Animal Rights and the Wrongness of Killing

1. Introduction

Citation Information

Allan, Leslie 2015. Animal Rights and the Wrongness of Killing, URL = <>.

Head of barbary ape

Billions of non-human animals[1] are killed annually and for a variety of reasons. We kill on such a vast scale to provide us with food, to alleviate the nuisance of stray pets, in testing commercial products, in scientific experiments and as sport. The overwhelming majority of people would regard the killing of human beings for such reasons as absolutely abhorrent and unthinkable, and yet this wholesale killing of animals barely raises a murmur amongst the general public.

In this essay, my aim is to develop a robust utilitarian approach that does justice to our prohibitions against killing humans while guiding our attitudes to killing animals. I will begin this enterprise with a critical review of non-utilitarian approaches to moral rights; in particular, Tom Regan's intrinsic value view and the claim theory of rights. I will argue that these approaches fail to ground moral rights in animals.

I then go on to examine whether Rawls' theory of justice and a utilitarian rendering of moral rights and justice can inform us on how we ought to treat animals. After reviewing both the utilitarian prima facie duty view of moral rights and social contract views of rights and justice, I deem them of some value, but neither essential nor primary to our understanding of animal obligations.

The question of life's intrinsic value, that is, the value it has for its own sake, is pivotal to our understanding of the morality of killing. I devote one section to discussing what things have intrinsic value. Considered here are such notions as consciousness, pleasure, happiness and satisfaction. I conclude that happiness is intrinsically valuable while life has consequential value. This theory of value is then wedded to the principle of impartiality that underpins ethical discourse. It is the adoption of this rational utilitarian normative framework, I argue, that validates the inclusion of sentient animals within our moral universe.

How we view the wrongness of killing human beings compared with the killing of animals depends on what utilitarian maximizing principle we choose. I critically review the problems faced by both the 'total' view and the 'average' view and propose a revised 'mixed' view that avoids the fatal objections to earlier principles. A number of examples are worked through to demonstrate the application of the principle.

Applying the 'mixed' view maximizing principle in practice to real world situations requires that we first rate the relative utilities of human beings and animals on a common scale. I deal with this vexed issue of making interspecific comparisons and suggest a novel approach that does justice to our moral intuitions. In the final section of this essay, I compare the classical 'mental state' version of utilitarianism and 'preference utilitarianism' and examine how they each approach the issue of the replaceability of one sentient life with another. For this purpose, I focus on Peter Singer's approach and show how the 'mental state' and 'mixed' views combined provide a more coherent and plausible account of our obligations to human and animal life.


  1. [1] Even though homo sapiens is properly speaking a species of animal, for the sake of brevity I will hereinafter refer to non-human animals simply as 'animals'.

Copyright © 2015

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