Virtues and Animals

Rather than focusing on specific rules or actions (like deontology) or consequences (such as utilitarianism), virtue ethics affords moral attention to the character of the agent performing the action. Someone with good character is someone who is fully virtuous; thus, according to virtue ethics, our goal, as moral agents, is to become fully virtuous whereby being fully virtuous entails that one possesses all virtues (compassion, justice, integrity, honesty, courage, and so forth) at some threshold level.

Mark Rowlands defines a moral virtue as a character trait that is: ‘‘(i) a morally good, admirable, or otherwise praiseworthy character trait, where (ii) this character trait consists in a relatively stable set of behavioural dispositions that are (iii) embedded in an appropriate surrounding milieu of judgments and emotions (broadly understood)’’ (Rowlands 2012, 30). A virtue is multi-factorial: it is not only a disposition to act in an appropriate way, but it is also a disposition to have appropriate feelings, emotions, and thoughts since ‘‘actions and emotions are bound up in an indissoluble whole’’ (Rowlands 2012, 30). A morally good person is one who not only acts (stably) as a virtuous person would, but a morally good person is one who feels (stably) in the way a virtuous agent would. Thus, the motivation and emotion of a moral agent are central to assessing one’s moral character.

In book II, Chapter IV of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle writes that in order to be truly virtuous:
1. One must have knowledge that she is performing in the right way
2. One must choose the acts, and choose them for their own sakes
3. One’s action must proceed from a firm and unchangeable character

For instance, one is not compassionate if he helps an elderly woman cross the street in order to impress someone else nor is he compassionate if he “accidentally” performs an act that promotes the welfare of others (for example, one is not compassionate if he accidentally drops change in front of a starving person). Rather, one can be said to perform a compassionate act only if he has the right motivation and understands that he is acting in the right way. Furthermore, performing one virtuous act does not make a person a virtuous person. For instance, if one jumps on a grenade in the battlefield, but acts like a coward in every other aspect of his life, he is not a courageous person (although we might say he performed an act of courage). If one is truly courageous, then he will act courageously in all spheres of his life, i.e., courageous behavior will stem from a “firm and unchangeable character.” Finally, one is not virtuous if he cultivates only some of the virtues, and not others. One might be incredibly courageous, wise, and temperate, but if he is cruel or uncompassionate, he cannot be said to be virtuous. Rather, in order to be characterized as truly virtuous, he must cultivate all virtues at some threshold level (Aristotle claims that there are both moral and intellectual virtues).

husthouseRosalind Husthouse: illustrates how we can account for the ethical treatment of nonhuman animals through an appeal to virtue ethics. She claims that starting with the question of moral status is not the correct starting point in the animal ethics discussion. Rather, we should begin by morally questioning the attitudes that underlie the use and abuse of non-human animals. When we do so, we often find that we act viciously: shallow or cruel. Thus, if one is committed to living a virtuous life, he/she will change his/her attitudes toward the use of animals, while rejecting the claim that animals are food or tools for research Books include: Ethics, Humans and Other Animals: An Introduction with Readings. You can also read her essay “Applying Virtue Ethics to Our Treatment of Other Animals” here. She also recently published an essay “Virtue Ethics and the Treatment of Animals”, in Tom L. Beauchamp and R. G. Frey (eds.), Oxford Handbook of Animal Ethics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011, 119-143.

meCheryl Abbate, in her essay titled Virtues and Animals: A Minimally Decent Ethic for Practical Living in a Non-ideal World, entertains the idea that perhaps virtue ethics is the appropriate framework for developing an animal liberation ethic. Her claim is that the two most influential theories of animal liberation which dominate the animal ethics discourse, Regan’s deontology and Singer’s preference utilitarianism, are unsuccessful at providing adequate protection for animals because they are unable to satisfy the conditions of a minimally decent theory of animal protection. She claims that Singer’s utilitarianism is overly permissive because it permits the harming of animals for trivial reasons, so long as interests are maximize. On the other hand, she points out that Regan’s deontological theory is too restrictive, since the prohibition on harming nonhuman animals would make moral agents incapable of responding to moral tragedies that, at times, necessitate that some animals be harmed in order to prevent a moral catastophe. She concludes by suggesting that virtue ethics is a plausible theory that can satisfy the requirements of a minimally decent animal ethic, since it encourages moral agents to take into account the context-dependent considerations of the complex human–animal relationship in our non-ideal world. Note that she does not specifically argue exclusively in favor of virtue ethics; rather, her goal is to suggest that concerned moral agents have good reason to pursue and develop an account of virtue ethics in lieu of utilitarianism and deontology.

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Abbate, C. (2014). Virtue Ethics and Animals: A Minimally Decent Ethic for Practical Living in a Non-ideal World. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 27(6), pp. 909-929.
Hursthouse, R. (2006). Applying virtue ethics to our treatment of other animals. In J. Welchman (Ed.), The practice of virtue: Classic and contemporary readings in virtue ethics (pp. 136–154). Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing.
Hursthouse, R. (2011). Virtue ethics and the treatment of animals. In T. Beauchamp & R. Frey (Eds.), The oxford handbook of animal ethics (pp. 119–143). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Nobis, N. (2002). Vegetarianism and virtue: Does consequentialism demand too little? Social Theory and Practice, 28(1), 135–156.
Rowlands, M. (2012). Virtue ethics and animals. In E. Protopapadakis (Ed.), Animal ethics: Past and present perspectives. Berlin: Deutsche Nationalbibliothek.