The moral status of animals | Inquirer Opinion

The moral status of animals

The Philippine Animal Welfare Act of 1998 (Republic Act No. 8485) is a weak law that is bereft of a solid philosophical foundation. The primary merit of the law is its acknowledgment of the utilitarian or preference-based approach on the issue of animal welfare. The utilitarian argument runs this way: Since nonhuman animals are sentient beings, meaning they have the ability to feel pain and suffering, then it is in your interest not to cause any harm to them.

The law says that its intention is “to protect and promote the welfare of all animals,” but it also says that “rabbits, carabaos, horses, deer and crocodiles” can be slaughtered for food. These animals are not part of the usual menu of Filipinos. Including them, therefore, is quite trivial and morally inconsiderate. A further inconsistency, as noted by Ryan Urbano, is that the killing of animals may be permitted “when done for the purpose of animal population control.” The law is not clear what it means by animal population control, and which species can be subjected to population control and why.


Its most abused provision is the exception on the killing of animals “when it is done … as a ritual required by tribal or ethnic customs of indigenous cultural communities.” The basis of the provision is “freedom of religion” and “respect for cultural communities.” But as noted by the Philippine Animal Welfare Society, dog-eating in the North is no longer a matter of custom but more of commerce. Horse-fighting has also been reduced to mere entertainment.

Animals in the wild are a special case. Since they do not enjoy the same level of affection accorded to domesticated animals like cats and dogs, the law only says that “it shall be the duty of every person to protect the natural habitat of the wildlife.” It is not explicit if people must do so because the law acknowledges the intrinsic value of nonhuman species. But it is safe to assume that the law operates behind the principle of anthropocentrism. Nonhuman animals only have extrinsic value, which means that they must be protected since they serve the interest of people.


The law considers only the welfare of animals but does not grant them rights. It does not even recognize the Kantian idea that we have indirect duties to nonhuman animals. It is grounded in legalism: People have the duty to do something because it is what the law says. People are therefore answerable to their actions because of the law’s punitive nature and not because the law is meant to serve the wellbeing of some nonhuman animals.

Dogs and cats are regarded with higher moral status because of their role in the household. These two species benefit from what Mary Anne Warren calls the “Interspecific Principle” as part of mixed communities of humans and nonhuman animals. According to Warren, the “trusting and affectionate relationship between owner and his pet” generates a stronger moral obligation to our house pets.

But the law is silent with respect to the fundamental wrong to which Tom Regan calls our attention. For Regan, since animals share an attribute with humans as “subject of a life,” they must be respected for they possess an inherent value, and therefore should not be treated as mere “resources for our own consumption.” Regan argues that using animals for food, game, experiment and sports reduces them to “means to an end.”

Peter Singer in Animal Liberation has pointed out the fact that nonhuman animals have been subjected to cruel, absurd, and mostly unnecessary experiments. He cites the forced inhalation of the radioactive strontium 90 by beagles, toxic tests for cosmetics performed on rabbits, the subjection of dogs and monkeys to electric shocks in psychology experiments, and hundreds of other cases.

It can be argued that the use of nonhuman animals is important for medical research. Carl Cohen says that “sharply restricting it must result either in the blockade of much valuable research or the replacement of animal subjects with human subjects.” The law simply leaves to concerned agencies the task of drawing the rules with respect to this very vital function.

I do not protest the use of some animals for food. What I am against is the inhumane way to which most of these animals are subjected. While the law is clear about the regulatory role of the Bureau of Animal Industry and that it must coordinate with various agencies in the implementation of the penal sanctions on those who violate the law, nothing in the law states explicitly as to how operators of decrepit slaughterhouses, dirty factory farms, and suffocating means of transport for poultry and swine can be punished effectively.

On these bases, it is high time various sectors and stakeholders came up with a more realistic, morally sound and scientific approach to the issue of animal welfare by crafting a much improved law. It is something that nonhuman animals deserve from the rational members of the species community.

Christopher Ryan Maboloc is a member of the ethics review committee of the Regional Health Research and Development Consortium, Region XI. He holds a master’s degree in applied ethics from Linkoping University in Sweden.

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TAGS: animal welfare, Carl Cohen, Mary Anne Warren, Philippine Animal Welfare Act of 1998, Philippine Animal Welfare Society, Ryan Urbano
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