October 04, 2018


The Palgrave Handbook of Practical Animal Ethics. Edited by Andrew Linzey and Clair Linzey. Palgrave Macmillan. $180.

     The shutdown of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. The proliferation of no-kill animal shelters. The freeing of chimpanzees used for medical research. The push to create more-humane living conditions for laboratory mice and rats. A South Korean court ruling that killing dogs for food is illegal. The burgeoning role of animal ethics in human thinking, certainly in the developed world, is evidence of a fundamental alteration in the way animals are viewed and the way humans – who are, after all, animals – see themselves within the panoply of some eight million species that collectively populate Earth.

     Yet even in the developed world, nonhuman animals are accorded no more status than that of property. Attempts to leave funds for beloved companions’ care in a person’s will or trust always fail: property cannot inherit, so funds must be left to a human caretaker who agrees to use them for animal care – but the agreement is unenforceable. Horses have their times of triumph in races – despite some misgivings about training them – but in countries including China, Mexico, Russia, Italy, and Kazakhstan, horse meat is a dietary staple; and 1986 Kentucky Derby winner Ferdinand is believed to have been slaughtered for food, most likely pet food.

     These few examples – there are many more – serve to show the complexity of trying to develop an ethical philosophy regarding the interrelationship of humans and nonhuman animals. It is to explore this difficult and very complicated subject that The Palgrave Handbook of Practical Animal Ethics is designed. A thick (600-page), comprehensive, thoughtful reference volume that is intended to stay on library, academic and veterinary bookshelves for many years – hence its price – the book is subdivided into four sections that, collectively, consider the relationship between humans and nonhuman animals from a very large number of perspectives. “The Ethics of Control,” “The Ethics of Captivity,” “The Ethics of Killing,” and “The Ethics of Causing Suffering” – these are the broad section titles within which 30 international authors and scholars of very high standing examine animal-ethics issues from a multitude of perspectives.

     For example, although ethics need not require religion, there is certainly overlap, and this leads to an essay such as “Killing Animals – Permitted by God?” Unsurprisingly in what is essentially an academic approach to the subject – the author, Kurt Remele, D. Theol., is an associate professor of ethics and social thought in the department of Catholic theology at Karl-Franzens-University in Graz, Austria – the narrative voice is a measured one that pays close attention to Scripture, as when discussing Genesis 9:3: “[O]ne does justice to this text (‘Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you’) only when it is seen as occasioned by specific historical circumstances and experiences. It must be taken not as the authoritative, final, eternal, and incontestable verdict of God for all times and all places, but rather as a situational concession of God, both to human frailty and to the apparent scarcity of edible vegetation after the Flood.”

     Other essays raise situational questions without direct regard to religious texts. For instance, Max Elder, a student of philosophy and animal ethics at Oxford University, states in “Fishing for Trouble: The Ethics of Recreational Angling,” that there “are obvious differences between mammals and fish, even by their very definition. However, the important question is whether these differences are morally relevant differences.” This neatly encapsulates the underlying philosophical foundation on which The Palgrave Handbook of Practical Animal Ethics rests. Not coincidentally, the handbook’s ties to the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics are strong: Andrew Linzey, Ph.D., is its director, and Clair Linzey its deputy director. But for all the intellectual heft that an Oxford University association brings to the handbook, the work’s emphasis is intended to be pragmatic – it is no coincidence that the book’s title includes the work practical. Thus, Faith Bjalobok, Ph.D., a fellow at the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, writes of “Our Moral Duties to Ill and Aging Companion Animals,” while Lori Marino, Ph.D., a neuroscientist who is founder and executive director of the Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy in Utah, discusses “The Marine Mammal Captivity Issue: Time for a Paradigm Shift.”

     The Palgrave Handbook of Practical Animal Ethics is more important for laying out a series of moral and ethical questions than for answering them in any definitive way. The book is not easy reading, being intensely academic in its proliferation of footnotes and being filled, even clogged, with bibliographical material and references. It also contains some stylistic oddities, such as removing standard impersonal references to animals through the pronouns “it” and “that” and instead using “he,” “she,” “who” and “whom” – an unnecessary bit of anthropomorphic alteration presumably intended to make the connection between human and nonhuman animals clearer, but in practice a rather affected and effete-sounding approach. Nevertheless, the importance of this book far outweighs some inelegance in its presentation. Indeed, for the academic community, the style will not be off-putting, but to the extent that non-academics are to be influenced by the essays here, they will have to wade through some authorial and/or editor-driven expressiveness that is not as congenial or collegial as it could be.

     The issues raised, though, are extremely important. The section titled “The Ethics of Causing Suffering” is particularly telling and its contents particularly well-argued. Kay Peggs, Ph.D., editor of the section and a fellow at the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, sets the tone clearly with the simple essay title, “Animal Suffering Matters.” Within that chapter, she notes that the “anthropocentric notion of suffering is not just a matter of philosophical debate; it has very real consequences for the lives of billions of nonhuman animals because these principles of moral worth are rooted in and inform the law.” Darren Sean Calley, Ph.D., a senior lecturer in the School of Law at the University of Essex, then weighs in with “Human Duties, Animal Suffering, and Animal Rights: A Legal Reevaluation,” discussing the animals-as-property argument and the advantages of a duty-based rather than rights-based approach to treatment of nonhumans. Mark J. Estren, Ph.D., a psychologist, herpetologist and reptile educator, in “The Ethics of Preservation: Where Psychology and Conservation Collide,” delves more deeply into the motivations underlying both legal and everyday human responses to nonhuman animals, showing the deep-seated human traits that drive our treatment of other animals, both philosophically and experientially – and suggests ways in which the barriers to empathy resulting from human perception can be altered, if not overcome.

     These and many other essays in The Palgrave Handbook of Practical Animal Ethics have multiple concerns in common: the development of a more-ethical approach to human-nonhuman interactions; the creation of a moral/ethical framework within which decisions relating to those interactions may be made more thoughtfully and less offhandedly; and the practical steps that individuals and societies can take to produce a more ethical and thus more satisfactory structure within which human and nonhuman animals alike can assume their rightful places. The goal of societal transformation will not be accomplished by The Palgrave Handbook of Practical Animal Ethics: the sort of foundational rethinking called for in the book, and the practical implementation of that rethinking, will take considerable time and effort. But a social movement must start somewhere, and that of a careful, logical and consistent form of improved animal ethics starts with this book. The Palgrave Handbook of Practical Animal Ethics deserves to be on the shelves of every individual and every organization concerned with the way in which human beings and nonhuman beings relate to each other on the planet that we all share.

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