Clare Palmer


On her book Animal Ethics in Context

Cover Interview of January 09, 2011

In a nutshell

Animals inhabit diverse environments: our homes, our settlements, agricultural land, the wild.  Some animals never directly encounter human beings.  Others are deliberately created by us.  Do these different contexts and relations matter—morally?

Animal Ethics in Context argues that they do.

Debates about animal ethics have, to date, focused on whether and when benefits to humans can justify causing suffering or death to animals.  These are, of course, important questions.  But, as in human ethics, there’s much more to think about than when or whether harming can be justified.  For instance, we also need to know when and whether we should help.  And here, I argue, context is crucial.

Suppose there’s a storm followed by floods: must we assist wild animals in distress?  Would it be wrong to leave them to suffer, if we could do something to help?  I maintain that in these cases, there’s no obligation to help.  What goes on in the wild is not our moral business.

But suppose, instead, human beings have damaged a habitat, causing similar animal distress?  Then, I argue, we should do something to help, though what this help will turn out to be varies by context.

Additionally, billions of animals are not wild at all.  We are responsible for their existence, we breed them in ways that suit us, and we keep them in environments we’ve created.  This often makes them dependent on us and vulnerable to our neglect.  I argue that creating dependent and vulnerable animals generates special caring responsibilities—responsibilities that we don’t have towards independent wild animals.

So, while there’s an important place for arguments about what not to do to animals, I open up a new area of ethical debate.  This book argues for, and begins to develop, a richer, more complex account of our positive relations with the animals that surround us.