creature can sufer varies with its form
of life. (Nussbaum 2004, 309)
According to the capabilities approach, then, one is harmed when the agency of
another results in a thwarting or blighting of one’s basic capabilities. When a being
is very complex, this doesn’t necessarily mean that she will have the capacity to
sufer more, but it does mean that she will be capable of sufering more types of
harm than less complex beings, given that a higher complexity means a possession
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Animal Morality: What It Means and Why It Matters
of more basic capabilities that can be thwarted. And, as we shall shortly discuss, the
harm that comes from the thwarting of a being’s basic capabilities doesn’t necessarily
have to take the experiential form of pain or sufering.16
Moral Emotions as Capabilities
Capabilities, then, are understood as those things one is able to do and to be. With
this in mind, there are two ways we can characterise moral emotions in terms of
capabilities, depending on whether we focus on what one is able to do because of
them or what one is able to be thanks to them. If we decide to conceptualise moral
emotions as primarily motivations to engage in moral behaviour, then they are not
capabilities in themselves, but rather cognitive-afective mechanisms that ground
capabilities. Thus, Sustitia2 might be said to have the capability to care for others
because she possesses sympathy. But we can also understand moral emotions
as capabilities themselves, if we were to conceptualise them as primarily character
traits, that is, as dispositions to feel and behave in certain ways. Sympathy, for
instance, can be understood as the capability to be sympathetic, that is, as a character
trait that disposes one to feel distressed in the presence of others in distress and
consequently engage in afliative behaviour. Moral emotions can thus be understood
as either grounding certain capabilities, or as capabilities themselves. For ease of
exposition, and given that nothing turns on this largely terminological choice, we
shall opt for the second conceptualisation.
Not only can moral emotions be characterised as capabilities, a subset of them—
those that ground positive forms of care, such as Sustitia2’s sympathy—can be further
characterised as basic capabilities. They can be conceptualised as basic capabilities
because they fulfl Nussbaum’s two conditions to count as such, namely, being
‘central’ and being ‘good.’ To see this, let’s go back to our example. Because we
are assuming that Sustitia2’s sympathy is grounded in the operations of a reliable
mechanism—one that, we are supposing, is innate to her species—, we can determine
that the fourishing of this capability is essential to Sustitia2’s functioning as
the type of thing she is. At the same time, insofar as her sympathy yields an emotional
and behavioural response that can be classifed as the morally right one to
have given the circumstances, it qualifes as a ‘positive’ or ‘good’ moral motivation.
While we cannot praise Sustitia2 for her behaviour, given that she lacks moral
responsibility, we should take into consideration that, whenever she comforts others
in distress, she is doing so on the basis of a motivation that implies experiencing as
bad something that is bad (namely, the conspecifc’s distress), and so she is feeling
how she should feel, given the circumstances. Additionally, this motivation compels
her to behave in a way that is morally appropriate with respect to the situation, and
generates good consequences, insofar as the conspecifc’s distress will be alleviated
as a result. For all this, we can say that, whenever Sustitia2 behaves sympathetically,
16 Note that this is a conceptual, not empirical, claim. In the ‘real world,’ the thwarting of a being’s basic
capabilities may always lead to pain or sufering, but there is no necessary connection between the two,
as we shall discuss in the section Theoretical Implications: Moving Beyond Welfarism.
S. Monsó et al.
1 3
“the world is—temporarily, perhaps even momentarily—a better place,” and so, that
it is “a good thing that the world contains a subject like this, an individual who acts
in this way” (Rowlands 2012, 254).
Not only is sympathy instrumentally valuable because of the good it brings to
the world, it can also be plausibly considered as intrinsically valuable, so long as
we adopt a pluralistic theory of well-being and consider one’s attachments to others,
one’s relationships of love and care, as part of what it means to lead a good life.
This is, in fact, the view adopted by Nussbaum herself (see, e.g., Nussbaum 2007,
345). Accordingly, those moral emotions that ground positive forms of care for others—not
just sympathy, but also compassion, patience, tolerance, gratitude, etc.—
are tacitly present in Nussbaum’s list of the basic capabilities of animals. Indeed,
Nussbaum considers that the abilities to feel certain emotions and engage in afliation
are amongst the basic capabilities of some animals, and, correspondingly, that
these animals “are entitled to lives in which it is open to them to have attachments to
others, to love and care for others,” as well as “to engage in characteristic forms of
bonding and interrelationship” (Ibid., 397–398). It thus seems plausible to consider
Sustitia2’s sympathy as a basic capability of hers.
If moral emotions akin to sympathy are indeed basic capabilities, this means that
the individuals who possess them are entitled to lead lives in which the exercise
of these capabilities remains possible for them. We are now at a point where we
can start to see the full dimension of the ethical problems implicit in the example
of Sustitia2. As we saw, whenever an animal is treated in a way that thwarts one
(or several) of her basic capabilities, she is being harmed. There are two ways in
which this thwarting can occur: (1) an animal can be precluded from the possibility
of exercising her capability, or (2) she can have her capability taken away from her.
Sustitia2’s case would be an example of (1). Sustitia2 still possesses sympathy, but
she lacks the possibility of exercising it because of the existence of a physical barrier.
Despite not being able to do it, she is still capable of caring for others. She still
has her capability, but cannot exercise it. An example of (2) might occur if Sustitia2
became habituated to the frequent presence of distress cues in her surroundings, to
the point where she no longer felt concerned about her conspecifcs. She would have
become incapable of caring for others. She would have lost her capability. In both
cases, Sustitia2 is being harmed by whoever has placed her in this situation, because
her capability has been thwarted as a result. In the following section, we ofer the
reasons why the moral problems involved in the thwarting of her moral capability
cannot be accounted for in terms of welfare alone.
Theoretical Implications: Moving Beyond Welfarism
In this section, we ofer four considerations that support the claim that the harm
afecting Sustitia2 cannot be fully captured in terms of experiential welfare. Because
we have not given a defence of the capabilities approach, what we will put forward
cannot be considered a conclusive argument. However, its strength doesn’t solely
depend on the strength of the capabilities approach, since, as we mentioned before,
other theories could also be successfully employed here. The considerations we will
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Animal Morality: What It Means and Why It Matters
ofer are reasons that support the need to move beyond welfarism when analysing
cases like Sustitia2’s. While they ultimately rely on intuitions, we hope to show that
these reasons are powerful enough to cast serious doubts on the ability of welfarism
to rise up to the challenge.
Sustitia2 is Being Doubly Harmed
The frst consideration that we can ofer is that it doesn’t seem enough to simply
say that Sustitia2 is sufering. In the case of Sustitia1, it did seem enough because
we didn’t describe her as having any particular ability, over and above the ability to
experience enjoyment and sufering (and to eat, sleep, and reproduce). What was
wrong about the use of the farrowing crate in the case of Sustitia1 was not that it
prevented her from building a nest for her piglets, or from comforting them if they
felt distressed, because we didn’t give her these abilities in the frst place. All we
did was give her the ability to fnd it painful and stressful, which is why it’s enough
to say that the farrowing crate harms her because it makes her sufer. In the case
of Sustitia2, this treatment is also doing something else, namely, preventing her
from exercising her moral capability. So simply saying that it makes her sufer isn’t
Sustitia2, like Sustitia1, is harmed because her welfare is being impaired, but she
is also harmed because her moral capability is being thwarted. The harm involved in
the thwarting of her moral capability adds to the harm involved in her loss of welfare.
Sustitia2 is, so to speak, doubly harmed. This doesn’t mean that the harm that
afects Sustitia2 is on a diferent hierarchical order than if it were entirely specifable
in terms of experiential welfare. Our claim is, rather, that if we were to only speak in
terms of welfare, we would not capture this additional harm, and so we would only
have a partial account of how Sustitia2 is being wronged. But Sustitia2’s case is not
necessarily worse than Sustitia1’s case. It is simply diferent.17
Distress as a Constituent Part of Caring
A purely welfarist analysis would distract us from the fact that, under normal circumstances—i.e.,
if Sustitia2 were allowed to comfort the piglet—her sufering
wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing. If we accept the claim that caring for others
is intrinsically valuable, then the distress that is involved in her sympathy is intrinsically
valuable too, insofar as it’s part of what it means, for Sustitia2, to care for
others. Were we to adopt a purely welfare-oriented approach to analyse this case,
we could never say that sufering has intrinsic value, and so the ethical nuances of
Sustitia2’s case would not be adequately depicted.
17 One could object that this frst consideration is question-begging. Of course, in a sense, it is, but that
does not necessarily render it useless. By putting forward our intuition that Sustitia2 is harmed in two different
ways, we are making explicit a claim that a welfarist would have to renounce. Those readers who
share our intuition may fnd this a compelling reason to set welfarism aside.
S. Monsó et al.
1 3
The capabilities approach, in contrast, allows for certain forms of sufering to be
valuable in themselves, an idea that Nussbaum expresses by saying that “some animal
pains may even be valuable: the grief of an animal for a dead child or parent
[…] may be a constituent part of an attachment that is intrinsically good” (Nussbaum
2007, 345; emphasis by authors). One might object to Nussbaum’s claim by
arguing that an attachment can exist without grief, so grief is a manifestation of an
attachment, not a constituent part of it. However, while it’s true that an attachment
can occur without grief, it’s also true that if there is an attachment and certain conditions
are met, the attachment yields grief. If it does not, then arguably there is no
real attachment. Under certain conditions, grief is the right thing to feel. It’s a sign
of the quality of an attachment. Whether or not this means that grief is a constituent
part of the attachment seems largely a matter of stipulation, but it does seem right
to say that if you value the attachment, then you have to value the grief that comes
with it.
In the case of Sustitia2, it’s even clearer, since we haven’t given her any other
social ability besides her sympathy. This is what caring consists of for Sustitia2. We
cannot separate it from her distress. They are inextricably intertwined.18 If we want
to say that her caring is intrinsically good, then we have to value the experiential
form that it takes. But, of course, the fact that comforting another can constitute
something valuable for a social animal has to be put into perspective, and the circumstances
that give rise to this behaviour must be taken into account for a proper
ethical assessment to be reached.19
Harm Can Take the Form of a Habituation
One of the advantages of objective theories like the capabilities approach is that they
are permeable to the fact that what one is happy or content with is largely shaped by
the environment one develops in. Thus, the fact that one is happy most of the time
does not necessarily mean that one’s life is going well, since one’s happiness can be
18 This is not an unrealistic trait of Sustitia2’s. Rats given anxiolytics have been found less likely to help
a conspecifc in need (Ben-Ami Bartal et al. 2016), so distress may be a crucial component of some of
the moral motivations of animals.
19 We deliberately point to this because a possible counter-argument might be to say that this implies
that the ethical problem of piglet castration could be solved if the sows were allowed to comfort them
afterwards. Of course, we believe that such a counter-argument is fawed. There are several further considerations
that need to be taken into account. For one, the piglets’ sufering would remain and would be
an ethical problem even if the sows were allowed to comfort them. In addition, witnessing the sufering
of piglets is probably not an isolated event for most sows but something they have to face rather often.
A sow currently gives birth to 10–16 piglets per litter, producing 25–30 pigs per year (Kim et al. 2013).
All male piglets are normally castrated without pain relief. Additionally, most piglets undergo other painful
routine procedures like teeth-clipping or tail-docking, abrupt weaning, re-grouping and transport. All
of these procedures are stressful, the witnessing animals cannot escape them, and “the chance of being
afected by the distress of their group members is therefore relatively high” (Reimert et al. 2015, 519).
The welfare problem might be so big as to outweigh any considerations regarding the intrinsic value of
caring for others. But even if we were to consider the sows’ caring behaviour as intrinsically valuable
in any case, a proper ethical assessment of the situation would take into account the circumstances that
originate this behaviour, which are ethically dubious in many respects.
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Animal Morality: What It Means and Why It Matters
the result of a process of indoctrination or manipulation, or simply a coping mechanism.
This was eloquently put by Sen:
A person who has had a life of misfortune, with very little opportunities, and
rather little hope, may be more easily reconciled to deprivations than others
reared in more fortunate and afuent circumstances. The metric of happiness
may, therefore, distort the extent of deprivation, in a specifc and biased way.
(Sen 1987, 45)
Likewise, in the case of animals, these coping mechanisms may develop and disguise
the extent to which animals are harmed in a specifc situation, which is one
of the reasons why their sufering can be an unreliable measure of their well-being.
If Sustitia2 eventually became habituated to the sufering of her conspecifcs and no
longer felt distressed when she perceived it, a welfarist would have to conclude that
she is no longer being harmed. In fact, from a welfarist perspective, we would have
to say that Sustitia2 has been beneftted due to this habituation process, insofar as it
has led her to stop sufering.
Anyone who considers sympathy and caringness to be intrinsically valuable character
traits must conclude that the welfarist analysis of this example is misguided.
The habituation process is not benefcial, even if it results in lesser sufering. The
habituation process is a further harm that is inficted upon Sustitia2, because an individual
who would naturally be sympathetic and caring has become callous by way
of the agency of another (i.e., her human caretakers). This harm cannot be accounted
for in terms of welfare. In contrast, the capabilities approach allows us to speak of
harm, not only when a capability is prevented from being exercised, but also when it
is taken away in its entirety. When Sustitia2 becomes habituated to her conspecifcs’
distress, her moral capability is also being thwarted, although in a diferent way. We
can thus continue to speak of harm, even though she is no longer sufering.
Harm is Independent of Sufering
Welfarists were forced into a moral dilemma when a strain of blind chickens that
displayed less signs of distress under crowded conditions was accidentally produced.
This sparked an on-going debate on whether we should deliberately disenhance
farm animals by use of biotechnology in order to make them incapable of sufering.20
The dilemma emerges because the intuitive repugnance that the biotechnological
disenhancement of farm animals produces in us cannot be easily reconciled with
a welfarist position. If harm depends solely on sufering, then producing animals
that cannot sufer should appear as innocuous, even desirable. And yet, this seems
highly counter-intuitive.
Refecting upon the moral capabilities of animals can shed light on at least part
of the reason why the biotechnological disenhancement of farm animals would be
wrong. This is because the harm that comes from the thwarting of an individual’s
20 See Thompson (2008) and Ferrari (2012) for an overview of this debate.
S. Monsó et al.
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moral capabilities occurs regardless of whether she ever actually sufers as a result
of this treatment. To see this, consider an individual we can call Sustitia3. What distinguishes
her from Sustitia2 is that, when Sustitia3 was an embryo, she was subjected
to a process of genetic engineering aimed at depriving her of the capacity
to feel distress. As a consequence of this process of disenhancement, Sustitia3 cannot
feel distress, and consequently, she cannot feel sympathy either, for the latter is
dependent on the former. From a purely welfarist perspective, Sustitia3 would not
have been harmed by this disenhancement process, since she is, ex hypothesi, incapable
of sufering. The capabilities approach, however, allows us to specify at least
part of the harm inficted upon Sustitia3, by saying that this disenhancement has
deprived her of the capability to care for others. Sustitia3 has been forced into a life
that contains one less type of good: a life in which she will never get to form attachments
and care for others. Her life is poorer as a result, and so it is a worse life.
Practical Implications: How Humans Interfere with the Moral
Capabilities of Animals
In this section, as a last step in our argument, we will evaluate some of the human
practices involving animals in light of the considerations we have made. Due
to space constraints, we can just give a rough idea of the relevance of our theoretical
claims for the feld of applied animal ethics and human–animal interactions.
Moreover, we are only going to consider those animals that are under direct human
care, even though Nussbaum hints at the possibility that the capabilities approach
may give rise to certain duties towards wild animals (see Nussbaum 2007, 374f.).
Throughout this section, we will often refer to certain practices that we consider
ethically questionable as a whole (like the raising of animals for food), but we will
assess them only with respect to the noxious efect they may have upon the moral
subjecthood of the animals involved. There are many further ethical concerns with
respect to these practices that are well known and have been widely discussed in the
literature, but we will proceed by bracketing them and focusing on the issue at hand.
This is not meant as a way of lessening the importance of these ethical concerns.
Rather, our ultimate aim is to contribute a new aspect to the ethical debate surrounding
these practices and perhaps strengthen the case against certain ones.
Until now, we have refrained from referring to real animals and instead used
hypothetical constructs to illustrate our point. In what follows, we will refer to actual
animal species whose moral capabilities have only recently begun to be studied (if
at all). While we still lack the sort of evidence to confdently attribute moral capacities
to them, we will proceed by assuming that they are moral subjects, in order to
identify potential harms that we may be inadvertently inficting on them. As we saw,
an animal can have her moral capabilities thwarted (1) if she is precluded from the
possibility of exercising them, or (2) if her moral capabilities are taken away from
her. We shall now consider how these two forms of thwarting may occur in everyday
human-animal interactions. For ease of exposition, we are going to divide the (1)-
type cases into two groups, and consider those that are analogous to Sustitia2’s—
because they involve animals witnessing the distress of their conspecifcs and
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Animal Morality: What It Means and Why It Matters
being physically prevented from intervening—separately from other (1)-type cases
in which animals are deprived of further necessary pre-conditions for their moral
capabilities to be exercised. We will thus refer to practices that involve humans (a)
preventing animals from intervening in response to a conspecifc in distress (section
“Practices That Involve Animals Witnessing the Distress of Conspecifcs”),
(b) depriving animals from further pre-conditions for their moral capabilities to be
exercised (section “Practices That Deprive Animals of Other Pre-Conditions for the
Exercise of Their Moral Capabilities”), and (c) eliminating the animals’ ability to
act morally (section “Practices That Eliminate the Moral Capabilities of Animals”).
Practices That Involve Animals Witnessing the Distress of Conspecifcs
Even though Sustitia2 was an imaginary example, her life conditions may not differ
much from those of real animals who are raised for food. As we have already
pointed out, painful and distressing procedures in farm animal husbandry are abundant,
and indeed, ethical concerns with respect to the methods involved in breeding,
raising, handling, transporting, and slaughtering farm animals have been raised
for decades (e.g. Rollin 2003). Due to the overcrowding that characterises intensive
farming, these painful procedures will often take place while in the presence of
conspecifcs. This, however, is an issue that has received comparatively little attention.
Only rather recently has it begun to be systematically addressed as a research
topic. For instance, it is currently debated whether pigs and other animals brought to
slaughter sufer from witnessing their conspecifcs’ pain and fear (Anil et al. 1996,
1997; Düpjan et al. 2011; Edgar et al. 2012; Reimert et al. 2013). As usual, the focus
of these studies has been the welfare problems involved in these situations. The possibility
remains, however, that these animals may be moral subjects, and that, upon
witnessing their conspecifcs’ distress, they experience an urge to engage in caring
behaviour that they cannot fulfl due to the presence of physical barriers. As we have
already explained, this might add a new dimension to the ways in which these animals
are being harmed.
Farm animals are not the only class of animals under human care that are often
exposed to the distress of conspecifcs. Lab animals, too, will frequently fnd themselves
in similar situations. The procedures involved in experimental set-ups include
handling the subjects, collecting blood samples, performing orogastric gavage (a
technique used to administer nutrients directly to the stomach via an oral tube) (Balcombe
et al. 2004), restraining their movements, performing tail-vein injections, and
euthanising them (Sharp et al. 2003; Boivin et al. 2016), all of which frequently
cause pain or distress to the subjects. Other animals in the laboratory may have perceptual
access to these processes and will most likely be prevented from interfering.
We already have a signifcant amount of evidence suggesting that rodents undergo
emotional contagion when in the presence of a conspecifc in distress (Knapska et al.
2006; Langford et al. 2006; Jeon et al. 2010; Atsak et al. 2011; Burkett et al. 2016),
and that, when given the choice, they will help or engage in afliative behaviour
directed at a distressed individual (Church 1959; Rice and Gainer 1962; Evans and
Braud 1969; Greene 1969; Langford et al. 2010; Bartal et al. 2011, 2014; Burkett
S. Monsó et al.
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et al. 2016). Therefore, in this context it is also important to consider whether the
animals are having their moral capabilities thwarted.
Practices That Deprive Animals of Other Pre‑Conditions for the Exercise of Their
Moral Capabilities
The exercise of an animal’s moral capabilities will most likely depend on the existence
of a stable social environment where relationships with conspecifcs can take
place, develop, and be maintained. The existence of such a stable social environment
can thus be plausibly considered as an important pre-condition for the fourishing of
an animal’s moral capabilities. Many husbandry systems resort to the re-grouping,
separation, or even isolation of animals, thus depriving them of this pre-condition,
and potentially thwarting their moral capabilities.
This sort of unstable social environment is very common in farms. Farm animals
are grouped and re-grouped according to productivity and reproductive state. This
could constitute a problem, for instance, for dairy cows, who are gregarious animals
and develop complex social relationships, characterised by feeding and resting
together, or by engaging in allogrooming. Gutmann et al. (2015) showed that
long-term familiarity had a stronger efect on the intensity of social relationships,
measured in terms of time and energy investment, than having a very recent shared
experience. They conclude that it is actually long-term familiarity that creates preferred
social partners in dairy cows. But if farm animals are frequently re-grouped,
the only social relationships possible, then, might be short-term relationships. They
lose their preferred social partners, and this may hinder the fourishing of their moral
capabilities, for evidence suggests that animals have a higher probability of engaging
in caring and helping behaviour when they are familiar with the other subject
(Cronin 2012; Bartal et al. 2014).
Routine re-grouping is not the only procedure that causes an inadequate social
environment for the fourishing of farm animals’ moral capabilities. Several of the
housing conditions found in factory farms, such as sow stalls and farrowing crates,
have been severely criticised, amongst other things, because they result in an
enforced isolation from conspecifcs (see e.g. Rollin 2011, especially chapter 15).
The thwarting of the moral capabilities of these isolated animals adds a new dimension
to the welfare problems that such housing methods cause.
Other animals under human care are also deprived of the stable social environment
that would be a pre-condition for exercising their moral capabilities. Zoo
animals are often separated from each other due to space constraints (if families
become too big), and rehoused to other zoos because of breeding programs. Lab animals
might be kept in sterile, single housing due to the requirements of a controlled
experimental setting. And even if some legislation tries to put a stop to it, companion
animals are often kept in isolation from conspecifcs, even highly social animals,
like parrots, which has been shown to have harming efects (Aydinonat et al. 2014).
Furthermore, companion animals kept in shelters, such as dogs, might very often
experience the breaking up of social relationships when individuals of their group
are rehomed. In this light, the common practice of rescuing dogs from the streets
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Animal Morality: What It Means and Why It Matters
may not be as innocuous as is usually considered, as these animals lose their familiar
environment and very likely all their well-known partners. They might be brought
to a foster home with no other companion dog around them—a situation that could
possibly mean fewer opportunities for their moral capabilities to be exercised.
In sum, if the animals in these diferent examples are subjects with complex
social lives that include moral lives, then re-grouping, separating, and isolating them
may disrupt or preclude the appearance of those bonds that are a pre-condition for
the exercise of their moral capabilities.
Practices That Eliminate the Moral Capabilities of Animals
In the practices that we have considered until now, the animals involved are, to a
bigger or lesser extent, prevented from exercising their moral capabilities. In this
fnal section, we will consider human practices that go over and beyond this, by altogether
eliminating the animals’ capability to behave morally.
Some human–animal interactions involve breeding, training, conditioning, or
modifying the animals with the aim of eliminating some (or all) of their moral capabilities.
The most obvious example here is that of fghting animals. Indeed, the training
(and also breeding21) that fghting dogs undergo aims precisely at enhancing
their aggressiveness and eliminating any potential caring response to a conspecifc
in distress (Kalof and Iliopoulou 2011). Cattle used for bullfghting are also selectively
bred to enhance aggressiveness (Silva et al. 2006; Correia et al. 2015), as are
the chickens used for cock fghting (Guo et al. 2016).
But it is probably in the lab where the elimination of animals’ moral capabilities
has been performed in the most intentional and methodical manner. Indeed,
several psychologists have undertaken this as a research project. Perhaps the most
paradigmatic example is Harry Harlow and his experiments on maternal separation,
dependency needs, and social deprivation (for an overview on Harlow’s research
see Harlow 1958; Harlow et al. 1965; Blum 2004). Harlow raised rhesus monkeys
from birth onward in bare wire cages, facing partial or total maternal deprivation.
He would ofer them the choice between two inanimate surrogate mothers: one
made of cloth and the other of wire. The infants were found to insistently seek the
cloth mothers, even when they were designed to shake them, stab them with blunt
spikes, or push them away via a mechanical fap. These monkeys “never experienced
mother love, nor any other kind of monkey afection,” and when they themselves
were impregnated and had their own ofspring, they “either completely ignored or
abused” their babies, or in many cases killed them (Harlow and Suomi 1971, 1535).
By subjecting monkeys to this treatment, as well as to total isolation chambers,
21 The case of breeding is peculiar, insofar as selectively breeding for a certain characteristic cannot,
in virtue of the non-identity problem, be considered an instance of changing an individual’s capabilities.
Instead, we would have to say that selective breeding changes the capabilities of the species or the
population. We believe that this is nevertheless an instance of harm, because of the intentional manner in
which this breeding is performed and the goal behind it. We are assuming that the capabilities approach
can accommodate harm inficted on the capabilities of populations, as well as individuals, but this is a
matter that merits further discussion.
S. Monsó et al.
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Harlow systematically created individuals who were completely “defcient in social
play and sexual behavior,” as well as “hyperaggressive in peer interaction” (Arling
and Harlow 1967, 371).
Harlow’s experiments, as shocking as they sound, should not be considered an
isolated event in psychology. During the past 30 years, on-going maternal deprivation
experiments, conducted for example at the NIH in the US, have subjected hundreds
of infant macaques to similar conditions as Harlow’s experiments. They are
heavily criticised from a bioethical perspective for being both unnecessary and cruel
(Novak 2014; Medical Research Modernization Committee 2017). The potential
elimination of the monkeys’ moral capabilities is another factor to consider in the
ethical assessment of these tests.
Further examples of experiments performed with the aim of interfering in the animals’
moral capabilities include Tulogdi et al. (2014), who subjected rats to postweaning
social isolation, thereby inducing defcits in pro-social behaviour. These
defcits were eliminated by resocialisation during adulthood, but the rats’ abnormal
aggressiveness remained resilient to this treatment. Hernandez-Lallement et al.
(2016) have also induced defcits in pro-social behaviour in rats by performing surgery
aimed at damaging the amygdala (brain area responsible for emotion and afliation).
They plan to continue their research along these lines in order to produce “an
animal model of callousness,” for which “[r]odents ofer a cheap, convenient and
ethically less controversial alternative to non-human primates” (Hernandez-Lallement
et al. 2018). Our argument helps to shed some light on the ethical problems
that are, in fact, involved in such experiments.
As in the hypothetical example of Sustitia3, some human practices may destroy
the moral capabilities of animals indirectly, as an unintended side efect of a treatment
that has other aims. For example, there have been reports of rats becoming
habituated to distress cues from conspecifcs after repeated exposure to them during
pro-sociality experiments (Church 1959). The mother-infant relationship is also
artifcially terminated in the case of many farm, zoo, and lab animals, as well as for
some companion animals, e.g., if puppies are sold before they reach an appropriate
age. As the Harlow experiments exemplify, the absence of an appropriate motherinfant
bond may have profound efects on the development of the moral capabilities
of animals. And lastly, the social isolation that can be found in many farms, zoos,
labs, and even some households, may not just prevent the animals from exercising
their moral capabilities, but also, in the long run, efectively eliminate their capacity
to care for others. The humans who are causally responsible should, arguably, be
blamed for this harm, even if it was unintended. This would especially be the case
if the humans were aware of this side efect, and simply assumed it as an inevitable
When we initially set out to investigate the ethical implications of considering that
some animals are moral subjects, we expected it to be a conceptual exploration, with
little relevance outside the proverbial armchair. Rather the opposite turned out to
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Animal Morality: What It Means and Why It Matters
be the case. We have found many contexts, including routine procedures in farms,
labs, and in our homes, where humans potentially interfere with, hinder, or destroy
the moral capabilities of animals. And by opening up to other normative theories
besides the capabilities approach we could perhaps fnd further examples. We leave
that to future research, and hope to at least have given a good sense of how the possibility
of moral subjecthood in animals creates conceptual space for a type of harm
that has been little, if at all, discussed, and that may be very real and important.
Whether or not welfarists can fnd a way of capturing this harm remains to be seen,
but we hope to have convincingly shown how, in its purely hedonistic formulation, it
is unlikely that welfarism can account for this harm.
Acknowledgements Open access funding provided by Austrian Science Fund (FWF). An early version
of this paper was presented at the conference ‘Ethical Theories and the Animal Issue: between Science
and Philosophy’ held at the University of Milan in 2016. The authors would like to thank the attendants,
and especially Mark Rowlands, for their helpful feedback. This paper also hugely beneftted from comments
by Samuel Camenzind, Herwig Grimm, Stefan Schwarzburg, and various anonymous reviewers.
Funding This research was partially funded by the Messerli Foundation (Project Number FA37314006)
and the Austrian Science Fund (Project Number P 31466-G32).
Open Access This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International
License (, which permits unrestricted use, distribution,
and reproduction in any medium, provided you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the
source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made.
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