1.3 Animal ethics

Animal ethics is concerned with the well-being of individual beings that are sensitive to pain. The term ‘animal ethics’ is a bit ambiguous, as animal ethics usually only applies to sentient organisms. Thereby the animal kingdom is divided into animals with a nerve system and animals that lack sensitivity (to pain) because of an absent nerve system. The leading assumption here is that the existence of a nerve system is a prerequisite for a capacity to suffer. In any case, animal ethics views the relationship of humans to all such natural beings by assuming they are able to suffer in the same way as we do. We can empathise with a sentient being, because the animal as a ‘suffering creature’ is sibling-like, associated with humans. Furthermore, such beings possess a distinct instinct for self-preservation—in the way they pursue interests, search for satisfaction and strive to avoid suffering and dislike.

Organisms that have an interest in themselves, however, notably appear as morally valuable, because one has to acknowledge a certain autonomy in their behaviour. This is not only valid for the big apes, which are our nearest relatives in the animal kingdom, but also for all non-primates, presuming that they have sensitivity to pain and obviously have a self-conscious perception of their environment.

So animal ethics asks whether animals—at least the ones with sensitivity to pain—possess a value and a purpose in themselves, and—if so—asks what this means in an ethical sense with regard to our relationship and behaviour towards them. Consequently animal ethics moves beyond the sole anthropocentric approach by thinking in a ‘pathocentric’ way.