Ethics, Animals and Academia
An Animal Rights Article from


AAVS American Anti-Vivisection Society
February 2017

Although it may be overstatement to say that society takes for granted that animal issues are also ethical issues, the past few decades have seen ethical issues regarding animals brought into academia and ultimately, into the rest of society.

We envision a future in which these scholars, fully ensconced in academia, are better positioned to openly engage in ethical discussions, political engagement, and challenges to speciesism.

We see two major trends regarding ethics in academia: first the inquiry which started in philosophy departments has expanded into other disciplines, so that there exists today the growing and increasingly robust field of Human-Animal Studies in the social sciences and humanities, and of animal law in law schools, and even in disciplines that traditionally view animals as instrumentalities. Second, many of the scholars who consider these issues from an academic perspective are also involved in practical applications of their theories, typical of other academic disciplines that are grounded in social justice movements (namely, ethnic, women’s, and environmental studies).

While issues of ethics and animals have occupied philosophers since at least classical times, this inquiry was on the periphery of the discipline, and the social ethic generally prohibited only the most egregious forms of animal cruelty and neglect. With Peter Singer’s 1975 Animal Liberation, followed by Tom Regan’s The Case for Animal Rights, there has been an explosion of interest in animals among academics, animal advocates, and the general public. We position the rise of Human-Animal Studies (HAS) in academia, especially over the last decade, squarely within the context of considering animals as worthy of ethical inquiry.

Human-Animal Studies (HAS) is a rapidly growing interdisciplinary field that examines the complex and multidimensional relationships between humans and other animals. HAS comprises work in such areas as psychology, sociology, anthropology, political science, history, literary criticism, as well as philosophy. By focusing on the relationships between human and animal, HAS scholarship allows non-human animals to become true subjects worthy of consideration rather than simple objects.

While activism to better the lives of animals is not a key component of human-animal studies, many HAS scholars are themselves advocates.

Although standards have been changing, traditionally, academic inquiry was supposed to be value-free in its pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. Thus, disciplines related to social justice movements, including HAS, were undervalued as not being sufficiently objective or rigorous. More recent thinking, however, acknowledges that even scientific research is never truly objective. The selection of topics to study and the structure of the study itself are value-laden. Even still, HAS scholars, many of whom were attracted to the field precisely because of their passion for animals, often wrestle with the competing interests of establishing themselves academically while applying acquired knowledge outside the “ivory tower” in order to improve the lives of animals. A growing number of scholars have found a middle ground doing rigorous research, some of which now forms the basis of more progressive policies related to our interaction with, and even use of, animals.

Outside the humanities and social science courses, veterinary schools and even those who experiment on animals or use them in agricultural science now at least pay lip service to ethical considerations regarding their use of animals by having animal welfare specialists on staff and teaching courses on ethical issues.

Therefore, we are cautiously optimistic about the future development of ethical consideration of animals in academic pursuits. Many of the pioneers of HAS began their careers when these concerns were not even on the radar screen, but today, increasingly, students enter academia not only cognizant of the ethics of the human-animal relationship, but committed to making this their life’s work. We envision a future in which these scholars, fully ensconced in academia, are better positioned to openly engage in ethical discussions, political engagement, and challenges to speciesism.

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