Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

Bioethical Troubles: Animal Individuals and Human Organisms

Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

Bioethical Troubles: Animal Individuals and Human Organisms

Article excerpt

Despite the good efforts of philosophers and ethicists, many of us remain vexed by the morally complex and difficult issue of the human use of animals. We humans use animals in various contexts for diverse purposes and motives: in scientific and biomedical research; in practical therapeutic situations (medical, psychological, and social); as companions in our homes and recreational pursuits; as food on our tables and economic resources on farms; as objects of scientific, aesthetic, and practical interests in zoos and aquaria; as observed, studied, hunted, and fished in the wild; and more. We have a hard time coherently thinking through these different human-animal interactions and despair over finding any one grand ethical theory or perspective that will handle all the relevant situations and satisfy all those who recognize serious moral obligations to animals, but who are animated by different moral passions and visions.(1) Yet our ethical reflections, whatever our perspectives, are particularly bedeviled by a central and crucial issue: the nature and ethical significance of animals as genuine individuals or selves.(2) Moreover, before we can get things straight and make further progress in fixing our ethical obligations to animals and wider animate nature, we must squarely face an allied and equally elusive issue. We need to understand our own human status in the world as biological, animals organisms. Animals ethics, environmental ethics, if not human bioethics in general, await an adequate understanding of animals as individuals and humans as organisms. This is a crucial step in ethically "taking together" humans, animals, and nature, which increasingly is becoming a central task of practical ethics.


A foundation for fashioning broadly comprehensive, systematic, and coherent ethical perspectives that do justice to humans, animals, and animate nature as such lies in thinking clearly about animals as genuine individuals and valuable or ethically significant in their own right and in recognizing that human beings, no matter how sophisticated their "higher" capacities, are fundamentally animals, mammalian organisms, with all that this philosophically and ethically entails. To bring together and to elucidate our ethical responsibilities to humans, animals, and animate nature, we need a common philosophic understanding of "organic individuality": its nature and ethical significance. With respect to human and animal individuals, we need to understand morally significant differences amidst morally significant similarities or commonalities. This is a daunting task given the complexity of the issue and the strong philosophic and scientific currents against which we must swim. The task calls for renewed efforts in the philosophy of nature in general and a philosophy of organic life in particular.(3)

Animal and human organisms as concrete individuals--as real bodily subjects, agents, or actors carrying out their lives within the world--have had a hard time of it in modern thought, at least since the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. As psychophysical "ones," with an individual integrity all their own, they have been theoretically written out of the universe. We have to jog old and fundamental philosophic habits to rehabilitate them. Yet in the name of philosophic and scientific understanding and practical ethical responsibility, this is precisely what we must do. I wish briefly to consider this rehabilitation, relying heavily on the philosophic reflections of Hans Jonas and more distantly Alfred North Whitehead,(4) and then to consider the ethical implications of this rehabilitation.

Metaphysical Misadventures:

The Eclipse of Organic Individuals

Our modern troubles importantly began with the famous and fateful bifurcation of nature effected by the "genius" scientists and philosophers of sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe--the Galileos, Descarteses, and Newtons--which has dominantly influenced our Western scientific, technological, and political culture ever since. …

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