New Study Identifies our Different Ethical Beliefs about Animals

New research finds four ethical orientations towards animals, and some surprising links to cat and dog ownership and to other behaviours such as eating “welfare-friendly” meat.

There are four animal ethics orientations, including anthropocentrism and animal rights, according to  new study. Photo shows collage of dog, fox, horse and cat

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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We all have different views about what we think are ethical ways to treat animals. New research by Dr. Thomas Bøker Lund et al. (University of Copenhagen), published today in PLOS ONE, finds four different ethical orientations that are commonly held by the general public.

The results show just how complicated our ethical beliefs about animals are – and include some surprising results.

Two of the different orientations will probably be familiar:

Anthropocentrism – the idea that “human beings matter most”. This view may stem from religious beliefs or from beliefs that humans and animals are different, with humans being considered rational and more important than non-human animals.

Animal rights – this approach values all animals and argues that as sentient beings, animals also have rights and should be treated accordingly. This is the opposite view to anthropocentrism.

The other two ethical orientations are not academic but more likely reflect the views of ordinary people:

Animal protection – this means animals are seen as needing protection, but may be used so long as they are treated humanely and do not suffer. This view can be seen in regulations to protect the welfare of farmed animals, for example.

Lay utilitarianism – the idea that animals can be used so long as the benefits to humans outweigh any suffering by the animals. For example, according to this approach, the use of animals in medical research (even if the animals suffer) is considered acceptable so long as there are benefits to people.

The scientists conducted a series of three studies. In the first, they developed a questionnaire to investigate these four approaches, and tested it on Danish university students. This confirmed the questionnaire worked the way they expected.

Then they tested it on three groups of people: ordinary Danes from a range of backgrounds; Danes who tend towards veganism or vegetarianism; and Danes who work in some way in the meat industry.

These results confirmed the results of the previous study, with the exception of one question that was removed (more on this later).

“It is a remarkable and ironic finding… that a stronger animal protection orientation does not make people more likely to consume animal welfare-friendly meat.”

Finally, they gave the questionnaire to a large sample of Danes along with some other questions about their behaviour towards animals, such as whether they own a dog or cat, and how often they visit the zoo. This sample was intended to be representative, and since it was in some ways but not others (like level of education) they used some sophisticated statistics for the analysis.

And here’s where it gets really interesting.

Dog owners are less likely to be anthropocentric in their views. Is this because anthropocentric people are less likely to get dogs, or is there something about having a dog that makes people be less anthropocentric? This is a question for future research.

Cat owners are less likely to have the animal protection or lay utilitarian views. Why are cat owners less likely to be in what could be considered the middle ground? This is puzzling, and the researchers do not have an explanation for it.

Another finding is that the results are in line with something called the “underdog” effect that has previously been found in an American study. Women and those with lower levels of education were more likely to value an animal rights approach. It has been suggested that members of groups with less power in society are more likely to sympathize with animals.

One surprising finding relates to eating “welfare-friendly” meat.

The scientists say,
“It is a remarkable and ironic finding… that a stronger animal protection orientation does not make people more likely to consume animal welfare-friendly meat.”

Since they had expected the opposite to be the case, they did a bit more analysis. It turns out the most important reason is a lack of concern about animal welfare. Feeling that existing laws were good enough, and so the extra protections of “welfare-friendly” meat weren’t needed, was also part of the reason.

As for the one question that turned out not to fit in the second study, it related to the statement, “It is acceptable for humans to put animals down if it is done painlessly.” This suggests that attitudes to this are separate from the four main orientations considered here.

"Dog owners are less likely to be anthropocentric in their views."

Psychologists have known for a long time that attitudes do not necessarily predict behaviour, and the new scale highlights these tensions when it comes to our treatment of non-human animals.

Prof. Peter Sandøe, one of the authors of the study, told me in an email,
“Based on three studies conducted in Denmark, the four orientations were successfully identified and although not exhaustive, they represent distinctive accounts of the ways that animals matter. At one end of the spectrum, the anthropocentric orientation stresses that humans are the centre of the moral universe. At the other end of the spectrum, the animal rights orientation claims that sentient animals are entitled to the same rights as humans. The animal protection orientation is interpreted as a mainstream sentiment emphasizing that the welfare of animals is important in its own right, and that animals must be treated humanely and without unnecessary suffering while lay utilitarianism offers a more cynical take on animal welfare: all forms of animal use are in principle acceptable as long as the human benefits outweigh the disadvantages for the animals involved.

We argue that the developed measure can help detect the ethical orientations that have an impact on various types of behaviours that include animals, thus drive a more nuanced understanding about the attitudinal sources and justifications of different forms of animal use.”

This is fascinating research that captures the complexity of people’s beliefs about ethics and animals. It will enable future studies to explore the reasons behind differences between what people believe in and what people actually do when it comes to their ethical beliefs about animals.

The full paper is open access and can be read at the link below. Dr. Marc Bekoff has interviewed the authors of the study and it is well worth a read to find out what they think of the results, what it means for animal welfare, and how this research can be used in future.

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Which of the four ethical orientations most closely reflects your own beliefs about the treatment of animals?

Lund, T.B., Kondrup, S.R., and Sandøe, P. (2019) A multidimensional measure of animal ethics orientation – Developed and applied to a representative sample of the Danish public, PLoS ONE, 

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