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The Oxford Handbook of Animal EthicsReview - The Oxford Handbook of Animal Ethics
by Tom L. Beauchamp and R. G. Frey (Editors)
Oxford University Press, 2011
Review by Tuomas W. Manninen
Oct 2nd 2012 (Volume 16, Issue 40)

General comments

The Oxford Handbook of Animal Ethics, edited by Tom Beauchamp and R. G. Frey, makes a substantial and magisterial addition to the literature on animal ethics.  The volume contains 35 original essays on topics that could easily be expected from the title (i.e., how the different theories in normative ethics view non-human animals, and a range of topics in applied ethics, including animal experimentation, and so on).  But instead of covering just these topics in isolation from broader concerns, the essays in -- or, chapters of -- the volume aim situate animal ethics in the wider context of philosophy, including philosophy of mind, philosophy of science(s), ethical theory, history of philosophy, and beyond.  Taking the volume as a whole -- they admirably succeed in this task.

Allow me to begin with the disclaimer that it would be unfeasible to cover all the chapters in the space available for the review here.  Moreover, one of the editors (Beauchamp) already performs this task in a commendable fashion, when he surveys the highlights of all the chapters.  For someone looking for an introduction to animal ethics, the ground covered in the editor's introduction would likely be sufficient.  The rest of the book is structured in six parts of varying length, and Beauchamp's introduction covers each of these.  As he notes, the chapters "explore matters that … have never previously been examined by philosophers" (3).  Also, the preface to the volume already enters a caveat that the chapters (aside from the Introduction) are not "scaled down … to make them more accessible to a wide audience" (ix).  Given this, the volume seems to be chiefly intended for scholars and for graduate students whose work delves deep into these matters. 

As a result of the editorial choices made, the chapters are representative of first-rate scholarship.  The chapters are not only well-informed and exhaustive in their scope, but they are also well-argued.  The suggested readings section for each of the chapters (some of which are annotated, although most are not) is nothing short of comprehensive.  Moreover, the chapters are self-contained, so that a reader interested in finding out about topic x would not need to cross-reference the other chapters in order to get a thorough overview on the topic of her choice (although she probably should, given how she would undoubtedly benefit from doing so).  

Given all the above, my review here will provide just a short sketch of each of the parts of the book.  The main exception to this is my discussion of the chapters in Part III (which deals with questions of personhood, as well as the moral theories built on this notion), where I pay closer attention to (some of) the chapters.


Part I: History of philosophy

Although the notion of animal rights might have the air of being a recent development, the two chapters in Part I serve to dispel this illusion.  As Beauchamp notes, the volume is not titled Handbook on Animal Rights for the reason that such a title would be "presumptive [and] insufficiently comprehensive" (4).  Moreover, as the subsequent discussions in Part II (and, in particular, in Beauchamp's essay, #7) indicate, the notion of 'rights' is not commonly shared amongst the proponents of animal welfare, not to mention that it carries the implication of obligations (per the arguments by Roger Scruton,    

In the first chapter of the volume, Clark canvasses the views held in the ancient world, and points out how there is scarcely a consensus among these, when it comes to animal ethics.  Clark argues that this has to do with the fact that any attempt to include nearly a millennia's worth of philosophical thought under a single heading (such as "the Ancients," or "the Greeks," or "the Classics," and so on) will inevitably gloss over the real and nuanced differences between the various positions that were actually held.  On a close inspection, the positions held by "the Ancients," etc., turn out to be "as convoluted, as contradictory, as that of any age or region" (55).  Still, as Clark concludes, it won't simply do to brush off all the considerations advanced by the Ancients and the Classicists due to the inability to bracket off these views in neat-and-clean categories.

In the second chapter, Garrett surveys the views on animals and ethics in the Modern period.  Again, any generalizations about the views held by philosophers in this period (spanning from the 16th through the 18th centuries) are shown to be as ill-advised as those about the views of the thinkers of the Ancient period.  Nevertheless, Garrett deftly shows that many (if not most) of the positions that have become commonplace in the 20th century (when it comes to animal rights, etc.) can be traced back to the thinkers of the Modern period.


Part II: Types of Ethical Theory

The six chapters in Part II cover the contemporary positions on normative ethics, and how they construe the role of animals.  The views represented here include the usual suspects -- (Kantian) deontology (#3 by Korsgaard, although she adds an Aristotelian component), utilitarianism (#6 by Frey), and (social) contractarianism/human rights theory (#7 by Beauchamp).  Each of these chapters deals, in close detail, with the question of how animals fit in such an ethical theory, as well as with the question of how animals could (and should) fit in such a theory.  In addition to these chapters, we also find coverage of virtue ethics (#4 by Hursthouse), of Humean (non-cognitivist) ethical theory (#5 by Driver), and of capabilities approach (#8 by Nussbaum). 


Part III: Moral Status and Person Theory

The common thread for the four chapters in Part III is the concept 'person' and how it can be (and has been) used to confer a preferential moral status.  As the conventional wisdom has it, those beings that are persons are entitled to serious moral considerations, while those who are not persons, lack such entitlement.  But as the contributors argue, there is scant consensus on what a person is, and what role does 'personhood' play in the philosophical debates in ethics, in metaphysics, and in political and legal philosophy.

The opening chapter (#9) of this section, "The Idea of Moral Standing" by Morris, investigates the notion of moral standing as it is used in contemporary literature on ethics.  Morris reviews the ambiguities surrounding the notion, along with the arguments for (and against) extending moral standing to animals in a conventionalist framework of justice.  Moreover, Morris argues that clarifying just this question would still produce an inadequate understanding of the status of animals; Morris moves on to suggest ways to broaden the notion of status that a being can have.  As for the question of what being(s) have moral standing, Morris surveys the diversity of proposed views, which generally are of the form "something has moral standing if it is x"; the stronger form of the thesis is "something has moral standing if and only if it is x".  The common values for 'x' have included: a person, an actual or potential person, a member of the species Homo sapiens, a member of a natural kind whose mature members are normally persons, an agent who is willing to cooperate.  As for the question of moral standing, we can take it in the juridical sense, "focus[ing] on obligations owed to a being, such that it is wronged when these obligations are disregarded" (267).  In addition, Morris argues that a second notion of moral standing is called for, namely, one that is accorded to beings that are objects "of our charity or benevolence, in their own right and for their own sake" (271).  This second notion of moral standing is not intended as a replacement to the juridical notion, but instead, a supplement.  Morris acknowledges that ultimately, his proposal may not resolve all the questions, but it still seemingly serves to improve the focus -- as well as the clarity -- of the debates over moral standing. 

Next, moving on to the chapter by Chan and Harris (#11), they explore the question "of whether a nonhuman animal [or] any nonhuman organic creature or animate machine could ever be considered a person" (305).  The contemporary use of the term 'person,' as Chan and Harris point out, chiefly owes to John Locke's definition, according to which a person is "a thinking intelligent being, that has reason and reflection, and can consider itself as itself, in different times and places…" (306).  Since each of the capacities identified by Locke admit degrees, the authors point out that this leads to thorny questions about degrees of personhood: is it possible for someone to be less of a person, or more of a person?  Even if Locke's definition is treated as a threshold condition for personhood, and -- as such -- as the basis for the moral theory of personhood, more questions emerge, and they are no less vexing.  Given that Locke's definition is silent on species-membership, there appears to be no obvious reason why it couldn't apply to non-human animals just as well as it does to humans (309-311).  Trying to solve these question forces us to consider the questions of animal minds, their abilities to comprehend -- and even use -- language; we are faced with questions of whether or not animals are conscious -- which would require us to get clear what consciousness is in the first place.  Further, questions about memory and learning arise in a rapid succession: if being able to relate to one's past is a criterion for personhood, what of animals who seem to be able to do this?  Even worse, what about humans who suffer from inability to recall past events?  Furthermore, when it comes to Locke's definition, the question then turns to the status of the criteria: even if they give us the sufficient conditions for personhood (as Chan and Harris take them to do), do they yield us with the necessary conditions as well? 

Finally, Chan and Harris sum up their considerations by stating the obvious: "any sensible and non-species-based criteria will either include some nonhumans or exclude some humans" (322).  Even if this point could be uncontroversial (which it hardly is), its implications are anything but.  If the very definition of the term 'person' is surrounded in such an ambiguity, what does this mean for the moral theory of personhood, both in its political and its ethical uses?  Chan and Harris round off their discussion by considering both the future ramifications, as well as the issues that have garnered scant attention from philosophers; these include:  What about human/animal hybrids (especially with performing the hybridization on the embryonic level and "allowing the resulting creature to develop into a mature individual") (324)?  What about "wolf-children" (that is, "children brought up in isolation from other humans by animals and who have as a result neither been socialized nor acquired language") that are rarely encountered (and when they have been, even more rarely have these cases been found to be authentic) (325-326)?  What about transhumans -- the creatures that result from cognitive, genetic, or cybernetic manipulation of human beings (326-327)?  And so on, and so forth. 

Although Chan and Harris do not offer any clear-cut final answers in their chapter, the significance of their contribution comes from highlighting the full panoply of the vexing issues that are frequently discussed, but often only in ways that skirt around these deep and perplexing questions.  Granted, the next essay (#12 by Tooley) does address a significant number (though not all) of these issues.  Although Tooley's conclusion is that many of the arguments concerning the personhood of non-human animals, or their moral standing in light of their alleged personhood, are unsuccessful, he aims his verdict equally towards the arguments for and the arguments against animal personhood. 


Part IV: Animal Minds and Their Moral Significance

The articles in Part IV of the volume expand on the considerations in the preceding part(s) by turning towards more detailed questions about animal minds, and what implications animal cognition has (or, could have) when it comes to the moral standing of animals.  Carruthers (# 13) argues that (i) all humans have moral standing; (ii) no non-human animals have such a standing; and (iii) at best, animals have an indirect moral standing -- especially when operating under a contractarian framework. 

For a contrasting position, the chapter by Andrews (#16) explores anthropomorphism (the practice in which we attribute uniquely human characteristics to non-humans), and its implications to the field of animal psychology.  Andrews's exploration focuses on whether the characteristics that are frequently claimed to be anthropomorphized are really unique to humans.  On her view, a wholesale rejection of animal cognition studies on the ground of anthropomorphism is ill-founded, even if some of the concerns have merit.  Nevertheless, this is a verdict that cannot be applied across the board; just because the extant study protocols are applicable to one species, it by no means follows that they can be applied to some other species.


Part V: Species and the Engineering of Species

This part of the volume addresses concerns arising both from ecology as well as from philosophy of science, as well as their broader implications.  The chapter by Greene (#20) moves the concerns addressed in the preceding parts into a different level: even if the question of how to treat individual members of a species is settled, there are different considerations that enter in when we focus on that species as a whole.  Does the individual member of a species have a specific moral value that becomes derivative when applied to the species as a whole?

The following chapter (#21) by Powell highlights some further problems when it comes to moral questions about ecology.  At the top of the list of these is: given evolutionary biology, what is the ontological status of all the different species?  And if we cannot fixate the borders of a species, how can we address questions about its ecological moral value?  If the definition of 'species' is as fluid as it appears to be, how can we meaningfully prioritize different species (as we are frequently wont to do)? 


Part VI: Practical Ethics

The sixth (and final) part of the volume addresses (nearly) the full gamut of concerns in practical (or, applied) ethics, ranging from confining animals in zoos (#27 by DeGrazia), through keeping pets (#28 by Bok), to using animals in biomedical research (#29 by LaFollette), and from the ethics of hunting (#31 by Varner), through the moral problems of factory farming (#32 by Rachels), to using animals in toxicological research (#33 by Rowan).  In addition to these concerns, there is substantial discussion about governmental regulations about the use of animals in research (#34 by Kahn). 

The final chapter (#35 by Zamir) involves the so-called 'literary turn' in (animal) ethics: can the questions raised about animal ethics (including the ones addressed in the preceding chapters) be fruitfully explored by turning into depictions (and reflections) of moral use of animals in the literature -- and if so, then how?    



Given the spectrum of views addressed, analyzed, criticized, and defended in this volume, it is nigh impossible to sum everything up in a review -- let alone in a few sentences.  Yet, I offer the following as my meager effort to do this: If you, the reader, are looking for an overview of the status quo in animal ethics, you will get your fill from just reading the Editor's introduction to this volume.  In contrast, if you are doing advanced scholarly work (regardless of your level of advancement) on the myriad topics covered in this volume, this volume will be an indispensable source.


© 2012 Tuomas W. Manninen


Tuomas W. Manninen is a Lecturer in the School of Humanities, Arts and Cultural Studies at Arizona State University, West Campus.  He regularly teaches philosophy courses that involve questions about the human nature.  He received his Ph.D. from the University of Iowa in 2007; his dissertation focused on the metaphysics of personhood.


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