Comparing Animal Philosophies
An Animal Rights Article from


Animal Ethics
August 2009

Comparison of Animal Ethics & Animal Rights

Animal Ethics

  • Includes animal rights but has broader scope, e.g. overlaps with environmental ethics and utilitarianism.
  • Asks how we should treat animals and provides a number of approaches.
  • Does not offer any particular moral viewpoint about animals.
  • Is a doctrine about how we should treat animals.
  • Tries to resolve moral animal-human issues using a number of schemes. Applies to all animals.

Animal Rights

  • Concentrates only on rights, a sub-set of animal ethics.
  • Asserts that using animals for human gain is morally wrong.
  • Is a doctrine about how we should treat animals.
  • Asserts that we have a duty to give animals rights and we should respect those rights.
  • Applies to all animals.
  • Concentrates on sentient animals.

Animal Rights vs Animal Welfare

Animal rights overlaps with animal welfare and conservation. But although all three share many similarities there are important differences that set them apart from each other and make them conflicting philosophies.

The Rights Position

  • Morality - Using animals is morally wrong.
  • Benefits - We should not use animals to benefit ourselves.
  • Interests - We should not invariably overrule the interests of the animals with human interests.
  • Pain - We should not inflict pain or death on animals.
  • Humane Treatment - We should always treat animals humanely and eliminate the human made causes of animal suffering.

The Animal Welfare Position

  • Morality - Using animals is morally right.
  • Benefits - We can use animals to benefit ourselves.
  • Interests - Our interests are always more important than the interests of animals.
  • Pain - We should not cause animals 'unnecessary' pain or death.
  • Humane Treatment - We should treat animals as humanely as convenient to us.

Animal rightists often disparage of animal welfare because the two philosophies are worlds apart in important respects. As the radical animal rights academic and activist Stephen Best (see Chapter 6) says, "Animal 'welfare' laws do little but regulate the details of exploitation." (Best, Steven & Nocella, Anthony J (eds). Terrorist or Freedom Fighter?, Lantern Books: New York. 2002:12)

Another important difference between animal rights and animal welfare is that one is subjective and the other is objective. We cannot measure animal rights impartially or scientifically. It is a concept and a personal moral choice. It resembles the conviction of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724 - 1804) that we should not harm humans even in the interests of the majority. Animal rights takes Kant's view (a Duty Ethics concept, see Chapter 2: Animal Ethics, Table 1) a step further and applies it to animals. Animal welfare, on the other hand, has the advantage that we can measure it objectively and manipulate it scientifically. For instance, to find which kind of bedding chickens prefer, we can count the number of chickens who seek to live on a straw floor or a wire mesh floor. Then we might provide the chickens with their choice, economic and other constraints permitting. Morally, we can see animal welfare as part of Consequence Ethics conceptually underpinned by Utilitarianism.

Animal welfare has a variation called new welfarism, in outlook between animal welfare and animal rights. Like animal rightists, new welfarists support abolishing the causes of suffering; however, new welfarists argue that it will take a long time to achieve this and meanwhile we must do all we can to support the welfare of animals to lessen their suffering. Thus, for instance, new welfarists want to phase out fur farms and animal experiments but in the short-term they try to improve conditions for these animals. Critics of new welfarism say this route supports animal exploitation and therefore is a useless philosophy and the ultimate act of betrayal for animals. New welfarists counter by claiming that their outlook is more achievable, and therefore is of more immediate benefit to exploited animals, than the perhaps impossible goals of animal rights, such as demanding complete closure of anti-animal industries and changing the deep seated habits of billions of people.

Animal Rights vs Conservation

Animal rights and nature conservation both became popular among the public in the late 1970's. Both standpoints oppose human-centredness and believe that wild animals have intrinsic value (although this is not an attitude of all conservationists). Animal rightists and nature conservationists both support conserving nature, although for different reasons. Conservationists support nature for the sake of greater conservation whereas animal rightists support nature for the sake of the animals who live in it. The differences between both outlooks, however, are deep.

Animal Rights

  • Focuses on the individual animals as well as on animals in general.
  • Refers usually to sentient animals and not to plants or the physical environment.
  • Is concerned with animals in areas of human activity (e.g., agriculture, laboratories, fur trade and circuses).
  •  Animal rightists try to minimize suffering of animals, especially when humans cause it.


  • Focuses on levels above the individual (populations, species, ecosystems and the biosphere) except when just a few individuals are the only survivors of their population or species.
  • Encompasses all creatures (plants, etc.) and includes the physical part of nature (e.g., air and water).
  • Is not usually concerned with animals in these areas of human activity unless they intrude on conservation matters, such as when wild animals are taken from endangered populations.
  • Pain and death to conservationists are a part of life that individuals must endure, and conservationists would prefer individuals to suffer so long as their populations or species survive.

Deep Ecology

There is another philosophy that has an important bearing on our behavior to animals. It contrasts with animal rights and helps to see it in perspective. Deep Ecology is concerned with fundamental philosophical, practical and personal questions about the ways humans relate to their environment. It relates to animals because of course animals live in nature and are part of our environment. Deep Ecology opposes the exploitation and destruction of the natural world by materialism and consumerism. It says we should minimize our impact on the world and it appeals for a change in the way we think about the world. Deep Ecology predicts that if we do not shift our basic values and customs we will destroy the diversity and beauty of the world's life and its ability to support humanity.

The ideas of Deep Ecology came about against the background of the nascent Environmentalism of the 1960's. Deep Ecology is primarily associated with Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess. The Deep in Deep Ecology refers to a fundamental or wise questioning of attitudes to nature. Deep Ecology questions the root causes of the degeneration of the variety and richness of the world. It calls for a more enlightened approach for humanity to live within the bounds of Nature rather than to depend on technological fixes as remedies for our exploitation / destruction of nature.

Naess coined the term Deep Ecology in 1973 in contrast to shallow ecology, a lesser form of environmentalism and typical of present society. The nature of shallow ecology has a utilitarian and anthropocentric attitude, based on materialism and consumerism. Shallow ecology focuses on using the world's natural resources for unlimited human growth and comes up with technological solutions to offset environmental problems thus made. For example, shallow ecology promotes recycling of commercial and industrial waste instead of preventing the generation of waste in the first place. Again, shallow ecology supports placing ever increasing demands on the land to produce more food instead of improving human birth control to reduce human numbers.

The Eight Tenets of Deep Ecology

Eight tenets, composed by Naess and colleagues, form the basis of Deep Ecology thought. These points are intended to be agreeable to people from any philosophical, political or religious background. Paraphrased the eight tenets are:

  1. All creatures on Earth have intrinsic value.
  2. The whole diversity of living beings, simple as well as complex, contribute to life's richness.
  3. Humans should only use other beings to satisfy their basic needs.
  4. The health of non-humans depends on decreasing the number of humans.
  5. Human interference with the world is excessive and worsening.
  6. Human policy (economics, technology and ideology) must change radically.
  7. Quality of life is more important than standard of living.
  8. Every human who believes in these points must work for change.

The eight tenets of Deep Ecology contrast with shallow ecology, which could be characterized as:

  1. All creatures on Earth have value only for their usefulness to humans.
  2. Complex creatures (i.e. humans) are more important than simpler ones.
  3. Humans should use all resources for their material and economic advantage.
  4. The human population can increase without restraint.
  5. Technological progress will solve all problems. 
  6. Materialism and consumerism should govern human society.
  7. The standard of living should keep rising.
  8. Leave environmental problems for the experts to solve.

The philosophy of Deep Ecology is supported by some sections of political parties and is used as a philosophical basis for change by environmental activists opposing the human destruction of nature. As a guide for personal growth, Deep Ecology invites each individual to intermesh with and identify with all living creatures. But we are not just saving other species and ecosystems, we are really saving ourselves, because nature is the part of us extending beyond our skin. Deep Ecology says that humans are not isolated objects but are part of the whole.

A criticism of Deep Ecology from the animal rights viewpoint is that it maintains we can use animals to satisfy our basic needs (Tenet 3). "Deep" animal rights philosophy forbids the use of animals. We would use up a vast number of animals if all the billions of humans put to use an animal just occasionally. Another problem with Deep Ecology is that it relies on the idea of intrinsic value (Tenet 1). If you do not believe in intrinsic value, however, you could still support Deep Ecology and pursue animal liberation (as opposed to rights) by adopting a utilitarian philosophy.


Can you be an exclusive animal rightist, welfarist, conservationist or deep ecologist? Actually, being exclusively one or the other may be the most difficult course. Another approach is to see these philosophies, not as necessarily mutually exclusive, but as reinforcing one another. We can surely be benignly flexible and adopt the best ideas and activities from each of them depending on the particular circumstances we encounter. Certainly, knowledge about each of them and their antitheses helps us understand the outlook of other people.

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