The two dominant approaches to animal ethics, Regan’s deontology and Singer’s utilitarianism, are characterized as theories of “moral individualism.” What this means is that both theories look at the characteristics of individuals, and bestow moral consideration upon beings who have the characteristics which are said to be required for moral consideration. For instance, Singer argues that all individuals who are sentient are morally considerable; thus, he maintains that it doesn’t matter what species one belongs to, who she is related to, what country she is from, and so forth when we determine what our moral obligations are to that particular being. So long as a being is sentient, she is worthy of our moral attention and we must give her interests equal consideration. A being does not receive any more consideration or different treatment just because she is a human being, a member of our family, a citizen of our country, and so forth. Likewise, Regan argues that individuals who are “subjects-of-a-life” are moral rightholders; thus, in order to determine if an individual is entitled to moral rights, we simply ask whether that individual is a “subject-of-a-life.” It does not matter what species one belongs to, how close we are to this individual, and so forth. So long as the individual has the characteristics and/or capacities of a subject-of-a-life, then she is entitled to equal moral rights.
Non-capacity approaches criticize theories of moral individualism (also known as capacity approaches) for being short-sightened. These theories argue that we need to consider the relationships we have with beings, the group membership of beings (such as species), and/or the social and historical context we share with beings when determining what we owe to them or the appropriate way to treat them.
Aleternatives to Capacity Approaches
Clare Palmer: presents a relational account which concerns the different duties we have to domesticated animals and wild animals. She begins by critiquing “capacity approaches” (like Singer’s, Regan’s and Francione’s theories), which maintain that we have duties to not kill or harm nonhuman animals because of the capacities that they possess. While she acknowledges the richness of capacity approaches and that we should not unjustly harm or kill nonhuman animals, she argues that an approach which is limited to a discussion of the capacities of nonhuman animals is incomplete: it overlooks questions of assistance and the morally important relations we form with certain nonhuman animals (such as domesticated animals). What is needed, in addition to consideration of capacities, is a relational approach (which she points out could be an “add-on” to a traditional rights theory like Regan’s or Francione’s). According to Palmer, categories of “wildness” or “domestication” are morally relevant, thus she advances an account of “special obligations,” which maintains that we have additional duties to certain animals (beyond the duty not to harm them) because of the relationship of dependence and vulnerability humans voluntarily formed with these animals. This dicussion can be found in her book Animals in Conext.
Elizabeth Anderson: also criticizes accounts of moral individualism, which claim that animals have rights solely based on their intrinsic capacities. According to her, what rights an animal has will depend on: (1) their actual and possible relations to moral agents, (2) the interests and capacities of moral agents, (3) and the social and historical context, all of which entail that species membership is not morally irrelevant. Anderson also offers an account of the many values of animals which ground their claim to rights which are based on the evaluative attitudes it is rational to take toward them: sympathy, admiration, awe, and even respect. Her well known article on this issue is: “Animal Rights and the Values of Nonhuman Life,” found in Martha Nussbaum and Cass Sunstein, eds., Rights For Animals? Law and Policy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).
Cora Diamond: rejects accounts of moral individualism, like Singer and Regan’s, while arguing that we need to move away from arguments about speciesism, which often result in dehumanizing conseqeunces. While Diamond agrees with Singer and Regan that there are reasons to respect animals, she claims that these reasons are not the ones offered by accounts of moral individualism. In fact, accounts of moral individualism cause us to overlook how important our sense of humanity is in creating our moral universe. Keeping this in mind, she suggests that we consider how our sense of humanity contains the possability of deepening our moral relations with nonhuman animals. You can read her famous piece titled “Eating Meat and Eating People” here.
Mary Midgley: fixates on the question of whether animals matter and why. Her ultimate answer is that animals do matter. While Midgley rejects egalitarian (across species) views, she also rejects views that absolutely dismiss animals. Her view is often described as a “quasi-moderate” view, which investigates the correct moral attitude we should foster toward nonhuman animals without disregarding the “natural phenomenon” of having a stronger sense of compassion or obligation to those with stronger associations to oneself (i.e. those who are of the same species). Yet, she argues that we are not justified in completely denying another being’s rights based on individual kinship. She is known for her book Animals and Why They Matter.