Animals as Moral Agents

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2022

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Abstract

Since Peter Singer’s (1975) Animal Liberation, sentience has been the dominant justification for increasing non-human animal (hereafter ‘animal’) welfare. This dissertation is an attempt to discover a different reason to treat animals better: their moral agency. If animals are moral agents, then they deserve additional moral rights, rights that arise independently from their sentience.

To find out whether animals are moral agents, I focus on whether animals are ever morally responsible for their actions. More specifically, I examine whether animals punish each other. I focus on a special type of punishment: third-party retributive punishment. This is punishment issued by an unaffected bystander for a moral wrongdoing.

Humans do not treat animals as moral agents, but this does not mean that animals are never morally responsible. I evaluate animal behavior from the contexts of their own communities. Rather than focus on the ways in which humans treat animals, I focus on the ways in which animals treat one another.

This dissertation is highly interdisciplinary, utilizing principles of philosophy alongside empirical evidence from psychology, evolutionary anthropology, animal behavior, and ecology. Both the theoretical and empirical evidence support my main conclusion: animals are moral agents.

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Bischof, Angela (2022). Animals as Moral Agents. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/25206.

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