Science - June 14, 2018

Animal ethics is due for an upgrade

Text:
Tessa Louwerens

Assistant professor Bernice Bovenkerk of the Philosophy chair group has been awarded a Vidi grant by the Netherlands Organization for Science Research (NWO) for research on the changing relationship between humans and animals. Animal ethics is currently struggling with this issue.

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The way people treat animals is a frequent topic of heated public debate these days. Dutch examples are bloated factory-farmed chickens, the return of the wolf to the Netherlands, and the fate of the large grazers in the Oostvaardersplassen nature reserve. ‘These issues create tensions and if we don’t reflect on them, it will just lead to more dissatisfaction and protest,’ says Bovenkerk. She thinks animal ethics could play a key mediating role between the public debate and the world of science and policy. But the ethics in question would need to change in the light of new insights. ‘Until recently, a lot of animal behaviour was put down to instinct, but we now know that animals have many more capacities. They can learn, communicate, and have a basic sense of justice and altruism.’ Animals are also capable of exercising an influence on their environment.

Animal ethics, says Bovenkerk, should not only ask what we legitimately may or may not do with animals, with respect to their wellbeing, but also what is the relationship between humans and animals. She sees that as an important question at a time when human beings are having such a huge impact on their environment. ‘Wild animals are dying out en masse. Some animals, such as the wolf, are moving towards urban areas because their habitat has been destroyed.’

According to Bovenkerk, traditional ethical theories cannot encompass the changing circumstances and new insights of today. ‘Current theories mainly present animals as the victims of mistreatment by humans, and not as active agents that exercise influence and set their own goals, whether consciously or not.’

We need to start thinking about how we can live together, she says. ‘That requires more sophisticated ethical theories.’

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