Improving the Quality of Dialogue in Animal Ethics Debates
World Small Animal Veterinary Association World Congress Proceedings, 2013
John Rossi, VMD, M.Bioethics
School of Public Health, Drexel University, Philadelphia, PA, USA


Making progress in moral debates isn't just about knowing how to apply moral theories to issues in veterinary ethics; it's also about knowing how to identify problematic arguments and strategies, and learning to avoid them. Here I review a few major issues that frequently seem to compromise the quality of discussion in veterinary ethics. By being on the lookout for these pitfalls when we engage veterinary ethical issues, we can make significant improvements in the quality of debate.

Ad Hominem Fallacies

"Ad hominem" roughly translates into "against the man," and this term describes a logical fallacy where arguments are evaluated not on the basis of the evidence for or against them, but rather on the basis of the character of the person making the argument. In my experience ad hominem attacks are very common in veterinary ethical discussions, and we need to be careful to avoid them.

Two varieties of ad hominem exist: circumstantial and abusive. Abusive ad hominem consists of painting your opposition in a derogatory fashion through slights and insults, whereas circumstantial ad hominem consists of pointing to some personal characteristic of the opposition that (supposedly) predisposes them to take a particular position. An example of a circumstantial ad hominem argument is trying to show that an argument against abortion is wrong because the person making the argument is a priest, and "of course you'd expect him to say that." An example of abusive ad hominem is the frequent tendency in veterinary medicine and allied industries (e.g., biomedical research) to portray animal rights advocates as "terrorists" or "irrational zealots." Both kinds of attacks are fallacious because they are irrelevant to establishing the truth or falsity of a particular conclusion; hence ad hominem is sometimes classed as a "fallacy of irrelevance." The fact that someone has a particular character flaw, even if true, does not show that the argument they are making is false. In order to know that we need to actually look at the evidence, premises and reasoning supporting the argument. Similarly, the fact that someone is biased towards drawing a certain conclusion does not show that the conclusion is false. At most, it may give some insight into why they arrived at a particular conclusion.

Begging the Question

A second important logical fallacy is "begging the question," or petitio principii. This fallacy involves assuming the truth of something whose truth requires demonstration by argument. For example, suppose that we are having an academic debate about whether animals can have moral rights. In this context, an example of a question-begging argument is the following: "Rights are an essentially human creation, arising in the human moral realm. Therefore animals cannot have rights." This argument begs the question because the conclusion is implied in the premise. Another common variation on this argument also begs the question: "Only rational agents can have moral rights. Animals are not rational agents. Therefore, animals have no rights." If a separate argument were offered for why only rational agents can have rights, then this argument would not beg the question. However, in animal ethics discussions the necessary connection between rights and rational agency is often not argued for; it is simply asserted.

The fallacy of "begging the question" is connected to the more general requirement in ethics that we give reasons to support our views. If we make a particular moral judgment, such as "abortion is wrong," we should give reasons why it is wrong. Otherwise, why should we accept the judgment as correct? Why should anyone who disagrees with us accept the judgment as correct? The problem with begging the question is that the reason that is given to accept a particular conclusion just is that conclusion, or else indirectly relies on the truth of that conclusion. Usually "begging the question" is reserved for situations where someone at least tries to provide an argument to support their conclusion, but we can also use it to describe situations where someone just asserts something to be true (morally defensible, etc.) without providing any argument at all. For example, the American Veterinary Medical Association's (AVMA) "Animal Welfare Principles" state that "The responsible use of animals for human purposes, such as companionship, food, fiber, recreation, work, education, exhibition, and research" is morally defensible (AVMA 2006), but provides no reason(s) to support these conclusions. Hence this statement begs the question, which is important since a number of notable philosophers have disputed these things.

The Conflation of Advocacy Groups with Philosophical Positions

When organized veterinary medicine or individual veterinarians frame the opposition to their own views, this opposition more often than not is an animal advocacy group of some kind, such as "People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals" (PETA) or "The Humane Society of the United States." Certainly animal advocacy groups have become a fixture of our contemporary political landscape, but when debating animal ethics it is problematic to invoke these groups as the principal representatives of an opposing position to organized veterinary medicine.

First, we should be careful to distinguish between the intellectual content of a view and the tactics an individual or group may use in order to make that view a political reality. Some animal advocacy groups - though to be clear, it is a minority - use controversial tactics, such as laboratory break-ins or harassment, in order to advance their political goals. But such tactics are no more a necessary component of a philosophical view opposing various kinds of animal use (or certain practices within such uses) than the murder of physicians performing abortions is a necessary component of a moral view that opposes abortion. By focusing on politically controversial tactics employed by some animal advocacy groups, we distract ourselves from the intellectual issues at hand.

Second, when considering the intellectual merits of a particular view about animals' moral standing and the arguments that can be given for it, we are unlikely to find the most developed or defensible articulations of such a view given by advocacy groups. Such groups exist because of a personal commitment on the part of their members - this commitment can arise in the absence of much or any scholarship about the relevant philosophical issues. If we want to know whether a particular view is defensible, we need to turn to the philosophical arguments directly.

Overstating the Degree of Veterinary Expertise in Animal Ethical Issues

Representatives of organized veterinary medicine often claim broad expertise on the part of veterinarians when it comes to animal ethics, be it in defining and assessing animal welfare, or in judging appropriate principle and policy regarding animal use. For example, Dr. Bonnie Beaver, past president of the American Veterinary Medical Association, said in a 2004 speech that "Veterinarians are the ultimate authorities in animal welfare. It is important that we retain this authority in light of challenges by animal rightists and humane organizations, as has been evident in recent newspaper attacks" (Beaver 2004). Veterinarians certainly do possess expertise regarding some animal-related issues. We are highly trained in the diagnosis and treatment of animal disease, as well as normal animal anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, immunology, reproduction, and some behavior. When an ethical discussion hinges upon understanding some aspect of animal health and disease, then veterinarians have expertise here. However, when it comes to ethics, it is more dubious that veterinarians have broad expertise.

Our moral obligations to animals (or lack thereof) are a matter of moral philosophy: of understanding and applying various normative theories about right action and animals' moral standing, in applying conceptual and logical analysis, etc. Veterinarians tend not to have much training in these things. This point can be extended to the definition and assessment of animal welfare, as well. At its core, the concept of "welfare" is a moral concept, and a number of potentially contestable philosophical judgments may be implicit in various definitions of welfare, as well as the assessment of welfare. Therefore, while the assessment of animal welfare sometimes requires an understanding of scientific concepts that veterinarians do possess, it also requires an awareness of value judgments and an ability to critically appraise these judgments. Such judgments are not "science-based" in the way this term is usually understood. Furthermore, there are a number of scientific disciplines highly relevant to animal welfare (e.g., cognitive ethology) in which veterinarians typically receive little or no training.

The point of all this is not to denigrate veterinarians, but rather to check the sometimes-evident tendency in veterinary medicine to claim expertise in all areas related to animal ethics. When this posture is adopted, it becomes less likely that veterinarians or political groups representing veterinary medicine will listen to other stakeholders (as the quote above illustrates). Indeed, this seems to be what often happens in political disputes about animal welfare and ethics - expertise is claimed as a way of discrediting the opposition without responding to their arguments.

Clarifying Key Concepts and Terminology

Much of what moral philosophers do consists of conceptual clarification, and of tracing out the implications of various moral claims and principles. We cannot know whether a particular moral claim is correct unless we know what it means, and what kind of conduct or policies it would lead to. Oftentimes in veterinary ethical discussions, key terms or concepts will be used without specifying (even approximately) what they mean. Examples include "humane," "respectful," "cruel" and "appropriate" treatment. We cannot evaluate principles using these terms until we know what they mean. Yet another example of particular importance is the concept of "necessary harm." Many people seem to support the moral principle that we should not harm animals unnecessarily, but "necessary" harm can be and has been interpreted in significantly different ways. We must ask "Necessary for what? Why is that important? Is it of significant enough importance to justify the harm to animals? Why?"

Finally, veterinarians sometimes express opposition to certain views without first clarifying the nature of the view they are opposing. The best example here is the concept of "animal rights." Philosophers tend to define a right as a "valid claim" to something - either a claim of entitlement to the provision of a certain good (e.g., healthcare), or a claim of noninterference. Given this definition, we could elaborate an animal rights position that grants animals very strong rights against all (avoidable) harm, or only more modest rights against harm under limited circumstances. However, the "animal rights" position as it is often sketched by veterinarians often seems to presume very strong rights, as would arise if animals are given some sort of equal moral consideration to humans. This is not the only option. A related issue is what granting equal moral consideration (EC) to animals would amount to. Some critics falsely contend that an EC position is obviously untenable because it would entail, for example, giving dogs the right to vote. But this is a caricature of an EC position - no philosopher advocating such a position holds this. Rather, an EC position requires granting equal moral weight or protection to animals' and humans' comparable interests - not granting rights to animals based on interests they don't have. These few examples show how important conceptual clarification is.

Disallowing Moral Comparisons between Humans and Animals

A final issue compromising the quality of discourse in veterinary ethics is that moral comparisons between humans and nonhuman animals are often met with responses of offense and a refusal to even consider the comparison. For example, an argument sometimes made by philosophers writing about animal ethics is that moral discrimination based on species is no more morally defensible than moral discrimination based on race or sex. Some persons balk at this suggestion and become so offended that they refuse to even consider the argument. This kind of response is problematic for a few reasons. First, it begs the question. The reason why people become offended by such comparisons is that they believe humans and animals to have radically different levels of moral standing, such that any comparison is both illicit and offensive. But oftentimes the degree of moral standing that animals deserve is exactly the issue that is in question.

Second, human-animal comparisons are sometimes invoked not in a discussion about moral standing, but rather to caution us against being morally dogmatic. For example, if someone dismisses arguments about increasing animals' moral standing on the grounds that they are "obviously absurd," we can point out that arguments against slavery or women's rights were also regarded by many persons in the past as "obviously absurd." The point of the comparison in this context is not that humans and animals should be regarded as moral equals, but rather that we should be careful when making proclamations about what is or isn't "obvious" from a moral standpoint.

Finally, comparisons between apparently similar cases are a major analytical tool in moral philosophy. They can help to show us when we are being arbitrary or inconsistent, or when a moral position may lead to consequences that are unacceptable to us. By disallowing such comparisons, we disallow many of the actual arguments that would be used to (potentially) show why some moral views about animals are unsound.


1.  Animal welfare principles. American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). 2006. [online resource]. Available at:

2.  Beaver B. "Building for the Future by Serving Society." [Address to the AVMA House of Delegates on July 23, 2004]. Available at: http://www.upc-
VIN editor: This link could not be accessed as of 2/7/2013.

3.  Fallacy Files [online resource]. Available at:

4.  Rachels J, Rachels S. The Elements of Moral Philosophy. 6th ed. New York: McGraw Hill Higher Education; 2010 (See especially chapters 1–4).


Speaker Information
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John Rossi, VMD, M.Bioethics
Drexel University School of Public Health
Philadelphia, PA, USA

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