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.



Humans have domesticated animals for thousands of years, but domestication requires at least an initial capture and subjugation of a wild animal, which is potential vice. While some of these animals may have been injured or starving, it is unclear whether they could choose to stay or go given unanswered metaphysical questions on free will in animals. Certainly some pets such as domesticated dogs and cats would struggle to survive in the wild and thus are ethically kept, though we could prevent their reproduction to eliminate additional dependent animals.

Fish, birds, gerbils, horses, etc. and wild animals such as snakes, ferrets, and lizards are different as they are involuntarily limited to spaces much smaller than in their natural environment and could survive without us. Virtue requires at a minimum the avoidance of making pets of these species while greater virtue is to foster and heal injured animals for later release, and to care for animals unable to survive if released for life. Of course, all ‘pets’ must be treated humanely at all times.


Service animals such as seeing-eye and herding dogs or draft animals are not only captive, but also forced to work. If we grant the preferential status of humans due to our greater opportunity to further the purposes of the universe, then some animal servitude is justifiable. However the utilitarian rule (A7) applies, i.e. the evil of subjugation of an animal must be balanced by a greater good for a human. Individual cases must be individually reconciled, but at a minimum, no animal should be in bondage when an alternative solution exists. For example when tractors are available, horses should not be forced to pull a plow.


While killing harmless animals, even for food, seems unseemly for civilized people, Nature endorses it for survival (P3). Therefore the virtuous modern person can hunt and fish for sustenance, but not for furs, horns, antlers, or tusks. A few other general ethical points are worth stating:

  1. One should not hunt endangered species.
  2. Hunting animals is ethical when there are insufficient predators to control their population.
  3. Since fish over-population is not an issue, fishing should be for consumption only.


The killing of domesticated animals for human consumption is supported by Nature (P3) and by the preferential role of humanity in the function of the universe. Conversely, the end of consumption of livestock would reduce their number to a minimum or endangered state which is arguably an evil. Nonetheless, the categorical imperative not to cause suffering requires responsible farming and slaughter – issues more appropriately addressed elsewhere.

We are left with an enigma – should one eat meat or consume eggs and milk (also requiring animal bondage)? The answer is I think a personal one, but at a minimum we should avoid eating animals treated inhumanely (e.g. veal) and seek ethical sources of food (e.g. eggs from free range chickens). Another strategy is to reduce meat consumption to the smallest quantity consistent with good health, likely no more than a few times per week.  The most virtuous may choose vegetarianism or even veganism, although I doubt this is an ethical imperative for everyone.

(further continued next post)


“A peculiar virtue in wildlife ethics is that the hunter ordinarily has no gallery to applaud or disapprove of his conduct. Whatever his acts, they are dictated by his own conscience, rather than by a mob of onlookers. It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of this fact.” – Aldo Leopold.




Having completed preparatory work on axioms relevant to Nature and ethics, principles of high certainty regarding animals, and justifications of human use and consumption of animals, we can now elaborate guidelines for the practical philosopher’s treatment of animals. There are nine domains for our consideration, in order of increasing controversy: (1) animal pests, (2) animal euthanasia, (3) pets, (4) service animals including seeing-eye dogs and draft animals, (5) hunting and fishing, (6) agricultural/consumption, (7) recreational use such as zoos, circuses, sports, (8) habitat restriction, (9) scientific uses.

We begin with the categorical imperative: Never cause animals unnecessary harm or suffering. This imposes an ethical corollary: All harm or suffering imposed on animals must be justified by greater good. As philosophers, we may lack sufficient knowledge to complete the calculus of good over evil, but what follows is my attempt at a logic-based program of virtue with respect to nonhuman animals by domain.


If we grant a favored place for humans in the purposes of the universe, we may justify limitations on pestilent species based on the safety and comfort of our species.

  1. Animals should not be designated pests based on simple human preference or aesthetic considerations. As such stink bugs and non-poisonous spiders should not be singled out for killing compared with less objectionable species such as ladybugs or fireflies. In other words, pests should truly be pests.
  2. Extermination of pests should be limited to the least required for human comfort and safety and methods chosen to cause the least amount of suffering possible. Thus, for example, mouse traps may be less ethical than painless poisons.
  3. No pest should be pursued to extinction.


This subject if far too complex for this blog, but for our purposes, I will grant euthanasia for suffering animals is ethically justified . Two concerns remain. First is whether temporary animal suffering justifies the unethical decision to terminate life as for example in the case of a thoroughbred with a broken leg. One must ask whether the issue is in truth the cost and resources required to bring the horse back to health knowing that its commercial value is unlikely to be restored. If a mainly financial calculus is involved, the virtuous course is the less fiscally sound one.

The second issue is the euthanasia of unwanted but not impaired animals. In my opinion it is unconscionable that a living thing, especially a domesticated dog or cat, be deprived of its life merely because it is “in the way,” and a virtuous society will find alternative solutions. At the personal level, my wife and I adopt only neutered, rescue dogs, and donate money only to non-kill shelters.

(continued next post)


Last time I listed 8 axioms and 11 principles (now designatedA1-A8 and P1-P11) as the building materials for a program of ethics towards nonhuman living things. I believe the first three axioms lead to the reasonable, not arbitrary, conclusion that Homo sapiens is the most valuable species of life by virtue of its ability to contribute to the complexity of the universe. While bees can construct a hive, birds a nest, and beavers a dam, humans create the most complex, most enduring structures with the highest level of informational content. We are the only species that can potentially transfer life from our planet to other celestial bodies and thus offer the hope of expanding the range of living things. Conversely humans are potentially the most dangerous species to the trajectory of the universe as the only known life form which can destroy the amazingly complex Earth.

Anthropologists tell us Homo sapiens evolved as an omnivore and in fact meat-eating was critical to the growth and nurturing of the enlarging brain. If we accept Nature as the arbiter of acceptable behavior for living things (A4), then it seems specious to say humans ought not to eat meat. Likewise since Nature did not impose an instinct on one species to protect another and does permit some species taking advantage of others, any categorical imperative that humans should not control or use other species is unsupported by Nature itself.

Resorts to animal consciousness, emotions, and equality suffer from similar inconsistencies. If consciousness or emotional sensitivity is the bottom line of categorical limitations on us, then we must all mimic the Jains, forbidding the killing of flies, mosquitos, ants, predatory animals, rabid dogs, plague-carrying rats, etc. Few animal rights advocates would argue that a common mole has equal value to a rare white rhino. Levels of consideration for living things must be based on specific factors filtered through axioms A5-A8 above. Paradoxically animal rights laws might actually diminish the number of animals – leading to marked reductions, if not extinction, of domesticated animals such as cows, pigs, and chickens. In the case of elimination of zoos may result in reduced human interest in the protection of other species.

In the final portion of this subject I will offer specific ethical guidelines for different areas of man’s relationship with animals.



“All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.” – George Orwell, Animal Farm.



In the last four posts we have seen some of the traditional thinking and philosophical arguments for and against a favored treatment of animals. In the search for a meaningful life via a path including a virtuous relationship with nature, the practical philosopher has come to a line which if crossed changes daily life dramatically with implications for diet, health, home, entertainment, and politics. Must we all become vegetarians, give up our pets, avoid attending zoos with our children and grandchildren, abandon horse racing, tolerate pests like mosquitos, flies, roaches, mice, and rats, and so on? Having blundered into this quagmire, we now urgently seek a path out and forward.

Let’s start with a foundation of the most objective axioms possible (in order of relative primacy):

  1. The trajectory of the universe is an increase in complexity.
  2. Life is the most compact complexity known by us.
  3. The value of individual parts of the universe is directly proportional to their contribution to the trajectory of the universe.
  4. Nature, not man, is the final guide of acceptable behavior.
  5. All things being equal, a larger number of species of animals is superior to a fewer number.
  6. In general (i.e. to the extent possible) all living things should be treated as ends not means.
  7. Natural ethics for humans is founded on a net benefit of good over evil in actions.
  8. Animals should not be treated differently based on mere human preference.

By labeling these statements axioms, I admit they can not be proven using logical argument.  If our analysis goes awry, we may need to revisit them.

Next we repeat the process we did in the section on certainty – enumerate the most certain principles possible with respect to animals from which we can attempt a pragmatic strategy founded on our axioms that employs principles of higher certainty while mitigating for less certain ones. The list in decreasing order of certainty here looks like this:

  1. Animals are living things and part of Nature.
  2. Animals have consciousness.
  3. Animals have sensations and can suffer.
  4. Animals can survive only by eating other living things.
  5. Nonhuman animals cannot enter into ethical relationships.
  6. Existing animals are the results of nearly 4 billion years of evolution.
  7. Animals act instinctually and the greatest instinct is to survive and reproduce.
  8. Animals have emotions.
  9. Needless harm or killing of animals is evil (wrong).
  10. No nonhuman species protects members of another species.
  11. Some nonhuman animals use other animals for survival (e.g. ants enslave aphids, lions “herd” herbivores, barnacles live on whales, etc.).

Now we will juxtapose these highly certain statements with our axioms to formulate a program for us on the ethical treatment  of other living creatures.

(to be continued)


Last time we looked at arguments for equal treatment or consideration for animals vis a vis humans by two strong advocates for animal rights, Peter Singer and Tom Regan. Today we will look at contrary viewpoints.

Bonnie Steinbock offers the following response. First she states categorically we cannot and should not allow cruelty to animals which she defines as unnecessary harm or suffering. However she challenges the notion that humans and animals are due equal consideration based on the following differences:

  1. Humans deserve more consideration as they are responsible for their actions unlike animals.
  2. Humans offer each other the possibility of reciprocation.
  3. Humans experience feelings of self-respect or victimization unlike animals.
  4. Mentally challenged persons are unlike animals in that they cannot survive without human and in any case humans identify with them more than with animals.

Discussing items 1 and 4, she refers to Kevin Donaghy’s thesis that humans are entitled to a ‘privileged position’ by virtue of their participation in a moral community that depends on a certain level of intelligence required for morally relevant capacities. She uses item 3 to justify subjecting a horse but not a human to bondage.3

William F. Baxter proposes a utilitarian outlook. He starts by denying Nature has an independent moral standing, and suggesting Nature is protected through a ‘wise human-centric ethic.’ In other words, intelligent advocacy for human interests will indirectly lead to watching out for Nature’s interests. He rejects the proposition that there is a right or morally correct ‘state of Nature’ as there is no normative connotation to what is a human concept. Any attribution of ‘rightness’ in nature is meaninglessness or arbitrary; such attributions are opinion or preference. Instead a ‘cost-benefit’ approach to nature and the environment is the soundest policy for humanity, i.e. ethics in this realm requires decisions be based on the needs and interests of people, not Nature.

It seems both sides in this debate use subjective assumptions rather than fact or even logic to support their positions. The axioms in their ‘proofs’ are in truth the source of the different conclusion, both begging the question at their starting points. I will try in the next blog to synthesize a solution. Join me then.


3Arthur, John (editor), Morality and Moral Controversies. Pearson Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, 2005. ISBN 0-13-184404-0, pages 155-161

4Ibid., pages 161-165.


“The day may come when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been withholden from them but by the hand of tyranny” – Jeremy Bentham.

Last time we examined several historical perspectives on virtue related to nonhuman animal life – specifically those of Hinduism and Jainism, Pythagoras, and two 19th century literary figures, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Leo Tolstoy. Today I would like to turn to some of the modern philosophical discussion. It is worth noting that most of this debate centers on social policy, but the arguments seem to apply at the level which interests us in creating a meaningful life, to wit, individual ethics.

Peter Singer is a forceful thinker in this arena arguing that all animals are equal. He starts with the basic definition of equality for us as not identical treatment, but equal consideration; this principle being not a  description of actual equality among humans but a prescription of how we should treat each other. In his opinion suffering is the vital characteristic that gives a being the right to equal consideration. Since animals are sentient beings capable of suffering, we are morally bound to take that suffering into consideration. He uses the word speciesism for prejudice or attitude of bias towards members of one’s own species and against members of other species. But his rejection of speciesism does not imply that all lives are of equal worth; he thinks it is not arbitrary to say that the life of an intelligent, self-conscious organism capable of abstract thought is more valuable than others without these capacities. However he rejects the argument that human life has a unique and intrinsic dignity.1

Tom Regan seems to go further than mere considerations of animal suffering, supporting strict rights for animals that command the abolition of sports hunting and trapping, and the use of animals in science, commercial enterprise, and agriculture. He begins by considering three traditional ethical approaches to the treatment of animals. First is contractarianism where rights and duties are constituted by an implicit contract between individuals which obviously is impossible for animals. Duty regarding animals then is indirect, obligations to other humans not to injure their animals. Second is the cruelty/kindness view; we have a direct duty to be kind and not cruel to animals. Here Regan argues that kindness is not equivalent to rightness nor is cruelty the limit of wrongness. The third approach is utilitarianism – basically a calculus of good or satisfaction over evil or suffering. Regan thinks this approach is impractical and leads to sanctioning of objectionable actions. While he offers fairly detailed arguments against all three of these common approaches to our uneasiness over animal treatment, he fails to convincingly justify his blanket assertion that any creature with consciousness has some inherent value and as such equal value to any other creature with any level of  inherent value.

Next time we will consider some rebuttals to these proponents of animal rights, followed by my synthesis of a hybrid approach.

(to be continued)


1Arthur, John (editor), Morality and Moral Controversies. Pearson Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, 2005. ISBN 0-13-184404-0, pages 146-155.

2Bonjour, Laurence and Baker, Ann (Editors), Philosophical Problems. Pearson Education, Inc., New York, 2005. ISBN 0-321-23659-9, pages 725-733.


At about the same time a continent away Pythagoras, the mathematician and philosopher who reportedly traveled to India, established a school accepting men and women (likely the first great world figure espousing equal opportunity for women). His rules included: (1) no eating of flesh, eggs, or beans, (2) no killing of animals that do not injure humans, and (3) no destroying of cultivated trees.4 Some of these prohibitions may come from his “belief in the transmigration of souls; men must beware of eating their ancestors.”5 Alternatively Porphyry tells us in The Life of Pythagoras that he believed “all living things should be considered as belonging to the same kind.”6 Regardless he himself strictly followed these rules living mainly on “bread and honey with vegetables as dessert,” (and lived to age 80 at a time when the average life expectancy was perhaps 28). He also was the first to call the earth round and to give the name kosmos to the world and philosophia to the love of wisdom.7

But vegetarianism is not the sole province of the philosopher or believer in metempsychosis. Percy Bysshe Shelley the 19th century poet who was frail and prone to recurrent illness adopted a vegetarian diet to alleviate his discomforts and thereafter became such a proponent that he wrote a treatise called A Vindication of Natural Diet. In this work he argues that a meatless diet is the most natural based on the “the intimate connection of health and morality with food”8 calling it appropriately enough, ‘the Pythagorean system’9 He writes perhaps wistfully of a utopian future:

       “My brethren, we are free! The fruits are glowing

        Beneath the stars, and the night-winds are flowing

        O’er the ripe corn. The birds and beasts are dreaming.

                 Never again may blood of bird or beast

                 Stain with venomous stream a human feast,”10

His arguments for vegetarianism include the absence in humans of carnivorous features such as claws or pointed teeth, the need for culinary preparation for meat to be palatable, and the ease with which humans can return to a vegetable diet.  He believes meat-eating is a cultural habit, one which can also be forced on herbivorous animals like horses, sheep, and oxen to the point they change their preferences. He also notes the preference of young children for fruits and grains until inured to meat later in life.

A final vision of virtue towards living things is found in the great Russian novelist, Leo Tolstoy. About age 50 Tolstoy turned away from the trappings of his fame and wealth and adopted a kind of Christian anarchism and rigid antiviolence that in time influenced even Mahatma Gandhi. Tolstoy considered vegetarianism essential in the “ascetic quest for the good life” and vital to seeking harmony with nature, saying of a virtuous person – “the first thing from which he will abstain will always be the use of animal food, because… its use is simply immoral, as it involves the performance of an act which is contrary to the moral feeling – killing.” He also saw in meat-eating another immorality, i.e. “the brutalizaton of those who work in the meat industry.”13

Of course modern philosophers have also addressed virtue and nonhuman life particularly animal rights and abstention from meat-eating which is the subject of the next blog.


4Durant, Will, The Life of Greece, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1966. ISBN 0-671-41800-9, page 162.


6Radice, Betty (editor), Early Greek Philosophy. Penguin Books, London, England, 2001. Page 33.

7Durant, Will, The Life of Greece, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1966. ISBN 0-671-41800-9, page 164.

8,9,10, 11 See



“I did not become a vegetarian for my health, I did it for the health of the chickens.” – Isaac Beshevis Singer, Nobel Laureate in Literature, 1978.

I previously noted that the domain of Nature includes two facets – nonhuman living things and the physical environment. Last time I suggested the correct attitude to Nature is respect for all life and reverence for the Earth. First we will expand our view of virtue towards nonhuman life and later we will treat with the environment.

In the Bible, God is said to have allowed the first man, Adam, to name the animals,1 and to have placed the Garden of Eden at his disposal2 (other than the fruit of the tree of knowledge of course). The metaphorical meaning is clear; only an organism as intelligent as Homo sapiens can develop nomenclature and classifications for all living species and subdue its surroundings. Anthropology tells a similar story – early hominids likely went from near total herbivores to scavengers to hunters, manufactured increasingly sophisticated tools, learned to control fire, tamed animals, and developed progressive control over the environment.

Nature left modern humans with an ethical dilemma; most natural predators will struggle to survive without meat and follow instinct rather than deliberation in the choice of sustenance, but humans can survive as herbivores and can choose what to eat. Therefore the choice to eat meat in general is one to kill animals for preference alone. The conscious decision not to eat meat seems to have developed in ancient India with the Hindus, partly due to their consideration of cows as sacred and partly because of the belief in reincarnation. One will only reluctantly eat an animal whose soul  may have been a human being, perhaps even a family member of friend in a former life.

In sixth century B.C.E. India, a wandering ascetic son of a nobleman achieved the title of Jina (‘conquerer’), assumed the name Mahavira (‘Great Hero’), and founded a philosophy called Jainism. Among the doctrines of this skeptic creed is the belief that the means to release from the cycle of rebirth is complete ahsima – abstinence from injury to any living thing. Here we find radical protection of all life forms: water is strained and air filtered to avoid ingesting living things, agriculture is forbidden as tilling the soil kills insects and worms, and one sweeps the ground in front of one’s steps to avoid trampling on tiny animals.3 This may seem excessive, irrational, or impossible, but it offers us an example of the extreme respect of life some people have considered and embraced.

(continued next post)


1Genesis 2:19-20.

2Genesis 1:28-29.

3Durant, Will, Our Oriental Heritage, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1954, pages 419-422.



The second dimension of cosmic reality is Science or at least that part of Science that is not immediately apparent to our unaided senses and including those laws of Nature that are abstract rather than the product of our direct experience. At a minimum this includes atomic and subatomic physics, molecular and microscopic biology, advanced astronomy, atmospheric science, complex systems and modeling, and much of chemistry, medical science, zoology, and botany. Up until the 17th century, humanity was nearly entirely ignorant of Science, and the dominant approach to this area was speculation (e.g. Democritus’ theory of the atom) or superstition (e.g. comets seen as a divine sign). Even those most skeptical of modern Science concede the value of it at least implicitly – few would abstain fully from medications and the healing arts or decline to use a cell phone, a computer, an automobile, or a television set although all depend on the success of experimental and observational Science.

With careful reflection most people will agree or at least reluctantly concede that most human advancement in the last three centuries is mainly due to scientific progress. However scientific knowledge is in continuous flux and requires openness to critique and modification based on the ongoing research. Perhaps the most important point for the nonscientist is that Science is not simply the view or opinions of scientists and experts, but the body of publically scrutinized studies and research. For example, a statement by a Nobel laureate that Vitamin C prevents cancer is not Science; while the data of a clinical trial is.

Therefore the correct attitude to Science is a commitment to understanding it through a passionate desire to read scientific texts, examine peer-reviewed scientific literature, and study the data and the observations of reputable scientists. In fact I would go out on a limb and say the best attitude is a pure love of Science.


How fortunate are we to live in an age of advanced astronomy! Affordable personal telescopes, the Hubble space telescope, the WMAP, and more offer us access to our solar system, our galaxy, deep space, and the early universe that would once have been considered miraculous. When turning through Cosmos – A Field Guide by Giles Sparrow a friend told me he felt he was looking at the very body of the divine. When I first saw the moons of Jupiter, the rings of Saturn, and the Orion Nebula through my 8 inch reflector telescope, I felt what perhaps humans have always felt when looking at the night sky, the attitude towards the Universe to which one is compelled – unspeakable awe. Once awestruck, it seems to me undeniable, that in addition to a wish to live in harmony with nature, and to nurture my love of Science, I will forever desire to align my life with the course of the universe. This then is cosmic virtue in a nutshell – FULL STOP.


1Also see my prior 8-part category Certainty- Science posted on this site June 17, 2020 through July 8, 2020.

2Also see posts on this site January 20, 2020 Teleology – The Meaning of the Universe and October 14 and 16, 2020 Human Destiny – The Fate of the Universe.