As we examine increasingly controversial areas of human relationship with animals, we come to recreational areas such as horse racing, circuses, and zoos. The issue with the first two of these is similar to that of service animals. A virtuous approach is utilitarian, meaning the desired outcome is a net greater good than evil. If we concede that human contentment comes in part from varying experiences and entertainments,1 then a case can be made that horse racing and animal acts can lead to greater good, as long as cruelty is avoided (as is not possible in the case of cock- or dog-fighting). Still the calculus here is likely to be debatable, even unfavorable.

Regarding zoos, I believe a good case can be made they result in net good: (1) safety from predators, disease, extinction, (2) human exposure to animals leading to species protection, (3) scientific research and learning, and (4) entertainment value. As virtual temples to nature, zoos should have trustees committed to superb care of the animals, numerical limits consistent with natural group sizes, and maximal value as outlined above. Drive-through zoos may be more ethical than typical zoos.


The paradox of Homo sapiens is that we alone can both inhabit any area on Earth and possess the intelligence to serve as its stewards. Since areas people occupy and exploit impact the range and viability of other species we have the responsibility to behave in ways that limit extinctions and encourage the largest number of species (A5). The ethical consequence is the obligation to create nature preserves and factor in animal habitat in land development and industrial decisions. Societal inconvenience, financial loss, and personal sacrifice are no excuse for endangering harmless species, no matter how little we value them subjectively (A8). The virtuous course is clear – each individual must support directly, economically, and politically the conservation of sufficient space for all existing species. One does not wish an otherwise meaningful life blemished with personal responsibility for the extinction of innocent animals.


There are two major scientific uses for animals – education and experiment; as a physician, I see value in both. Some direct study of animals is a meaningful portion of education and stimulates interest in zoology, naturalism, and medicine. The blanket decision to cease all classroom uses of animals seems an arbitrary moral absolute. The calculus comes back to harm to animals versus benefit to human understanding, though clearly the bias should be for limiting living animal study while promoting ethical treatment and killing of specimens.

The issue of animals in medical research is too complex to address in this forum, but the utilitarian rule applies;  benefits should outweigh the evil done and under no circumstances should experiments be done when alternative means of gathering the needed data are available (the same ethical rules as apply in human experiments). Of course no unnecessary suffering or deprivation should occur and all living things should be respected at all times in the laboratory. The use of animals to evaluate cosmetics and the like should not be undertaken by the virtuous.


1See post this site Societal Virtue – Service on January 25, 2021 where I discuss George Santayana’s assertion that civilization offers us three advantages – greater wealth, safety, and variety of experience – all of which are recognizable goods.

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