Animal Rights Filtered Through Sartre

Is it ethical to inflict deliberate harm on a conscious, feeling creature? Does the benefit produced play a role in justifying the pain inflicted?

The philosophy of Jean Paul Sartre makes navigating through these complex questions more lucid. Sartre’s “singular universal” principle explicates the notion that every exertion of our personal freedom has a universal dimension to it; thus, whenever faced with a choice of whether to respect the autonomy of or to inflict cruelty on a non-human animal, Sartre’s principle, I feel, urges us to consider the ramifications of exerting dominion over another living being.
The “singular universal” principle could not be more pertinent to the issue of animal cruelty. The principle prescribes that in making a choice, we affirm the “rightness” of that choice. That said, it is of utmost importance to consider the magnitude and implications of every choice we make, specifically with regard to the propagation of the dominion over other sentient creatures.

Interestingly, Sartre remarked that people unthinkingly distract themselves with habits and routines, as living consciously and deliberately is often a challenging task. What makes this way of living perhaps more difficult is the fact that as more meat is consumed, people become more distant from farming operations, so, arguably, it requires more effort to remain aware of where our meat comes from. Indeed, once in a while there is a landmark event which forces open the collective eyes of the population. Exploiting animals for entertainment is a centuries-long phenomenon, and yet the issue finally received the attention it deserved upon Michael Vick’s dogfighting charges. The Hallmark Meat Company/Westland scandal led to Proposition 2 on California’s 2008 ballot initiative (which, effective in 2015, will give factory farmed animals the right to stretch their limbs, stand up, and turn around). In light of the myriad distractions and obligations of modern society, the assignment of maintaining full awareness in all our endeavors, although seemingly infeasible, could not be more urgent. Sartre champions the notion of living life as if we are leading by example – or as if other people will be taking recommendations from us, stating, “for every man, everything happens as if all mankind had its eyes fixed on him and were guiding itself by what he does.” The tremendous nature of this responsibility necessitates that citizens take further steps to deliberate upon the ethics of their decisions with regard to animal welfare. If an individual, upon learning that the United States raises and kills ten billion animals a year in massive, industrial factory farms, continues to consume meat, I feel that he or she is neglecting their  responsibility to change the course of society for the better. If that individual continues to consume meat, he or she is affirming the rightness in allowing an animal to writhe and squeal and to experience something aversive to its nature.

Therefore, if the propagation of dominionism – the notion that things only exist for our benefit – has been seen to affect society deleteriously, our obligation is to forge personal endeavors to cease participation in such practices. The idea that animals are commodities with only extrinsic or conditional value has not only caused undue suffering to innumerable creatures, but has percolated into mankind’s abuses against nature as a whole. In according every sentient being the right not to be treated as a resource, we take part in thwarting the injurious process of self-glorification which directly leads to the exploitation of everything non-human. A practical example of implementing such ethics is as follows: an individual has a choice to purchase wheat and soy based meat facsimiles, in vitro tested cosmetics, synthetic fiber for clothing, and so on, with no sacrifice to his or her quality of life. The conscious decision to invest in such products sends a message to the involved industries, competing industries, and future prospective buyers that it is ethically offensive to exploit animals even if there exists an economic benefit to humans; it issues a declaration that it is morally reprehensible for animals with cognitive, attitudinal, sensory, and volitional capacities to be abused simply because they are seen as intellectually less endowed or less autonomous.

Many animals, like humans, feel pain, pleasure, remember the past, anticipate the future, and act intentionally to secure what they want in the present. It is our duty to treat them with respect, as, perhaps, in according dignity and reverence to creatures and landscapes which were here before mankind, respect instead of exploitation will become the norm for inter-species relationships, interpersonal relationships, and and our relationship with the environment.

Gunita Singh is a junior in the College of Arts & Sciences studying political science. She can be reached via email at


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