Philosopher examines when it is—and isn’t—okay to hurt animals if it means helping other animals in need
A simple, moral principle offers inspiration and motivation to philosopher, ethicist and animal-rights advocate Cheryl Abbate: Don’t cause unnecessary harm to others.
“I know that most people, like myself, have a natural affinity for animals, as is evident by the ways in which we treat cats and dogs as members of our families,” the assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Nevada Las Vegas writes on her website.
“But when it comes to other animals, especially food animals and ‘pests,’ the human-animal connection is severed. Through culture and social pressure, we are conditioned to treat most animals as mere resources. But philosophers like myself are initiating meaningful conversations about our dealings with other animals—conversations that are long overdue.”
Abbate (PhD Phil'19) is particularly interested in what she calls “the hard problems of animal rights”: The conditions under which humans may harm animals to help other animals in need, prevent serious harm from developing in the first place and when it’s excusable.
As an example, she cites the development of the Impossible Burger, a vegan alternative to hamburger that uses vegetarian heme, an iron-rich molecule that gives the product a meat-like texture, smell and appearance when cooked.
Heme “was tested on 166 rats that had to be killed, to look at how it affected their spleens, which was required for (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) approval,” she says. “So, they were harming animals for the sake of animals.”
Abbate grew up in a small town in Wisconsin, where she played in the woods and was surrounded by cats at home, all of which “made me more open to taking animals seriously in my studies,” she says.
But she never deeply considered animal ethics until she was an undergraduate at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota. There, she found she had little patience for abstract philosophy, but was drawn to the practical relevance of ethics. She was particularly moved by Princeton University Philosopher Peter Singer’s famous “drowning child” argument and University of Chicago Philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s book, Frontiers of Justice, which examines the question of justice among unequal parties, including humans and animals.
“For the first time I realized, ‘I love philosophy, and I love animals. I can make a career out of this,’” Abbate says.
While earning a master’s degree at Colorado State University, she was influenced by the late Bernard Rollin, known as the “father of veterinary medical ethics.”
“That’s when I really began to focus on animals. I could see that all these animals other than cats and dogs are harmed in the world and there is almost no one speaking in their defense,” she says. “Professors are uniquely positioned to start those conversations and draw awareness. They are not afraid to challenge society.”
At the University of Colorado Boulder, Abbate became particularly interested in the “hard problems,” including the way humans harm animals without intending to, through development and urbanization, which destroys habitat, anthropogenic climate change, and other human activity.
“We cause harms that free-roaming animals face. It’s not intentional, but there are foreseeable side effects,” she says. “I argue that we are morally responsible, given that the effects are known. And given that we are responsible, we must think critically about our forward-looking responsibilities.”
She cites the construction of wildlife crossings on roads close to her home on the Arizona-Nevada border as an example of a forward-looking solution to an unintended harm, wildlife killed in collisions with vehicles.
As for those who make the argument that humans should focus on human problems rather than those of animals, Abbate notes that, “When we hurt animals, we almost always end up hurting humans.” For example, the horrifically cruel practice of confining hogs for pork production also creates immense waste that degrades local water quality.
She’s currently teaching two animal-ethics classes at UNLV that focus on ways people can make a difference in the lives of animals. In her honors seminar, students create a project to directly improve animal welfare in the community, including at least seven hours of non-class time.
It really shows how easy it is to lend a helping hand and that small efforts can make a difference.
One group created a pamphlet on the problem of feeding feral horses to distribute to neighbors around Mt. Charleston, about 40 miles northwest of Las Vegas. Another created fliers with QR codes to get people to attend county-commission meetings and support a law banning the sale of non-rescue animals at pet stores. Another group worked with a food court on campus to offer more vegan options, and yet another collected newspapers for use in a cat shelter.
“It really shows how easy it is to lend a helping hand and that small efforts can make a difference,” Abbate says. “The problem is so big, and so few people are doing anything, that all of these little efforts can add up to a collective difference. … There are people who care about animals who will try to make a difference. They just need direction and motivation.”
Of late, Abbate has also become interested in the importance of “living a good life while also committing to activism.”
As an ethicist, I used to think ethics was the only thing that matters. But we are not utility-maximizing machines. We must also make time to pursue things of value to use outside of ethics, take time for ourselves and combine that with activism,” she says. As she writes on her website:
“I think a truly meaningful and fulfilling human life should be split between combating the ugliness and appreciating the beauty.”