Why should humans have animals


Johann S. Ach

PD Dr. Johann S. Ach is the managing director and scientific director of the Center for Bioethics at the Westphalian Wilhelms University in M√ľnster. His research interests include applied ethics, biomedical ethics and animal ethics.

Animals have interests too. Therefore, they deserve moral consideration. How can this take into account in the context of animal husbandry and animal use? Johann S. Ach investigates this question from an animal ethical perspective - and has a clear recommendation.

Dairy cows (& copy picture-alliance, dpa-Zentralbild)

Animals as a factor of production

The use of animals by humans goes back to the Paleolithic Age, when the common history of humans and dogs began. [1] Other forms of so-called farm animal husbandry began, as is assumed today, in the Neolithic, i.e. the Neolithic Age; a time in which the historically significant transition from hunter-gatherer to shepherd and farmer cultures took place. The focus was on domestication and keeping of animals that were used as food, as a source of raw materials or as security guards and hunting helpers.

The number of animals that are kept as so-called farm animals today is immense: In Germany alone there are currently around 763 million so-called farm animals, including a little more than 27 million pigs and around 12 million cattle. [2] With the sheer number of so-called farm animals, the conditions under which the animals are kept have also changed drastically. Since the second half of the 20th century in particular, livestock farming has undergone a process of industrialization in which animals have increasingly become a "factor of production". A development for which the majority of so-called farm animals with mutilations, injuries, illnesses or behavioral disorders pay a high price. [3]

In addition, the range of usage contexts has expanded considerably: in addition to food production and raw material extraction, animals are now used and consumed in large numbers, for example, for scientific research purposes, exhibited in zoological gardens or circuses for entertainment purposes or kept as pets and companion animals. [4 ] The handling of animals has attracted increasing attention in the scientific and public discussion in recent years. Critical debates on the subject of animal use have in some cases achieved best-seller status. [5]

In its most recent statement, the German Ethics Council declared "animal welfare" to be a task for society as a whole. According to the authors of the statement, at least more highly developed animals must be assigned an "intrinsic value" which manifests itself in the principle "that the welfare of the animal must be respected in all phases of its life". [6] In an impulse paper on questions of animal welfare, nutritional ethics and sustainability, the Evangelical Church in Germany described animals as "fellow creatures" who have "their own beauty, dignity and meaning in life" [7]. The discrepancy between the moral standpoint propagated in such statements, on the one hand, and the everyday practice of "farm" animal husbandry, on the other hand, is obvious. [8]

Criticism of "animal factories"

The keeping and use of animals has been a central topic in the (modern) animal ethics discussion from the very beginning. In his book "Animal Liberation", published for the first time in 1975, Peter Singer named the two main forms of "speciesism" and denounced the millions of suffering inflicted on animals that are kept in intensive animal husbandry ("animal factories") . [9]

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) had already taken the view that the happiness or interests of (sentient) animals should not be ignored in morality simply because they are animals, ie not humans: The key question, according to Bentham, is not: "can they think? or can they speak? but can they suffer?" [10] Neither belonging to a certain species nor abilities such as language skills, reason or autonomy determine whether a living being belongs to the moral community or not. Rather, it is the ability to (pain) sensation. It is the basic requirement that a living being can have interests (in a morally relevant sense), since only a sentient being can be subjectively affected by the way in which it is treated.

Against this background, Peter Singer has called for the principle of equality to be extended beyond the human species to include animals. The moral principle advocated by him requires "that we give equal weight in our moral considerations to the similar interests of all those who are affected by our actions." [11] If this principle is taken seriously, then this has far-reaching consequences Dealing with humans with non-human animals [12]. However, the principle allows interests or goods to be weighed, as long as the similar interests of all those affected by an action are taken into account in the same way. This means that it does not fundamentally rule out the possibility of a (more) morally unobjectionable form of agricultural use of animals. Of course, according to Singer, the "crucial question is not whether meat could be produced without suffering, but whether the meat we want to buy was produced without suffering. If we cannot be certain that this was the case, that implies Principle of the balance of interests that it was wrong to sacrifice important animal interests in order to satisfy less important interests on our part; consequently we should boycott the end result of this process. "[13]

Tom Regan (1938-2017), on the other hand, was of the opinion that the "basic moral evil" of farm animal husbandry is an attitude that allows animals "to be viewed and treated as resources, even as renewable resources for us" ] According to Regan, all living things that have "inherent value" have an equal right to be treated with respect, that is, in a way that does not reduce them to the status of resources for others. Regan attributes inherent value to living beings whom he calls "sentient subjects of a life". Tom Regan came to a radical, abolitionist position on the question of livestock husbandry: "Giving animals more space on the farm, a more natural environment, having more companions does not make good the fundamental injustice, just as little as giving more Narcotics or the building of larger, cleaner cages can redress the injustice of laboratory animals. Only the complete abolition of commercial animal husbandry can redress that. "[15]

"Third Status"?

Nonhuman animals belong to the moral community. Your interests therefore deserve moral consideration. Today this is hardly ever seriously questioned. The question of whether we have to consider the interests of animals in the same way as the similar interests of humans is a matter of controversy. The German Ethics Council recently denied this in its statement on animal welfare and spoke of a "third status" of animals between humans and property: This "third status" implies that animals are particularly worthy of protection and that humans have a special responsibility: "In contrast to humans animals cannot be ascribed any dignity in the sense of a never-to-be-challenged purpose in themselves or a categorical prohibition of their complete use ('prohibition of instrumentalization'). Unlike mere things, however, they not only have a use value for humans, but also an intrinsic value. "[16]

Talking about such a "third status" of animals presupposes that there is a morally relevant difference between animals and humans, which can justify an unequal consideration of their (similar) interests. Whether such a difference can be identified at all and what it might consist of - these questions have been the subject of controversial discussion since the first publications by Peter Singer and Tom Regan. [17]

Forms of human-animal interaction

Regardless of whether you share the species egalitarianism advocated by Singer and Regan or not, regardless of whether you are of the opinion that the interests of humans count more than the (similar) interests of non-human beings in the event of a conflict, the question arises what could justify keeping animals in human care and using them. Or, to put it another way: What should the interaction between humans and non-human animals be like in order to meet moral standards?

The first answer to this question is as follows: The keeping and use of animals by humans is justifiable if it is mutually beneficial. Humans enter into fair cooperative relationships with animals if they keep and use them: Humans use animals for their own purposes; In return, they receive adequate care according to their needs. We are allowed to interact with animals, for example Christine Korsgaard, "as long as we do it in a way that we think it is plausible to believe that they would agree to if they could - that is, in a way that is for is beneficial and fair to both sides and allows them to lead a life that is somewhat in keeping with their peculiar way of life. "[18]

However, one argument against the cooperation argument is that there may be certain forms of animal husbandry from which both partners actually benefit. Dogs, for example, are sometimes said to seek and enjoy being around people. In view of the current forms of animal use, however, there is obviously no question of this. What reason should animals have to consent to a use that they pay for with considerable restrictions on their quality of life and a life that is too short? Cows, for example, naturally reach an age limit of 15 to 20 years, but on average end up in the slaughterhouse after less than five and a half years, of which they served as "dairy cows" for almost three years. In addition, animals do not have the cognitive prerequisites that the cooperation argument assumes: Animals can neither freely and informally consent to the practices to which we expose them, nor do they know what is in their longer-term interest. In addition, if at all, they have at best a very rudimentary understanding of fairness.

Another answer to the question why and under what conditions humans are allowed to keep and use animals is based on the fact that animals that live in community with humans have to pay contributions. What may sound surprising at first, becomes understandable when one understands the interaction between humans and animals according to the model of political philosophy. This is exactly what Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka do in their book Zoopolis, in which they argue that animals should be granted citizenship, coexistence or sovereignty rights depending on the political relationships they have with human communities. [19] If Donaldson and Kymlicka are followed, then we owe membership and citizenship to the animals we have brought into our community. Citizenship, however, is not only associated with rights, but also with obligations: Expecting a contribution from fellow citizens is in any case not inadmissible from the outset. This also applies to animals: according to Donaldson and Kymlicka, it is permissible to make use of animals or to benefit from them as long as this is done under conditions that are also good for the animals themselves or in which they have a real opportunity to themselves refuse to interact. Donaldson and Kymlicka think, for example, of the "work" of herding dogs or the use of animal products such as sheep's wool.

The problem with the argument is, of course, that animals have to be attested to abilities which they do not have if one wants to grant them the status of members of the political community or to impose duties on them. Animals can neither orient themselves towards social cooperation goals, nor can they actively participate in the fate of a political community. They are also not receptive to moral norms.

This does not mean that the specific form of human-animal interaction has no consequences for the specific duties we have towards animals. Ursula Wolf, for example, believes that we have negative duties towards all sentient animals, i.e. duties that prohibit the well-being of animals from being endangered by inflicting suffering and restricting activities. In her opinion, duties of care can also be justified towards farm animals: As Ursula Wolf says, animal keepers have an obligation to look after the animals they keep. You are responsible for this. [20] For Wolf, this does not result in a principle prohibition of the use of animals: "Meat and other animal products that come from factory farming are to be rejected because this form of keeping is always associated with considerable suffering for the animals. Traditional animal use, on the other hand, can if it gives the animals enough leeway a life in the development of their abilities can be harmless, although here, too, there are concerns about the freedom from suffering of killing. "[21] We also have special obligations towards animal companions who live or work with us, if one follows wolf, which "arise from the expectations we generate through interaction with animal companions." [22]

Killing animals

Animals usually have to be killed ("slaughtered") before they can be used as food or a source of raw materials for humans. This also raises the question of whether and, if so, for what reasons animals may be killed. The ban on killing is much more controversial in the ethical discussion than the ban on causing suffering. While some consider the killing of an animal to be wrong (only) under the condition that it deprives it of the possibility of future positive experiences or that important of its interests are frustrated, others are of the opinion that a "right to life" can be derived from respect that "sentient subjects of a life" deserve.

Of course, the question of whether one can kill animals must be distinguished from the question of how the killing of an animal should be structured if it is to be morally justified. Whether it is even possible to kill animals that are usually kept as farm animals in a way that does not cause pain, fear or stress is a matter of dispute. In practice, however, the killing of animals regularly leads to considerable suffering and stress. Scientific studies show that an average of 0.1 to 1 percent of slaughtered pigs still show reactions immediately before "scalding" which indicate sensation and perception. The failure rate in industrial cattle slaughter is as high as 4 to over 9 percent. [23]

A simple argument

Most of the animals kept as so-called farm animals have an interest in being spared pain, deprivation, fear or stress. Many have an interest in experiencing positive emotions. Social animals, like many so-called farm animals, have an interest in being able to form bonds with other living beings (offspring, conspecifics, other animals, people). Many have an interest in being able to live out species-specific activities. In short: They have "interests in the dimensions of existence, well-being and volitional activities". [24] In order to understand that ignoring these interests, as is the case in most of the agricultural animal husbandry today, cannot be justified ethically, one does not have to accept a specific conception of animal ethics. [25] In order to come to the conclusion that the current practice of so-called farm animal husbandry cannot be justified, the broad ethical conviction that one should not cause (sentient) animals unnecessary suffering or harm, as well as the insight that the current practice of Keeping and use "largely unsuitable for animals" [26] and the immense suffering it inflicts on so-called farm animals is avoidable. We are all responsible for ending this shameful state of affairs, be it as animal keepers, as consumers or as citizens.


Ach, Johann S./Borchers, Dagmar (Hrsg.): Handbuch Tierethik. Basics - contexts - controversies. Stuttgart 2018.

Bode, Philipp: Introduction to animal ethics. Vienna / Cologne / Weimar 2018.

Diel, Elke / Tuider, Jens (eds.): Do animals have rights? Aspects and dimensions of the human-animal relationship. Bonn 2019.

Grimm, Herwig / Wild, Markus: Animal ethics as an introduction. Hamburg 2016.

Ladwig, Bernd: Political Philosophy of Animal Rights. Berlin 2020.

Schmitz, Friederike (Ed.): Animal ethics. Basic texts. Berlin 2014.