Deontological Ethics

Deontological Ethics Defined

Deontological Ethics are known as "duty" ethics (EE 4). This ethical approach is sometimes contrasted with a consequentialist, or utilitarian approach, where the morality of an action is judged by its consequences; deontological ethics on the other hand, deals with the morality of an action based on the action's adherence to a rule or rules. Tom Regan deciphers the meaning of these "duties" towards non-human animals in "Animal Right's: What's in a Name?", "it is to believe that we have a duty to improve the quality of animal life, by ensuring-so far as this is possible-that other animals are the beneficiaries of what is good for them" (EE 66).

The Basics of Kant's Deontological Ethics

Kant urges that human beings' desire to look for the most desirable outcome should follow hand in hand with their desire for a moral good, "All these effects-agreeableness of one's condition and event the promotion of the happiness of others-could have been also brought about by other causes, so that for this there would have been no need of the will of a rational being; whereas it is in this alone that the supreme and unconditional good can be found" (Kant). Kant believes "moral good" to be a product of one's acting out of duty, as an exercise of pure reason. Kant seems to be arguing that although we as human beings may look to better our environment or world for our own benefit and at times the benefit of others, these benefits may in themselves be harmful to the world as a whole and even to the environment with which we are trying to improve because of the individuals lack of moral good. Kant argues that it is not whether the individual's actions yield positive outcomes, but if they are performed because of dutiful motives behind their actions (Fellenz 74). Human reasoning is not perfect and through these flaws individuals look not for the moral good of the environment or society, but for maximizing their utility. Through this reasoning Kant creates "the famous principles of his ethical system: the moral worth of an action is not the result of the action, but whether the action has been taken for the sake of duty; that duty is respect for those moral laws that can function universally for all rational beings; and that the source of these laws is the unconditional worth of rational beings existing as ends in themselves," (Fellenz 74). Kant's fundamental concern lies with the purity and necessity of moral laws. Kant states that the only intrinsic good is a good will, a will that is knowledgeable in its respect for universal and necessary laws (Fellenz 74).

Kant on Animals

When discussing Kant's Deontological Ethics, it is critical to understand his general belief that human beings' practical reason is not created to determine which of our actions will effect the most advantageous consequences for animals (Fellenz 74). Kant supports this argument by explaining the obvious distinction between human beings and animals, that we as human beings contain will as well as reason, whereas non-rational animals only contain will. This causes human beings, Kant explains, to not look at the moral reasoning behind an action, but instead, to maximize the opportunity through reason alone. When considering the question of human beings' duty to animals, Kant raises the point that animals are simply a means to an end, "So far as animals are concerned, we have no direct duties. Animals are not self-conscious and are there merely as a means to an end. That end is man." Kant however, also indirectly argues against the mistreating of animals for the sake that it may lead to the mistreatment of human beings as well (EE pg. 56).

He supports his argument with a number of beliefs surrounding non-rational animals inability to reason when deciding upon their actions. Kant explains that non-rational animals actions are controlled by non-conscious instinct, because of this, non-rational animals are unable to have will as well as reason, unlike human beings which have both. Hence, Kant is clear when characterizing non-human animals as things when referring to these animals (Fellenz 74).

Regan's "Case for Animal Rights"

Tom Regan begins by addressing his approach to Care Ethics in, "Animal Rights: What's in a Name?" by describing the basic views he believes should be held by those in favor of animal rights:

1. We are against Cruelty
2. We stand for Animal Welfare, animal protection, for compassion, for human responsibility to other animals.
3. Our goal is animal liberation.

These are some of the basic views he states when explaining who he and the rest of the individuals who stand on the side of animal rights (EE 65).

Regan first main focal point is the issue of animal cruelty. He explains that historically speaking, to prohibit cruelty to animals has amounted in prohibiting only the infliction of unnecessary pain, or "unjustified pain", especially in cases where there is an immense amount of pain inflicted on the animal, and the individual responsible for the animals suffering has acted "maliciously", and with intent (EE 66). Regan goes onto argue that it is of little or no use when an individual is told of animals being inflicted with pain unnecessarily or unjustifiably unless we are told "what counts" as unnecessary or unjustified pain (EE 66). An individual cannot decide on their own terms whether or not the kicking of an animal is determined as unnecessary pain, or whether a shock collar is unjustified, instead, instead, Regan argues that individuals need to be educated on such differences. When characterizing individuals who affirm animal protection, compassion towards animals, speak greatly in their description of animal protection Regan states. The problem, Regan explains, is that it often ambiguous how far these beliefs go, "If these descriptions assume that the only moral prohibition we must honour is the prohibition against cruelty, then they assume that it is sometimes morally permissible to cause animals pain, even substantial pain" (EE 66). In order to fully address the problem, it is necessary for individuals to understand that prohibition not only forbids cruelty against animals, but it also obligates humanity to "promote the good" of other animals (EE 66). Therefore, individuals will look to better the overall welfare of the animal instead of solely eluding cruelty towards animals.

When describing animal welfare, Regan quickly points out the difference it has from solely being against animal cruelty, "as distinct from being merely against animal cruelty, is to believe that we have a duty to improve the quality of animal life, by ensuring-so far as this is possible- that other animals are the beneficiaries of what is good for them, not merely that we should avoid being cruel to them" (EE 66). As stated in the prior paragraph, the goal of animal welfare is to "promote the good" of the animal by ensuring it with the right to live without unjustified suffering and also to advocate humanity to help non-human animals live as productively as possible. Regan brings up an interesting point when referring to the killing of animals, he explains that if an animal has prospered throughout its existence until that point in time, if they are "harvested" (killed), then humanity does nothing wrong in killing the animal (EE 67).

Fellenz's Critique of Deontological Approaches to Environmental Ethics

There is difficulty in realizing human obligation to animals. Fellenz states that the easiest way to give animals rights is contractual, however animals cannot enter into an agreement with humans - they do not understand legality and are not rational. This fact seems to undermine the theory as it offers support for the fact that animals are not rational beings. However, Fellenz also states that non-contractual rights "…those that are overtly legal or political in nature…enforceable claims one party has against others irrespective of whether they are aware of or explicitly agree to the terms…" (MM 77). This Fellenz states is likely the best means of extending human obligation to animals and goes so far as to state that "the recognition of such rights may be the only efficacious means of preventing human harm to animals" (77).

John Livingston counters these thoughts: "The fundamental concept of rights seems itself to be incongruous and inappropriate in the non-human context. At its very simplest level, if the function of rights is political (to protect the interest of an individual against the interest of the collective), in…Nature the notion is without meaning… If, however, the function of rights is to protect Nature from humans, then that is to politicize Nature" (77). To do this would alter human conception of animals and nature - in effect "othering" them to a greater extent and objectifying them.

The key difficulty in applying deontological theory to animals is summarized by Fellenz. Fellenz states that the "difficulty in applying the standard deontological theory of rights to other animals is evident: since non-humans are not generally understood to be responsible agents, they cannot meaningfully participate in political or moral space as either the bearers or recipients of rights claims (79).

Fellenz, Marc R. "Deontological Arguments: Do Animals Have Natural Rights?" Moral Menagerie: Philosophy and Animal Rights. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2007.

Regan, Tom. "Animal Rights: What's in a Name?" Environmental Ethics. Ed. Andrew Light and Holmes Rolston III. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2008.

Singer, Peter. "Not for Humans Only: The Place of Nonhumans in Environmental Issues." Environmental Ethics. Ed. Andrew Light and Holmes Rolston III. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2008.

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