New Animal Ethics Book Series

David Cassuto

From the email:



The publisher Palgrave Macmillan in partnership with the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics is delighted to announce the publication of the first two books in its pioneering new book series on animal ethics: An Introduction to Animals and Political Theory by Alasdair Cochrane and An Introduction to Animals and the Law by Joan Schaffner.


The Palgrave Macmillan book series is jointly edited by the internationally known theologian the Reverend Professor Andrew Linzey, Director of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, and Professor Priscilla Cohn, Emeritus Professor in Philosophy at Penn State University and Associate Director of the Centre. The book series aims to publish ground breaking work written by new and established academics from a wide range of disciplines including anthropology, ethics, history, law, literature, linguistics, political theory, religion and science. The series will provide a range of key introductory and advanced texts that map out ethical positions on animals.               Continue reading

“Sex, Gender and Species” Conference at Wesleyan University

David Cassuto

This interdisciplinary conference looks like it will be mighty good.

  • Wesleyan University will be hosting a conference called “Sex, Gender and Species” on February 25 and 26, 2011. The purpose of this conference is to foreground the relations between feminist and animal studies and to examine the real and theoretical problems that are central to both fields of inquiry. Conference organizers Lori Gruen and Kari Weil are seeking 1-2 page abstracts by October 1, 2010. Abstracts can be sent to or

The Ethics of Culling Wildlife — More News from GEIG

Dateline Florence (I just like saying that), where the Global Ecological Integrity Group Conference continues:

One of today’s speakers — an ecologist from Australia — asked: When is it ethically appropriate to cull wildlife to reduce the disease threat to humans?

While I am pleased that such questions get posed, they raise predicate questions which seldom get asked.  For example:

1) Is reducing the disease threat to humans an objective good?

2) If so, how much are we willing to sacrifice in order to achieve it?

a) I.e., are we willing to likewise ask when it is ethically appropriate to cull humans to reduce the disease threat?

3) What criteria do we use to ethically differentiate ourselves from wildlife?

Please understand that I am not advocating for a policy of culling humans.  I rather wish to question the ethical predicates underlying the culling of animals.

People often assume that this set of questions stems from and is founded on a philosophy of animal rights.  I believe that they first and foremost arise from environmental ethics.  Indeed, I wonder how we who embrace the Land Ethic can avoid shouting them from the rooftops.

–David Cassuto

Can Animals be Immoral?

Guest Blogger: John A. Humbach

A few years ago a young patron at a municipal zoo climbed into the polar bear exhibit and was promptly attacked and killed. The newspapers reported talk of destroying the attacker, but many favored sparing him. As one observer put it: “He was just being a bear.”

But was he?

Most of the discussions of moral concerns in relation to animals have centered on the conduct of human animals rather than of the non-human kind. While this conspicuous disproportionality may appropriately reflect the species-centric point of view of the discussants, it does narrow the frame of reference substantially.

It also impoverishes the discussion because, if morality and immorality are properties of non-human as well as human behavior, then humans may well have much to learn by observing our less disingenuous fellow beings. Such observation would be particularly fruitful if, as many appear to assume, morality is not merely a human construct but rather part of the fabric of the universe. For if morality is, indeed, an intrinsic attribute of the stuff and sequences of the life, it would be surprising to find it confined to a single species among the millions that walk (and have walked) the earth. To view moral capacity as an exclusively human attribute would be, at least, suspiciously speciesist.

Beyond this, is it far-fetched to think that animals make moral judgments about us, at least in some cases? What person with pets at home has not felt the occasional rebuke of a non-human companion who is fed too late or is clumsily stumbled over? The animals who live in our homes tend to be profoundly forgiving, which is much to their credit (and maybe part of what we can learn). But it is hard to miss the fleeting flash of disappointment or anger in their eyes when, due to malice or mere misstep, they find themselves treated with disregard or disrespect. Perhaps their well-known and, frankly, appealing patterns of moralistic behavior, deeply considerate of others but without abandonment of self, far surpasses the structures and stylized moral artifices of human behavioral conventions.

But there is also a somewhat darker side to the question. It is widely accepted that human beings morally “deserve” various forms of ill-treatment when their conduct strays outside the accepted boundaries. A number of elaborate and robust retributive theories of punishment are built upon this foundation, and the infliction of punishment in that pursuit is a primary government activity. Ideas of retribution are sometimes closely attentive to the moral culpability of those alleged to deserve suffering, but not always. There are also important strains of retributive thought that regard there mere doing of harm as being, in itself, deserving of painful inflictions-such as when a “sick” individual is driven by violent internal compulsions to horrific actions that may be functionally beyond his control. (Or when a person who is unjustly imprisoned kills a guard in order to escape?)  At any rate, the point is this: Even if animals do not have “free will,” it far from clear that the presence or absence of this dubious faculty is a necessary pre-requisite to ascribing moral responsibility, or just deserts.

So what can we say of a killer bear, that he is “bad” or “good,” or merely that he is? Can we, in short, ascribe to animals the capacity to be immoral? I am not, at this point, prepared to reach a conclusion. It is not, however, the kind of question that can be lightly cast aside. It runs indeed to the very core of relations among the species.

Spay/Neuter Redux

The spay/neuter question came up in my animal law class the other night and I continue to ponder its many facets.  Perhaps some more public wrestling is in order (I previously raised the issue here) .

If forced to make a general distinction between animal and environmental advocates on questions relating to animals, I would say that environmentalists tend to concern themselves more with species and ecosystemic integrity whereas animal advocates focus more on individual animals.  If one accepts this distinction while also accepting that no animal volunteers or consents to be sterilized, then one finds oneself (or at least I do) in an ethical morass.

It seems to me that the rights perspective must acknowledge individual animals’ claims to bodily integrity.  After all, rights adhere to the individual, not the collective.  The fact that you have a right to vote does not mean I do, and vice versa.  Causes of action arise when individual rights are trampled even when the rights of the majority remain intact.

Professor Francione maintains that since the institution of pet ownership is morally wrong, it is permissible to sterilize animals because failing to do so perpetuates the wrong of pet ownership.  But I have to ask: regardless of the morality of pet ownership, do not those animals alive now have a claim to membership in the moral community?  And if so, how then can their respective rights to bodily integrity be ignored?

One might respond that sacrificing individual rights for the greater good is sometimes necessary, and that may well be true.  However, I remain unconvinced that those forfeiting their rights would agree that the greater good is being served.  This is particularly true, for example, with feral cat colonies and the policy of trap/neuter/return (TNR).  In the case of the cats, the overall goal is the eradication of the colony.  That goal seems more attuned to human needs than those of the cats.

Let me state for the record that I recognize the necessity argument here.  Companion animal overpopulation is a terrible problem and many animals suffer and die in shelters because of it.  I am also all too aware that TNR is by far the most humane option available for feral cat management and that those who manage the colonies often go to heroic lengths to save these cats from otherwise grisly fates.  Nevertheless, recognition of this reality need not preclude a full exploration of the ethics involved in the practice and I invite your thoughts as we continue this dialogue.