Ethical Views on the Use and Abuse of Animals

People who approve or disapprove of using animals employ various orientations.

Posted Feb 08, 2019

"Although animal use is contested in these ways, the ethical orientations that people draw on when evaluating different forms of animal use are not yet well understood."

"We show in the paper that people with strong animal protection views do not really consume animal welfare-friendly meat although this should be expected given this viewpoint's focus on giving the animals 'a decent quality of life' and avoiding 'unnecessary pain.'" Thomas Bøker Lund, Sara Vincentzen Kondrup, and Peter Sandøe

Humans in many different venues use and often seriously abuse nonhuman animals (animals) by the billions. I recently learned of an interesting study published in PLOS ONE by Danish researchers Thomas Bøker Lund, Sara Vincentzen Kondrup, and Peter Sandøe called "A multidimensional measure of animal ethics orientation–Developed and applied to a representative sample of the Danish public," which is available online for free. I found this study to be of great interest and asked the authors if they could answer a few questions about their research, and gladly they said "Yes." Our interview went as follows. 

Why did you conduct your study?

The use of animals is a contentious issue, but the ethical orientations that people draw on when evaluating different forms of animal use are not yet well understood. In light of this, the paper presents a questionnaire-based measure of four animal ethics orientations: animal rights, anthropocentrism, animal protection, and lay utilitarianism. The reason for stressing in the title that the measures were applied to a representative sample of the Danish public is that questionnaire measures very often are developed using convenience samples (e.g., university students). Relying solely on a special sub-group in the developmental phase may threaten the replicability and validity of the measure in other, more relevant populations. So we wanted to highlight in the title that the measure is applicable at country and population levels.

In your piece you write, "The present paper aims to develop and apply a multidimensional measure of animal ethics orientations consisting of four orientations to the use of animals: 'animal rights', 'anthropocentrism,' 'animal protection,' and 'lay utilitarianism.'" Can you please tell readers more about each view and if there is some overlap among them? Aren't they all central to protecting other animals from pain, suffering, and death at the hands of humans? 

We wanted to identify and empirically separate some ideal/typical ethical viewpoints that are discernible from animal ethics theories and from readings. They are also discernible from empirical studies suggesting that some viewpoints that are not picked up by ethical theories exist, and these viewpoints may even be widespread in the general population.

At one end of the spectrum, the anthropocentric orientation stresses that humans are the center of the moral universe. At the other end of the spectrum, the animal rights orientation claims that sentient animals are entitled to the same kinds of rights as humans. 

We further identified two orientations that can be conceived as variations of what Robert Garner has termed ‘animal welfarism,' or ‘animal welfare ethics.' Animal welfarism does not question the right of humans to use animals for what are considered important human endeavors. However, humans have in light of this orientation a moral obligation, as far as possible, to avoid causing suffering to animals and/or to ensure a positive quality of life for them. Within this overall discourse, we identify the animal protection and the lay utilitarian orientation, respectively. The first emphasizes that the welfare of animals is important in its own right and that animals must be treated humanely. The latter offers a more cynical take on animal welfare, namely that all forms of animal use are in principle acceptable as long as the human benefits outweigh the disadvantages for the animals involved. Here, important or essential but painful animal experiments may divide the two groups.

ivabalk, Pixabay free download
Dairy Cow
Source: ivabalk, Pixabay free download

We believe that the developed measure can help detect the ethical orientations that have an impact on various types of behaviors that include animals, and thus provide a more nuanced understanding about the attitudinal sources and justifications of different forms of animal use. It may also be interesting to track the prevalence of the orientations over time and across cultures. The measure can be used instrumentally by policymakers and activists by, for example, pinpointing discrepancies between values and behavior. A case in point that we show in the paper is that people with strong animal protection views do not really consume animal welfare-friendly meat although this should be expected given this viewpoint's focus on giving the animals “decent quality of life” and avoiding “unnecessary pain."

What are some of your major messages, and are you concerned that your database is only from Denmark? 

A major message, beyond the ones already mentioned, is that the assumption made by Robert Garner and Gary Francione that animal welfarism predominates in modern, affluent, Western countries like Denmark can be confirmed. Thus, the ‘animal protection’ orientation is particularly widespread in the general Danish public. 

The measure was developed using participants from Denmark. Obviously, we cannot be sure that the four orientations exist and can be replicated in other countries. However, since the orientations in this study were developed on the basis of ethical theories and empirical studies from multiple countries, we believe it is likely that the orientations will be found in other countries that resemble Denmark.

What are some "real world" applications of what you learned, and how will these improve the lives of nonhumans who are used by humans in many different human-oriented venues?

For those who want to change things on the ground regarding animal use, there is always the issue of how to balance idealism and pragmatism. This tool will enable a “segmentation” of the population that may allow for better ways of communicating with target groups.

Some people feel that animal welfare fails far too many animals because it's based on the presumption that it's perfectly okay to use other animals for human purposes as long as people do "the best they can" to minimize pain, suffering, and death. Clearly, people who choose to use other animals differ in what they believe is acceptable treatment and what they believe is unacceptable treatment. How will your findings influence how animals are used in the future? 

As mentioned earlier, we believe that the measure can be used by policymakers and activists to communicate possible discrepancies between values and behavior. This is especially pertinent regarding the animal protection viewpoint (where it's okay to use other animals for human purposes as long as people do the best they can to minimize pain, suffering, and death) because many common uses of animals do not live up to these principles. Further, neither the anthropocentric nor lay utilitarian viewpoints are good news for animals. It will be important to track the prevalence of these viewpoints so that actions can be taken should they become more widespread sentiments.

What are some of your current and future projects?

We have collected data on the multi-dimensional measure from over 200 animal welfare experts (including controllers, consultants, and veterinary practitioners) from Denmark and abroad. The measure appears to be replicated and factorially valid in this particular subgroup as well. We are currently comparing the experts’ and Danish publics’ orientations and are also examining the importance of the orientations for assessment of the animal welfare of farms. We expect to have a paper out about this in 12 months. 

We also plan a comparative population study of Denmark, Sweden, and Germany where we will assess the prevalence of all four orientations and follow-up on the surprising finding that the animal protection viewpoint does not lead to more animal welfare-friendly meat consumption. We will ask whether this pattern is the same in all three countries. 

Thank you very much for taking the time to answer my questions. Nonhuman animals need all the help they can get in an increasingly human-dominated world, and I hope your paper will be read widely both by people who are interested in animal protection and by those who want to know more but aren't especially interested in doing much research on the topics at hand.


Dr. Zazie Todd also provides a concise summary of this research. She notes some interesting aspects of this research including "The results show just how complicated our ethical beliefs about animals are—and include some surprising results," and "It is a remarkable and ironic finding… that a stronger animal protection orientation does not make people more likely to consume animal welfare-friendly meat.” Dr. Todd also writes, "Dog owners are less likely to be anthropocentric in their views. Is this because anthropocentric people are less likely to get dogs, or is there something about having a dog that makes people be less anthropocentric? This is a question for future research." She also summarizes what the researchers report about people who live with cats, namely, "Cat owners are less likely to have the animal protection or lay utilitarian views. Why are cat owners less likely to be in what could be considered the middle ground? This is puzzling, and the researchers do not have an explanation for it."


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