University of Bristol
Wellcome Trust
Recommended by:
Society of Biology
PEEP for Physics & Ethics at GCSE

Humans & other animals

Historical views

(384-322 BC),
the ancient Greek philosopher
St Augustine
of Canterbury

(CE 597-604),
an early Christian writer and thinker
Rene Descartes (1596-1650),
French philosopher

Emmanuel Kant
Jeremy Bentham

 Click on a painting to find out the writer's opinion.

Thus by the 19th century people in Europe’s views about how we should treat animals were changing. Bentham believed that in a humane society animals should be protected,  they can feel pleasure and pain, so their happiness is morally relevant. This idea forms the basis of all modern animal legislation.

Some people’s views were again shifted by the ideas of the contemporary Australian philosopher Peter Singer (born in 1946). Singer argues that the capacity for suffering is the vital characteristic that entitles a being to equal consideration. If we define suffering as the susceptibility to pain, awareness of being in pain, or about to be in pain, there seems little doubt that most vertebrates can suffer.

This raises the question of the extent to which the ability to sense contributes to consciousness, and thus begs the question of the extent to which consciousness is a purely human characteristic. Emanuel Kant thought that personhood this was the defining charactersitic of humanity, and Singer believes that the distinction of personhood should be decided on the basis of whether or not a being is self-conscious.

Singer and another contemporary philosopher, the American Tom Regan (born 1938) have put forward the idea of animal rights. The basic belief of the animal rights movement is that animals have the RIGHT to be free from human cruelty and exploitation, just as humans possess this right. Nonhuman animals deserve to live according to their own natures, free from harm, abuse, and exploitation.


Which of the following best represents your opinions?
Humans are more important than animals. They are there for us to use.
Animals should have equal rights with humans
Animals should be treated with more consideration than humans as they have no way to complain.

 Animals in research


What's your opinion?

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Consider this quote from the book of Genesis in the King James version of the Bible:
Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the Earth and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the air and over every living thing that moveth upon the Earth.
What do you think is the key word? Click on it to see how it has been replaced in some more recent versions of the Bible.
Write a short paragraph on the difference between the two attitudes toward animals implied by the two words?

What is the connection between Aristotle’s and St Augustine’s ideas of human uniqueness?

Why do you think that contemporary philosophers disagreed with Descartes?