How to Recognize Animals’ Vulnerability: Questioning the Orthodoxies of Moral Individualism and Relationalism in Animal Ethics

Publication Type:
Journal Article
Year of Publication:
Martin Huth
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Many animal ethicists consider cognitive capacities as being the basis for the moral status of an animal. On this view, animals that have, for instance, complex experiences, future preferences, or at least the ability to suffer, impose an obligation on us. Those beings that do not share these capacities do not have a moral status. This would also apply to embryos, infants, or severely cognitively impaired humans, but this seems to be at odds with many of our shared ethical intuitions. As a response, so-called relationalists argue that our different relations to different kinds of beings form the basis for moral obligations. However, on this view, it remains unclear (a) why it is particularly our relations to kinds of animals that are morally relevant; and (b) how we can criticize and change these relations. This paper seeks to combine both accounts of animal ethics to overcome these pitfalls. It argues that it is individual vulnerability that forms the basis of moral obligations, but that social structures and relations pre-determine how we perceive and recognize vulnerability. However, particular relationships with animals as well as open possibilities to treat animals in different ways (e.g., to treat a dairy cow not as a mere resource) render critique and change of current practices possible.


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