Nicolas Delon

I am currently working on three interrelated projects:

  • Animal metaethics: how disagreements within animal ethics are shaped by debates at its periphery (e.g., axiology, metaethics, science and values, concepts), and how they can be solved (or dissolved) accordingly (including the vexed relation between animal and environmental ethics)
  • Matters of life and death: meaning in the lives of animals and its moral implications; the ethics of breeding and killing animals; what it takes to be irreplaceable; the suffering and the freedom of wild animals, and what are our corresponding obligations; relations between ecosystems and animal well-being; relations between captivity, freedom, and well-being
  • Descriptive ethics: how moral theory and practice can be informed, and constrained, by social/moral psychology and experimental philosophy, in particular our attitudes to nature and other entities and their underlying cognitive processes

These three projects draw on published and working papers, most of which appear below and often feed into more than just one project. P
enultimate and/or open access versions of many papers can be found on my Academia, ResearchGate, or PhilPapers profiles. You can also email me for drafts or preprints. Here's my research statement (as of fall 2017).

My dissertation, under the supervision of Sandra Laugier, defended a contextual theory of the moral status of animals [full text; abstract].


Wild animal suffering is intractable
(coauthored with Duncan Purves)
Journal of Agricultural & Environmental Ethics (forthcoming) [link]

Most people believe that suffering is intrinsically bad. In conjunction with facts about our world and plausible moral principles, this yields a pro tanto obligation to reduce suffering. This is the intuitive starting point for the moral argument in favor of interventions to prevent wild animal suffering (WAS). If we accept the moral principle that we ought, pro tanto, to reduce the suffering of all sentient creatures, and we recognize the prevalence of suffering in the wild then we seem committed to the existence of such a pro tanto obligation. Of course, competing values such as the aesthetic, scientific or moral values of species, biodiversity, naturalness or wildness, might be relevant to the all-things-considered case for or against intervention. Still, many argue that, even if we were to give some weight to such values, no plausible theory could resist the conclusion that WAS is overridingly important. This article is concerned with large-scale interventions to prevent WAS and their tractability and the deep epistemic problem they raise. We concede that suffering gives us a reason to prevent it where it occurs, but we argue that the nature of ecosystems leaves us with no reason to predict that interventions would reduce, rather than exacerbate, suffering. We consider two interventions, based on gene editing technology, proposed as holding promise to prevent WAS; raise epistemic concerns about them; discuss their potential moral costs; and conclude by proposing a way forward: to justify interventions to prevent WAS, we need to develop models that predict the effects of interventions on biodiversity, ecosystem functioning, and animals' well-being.

Meaning in the lives of humans and other animals
(coauthored with Duncan Purves)
Philosophical Studies (2018) [link]

This paper argues that contemporary philosophical literature on meaning in life has important implications for the debate about our obligations to non-human animals. If animal lives can be meaningful, then practices including factory farming and animal research might be morally worse than ethicists have thought. We argue for two theses about meaning in life: (1) that the best account of meaning in life must take intentional action to be necessary for meaning—an individual's life has meaning if and only if the individual acts intentionally in ways that contribute to finally valuable states of affairs; and (2) that this first thesis does not entail that only human lives are meaningful. Because non-human animals can be intentional agents of a certain sort, our account yields the verdict that many animals' lives can be meaningful. We conclude by considering the moral implications of this pair of theses for common practices involving animals.

L'animal d'élevage compagnon de travail: l'éthique des fables alimentaires [Farm animals as working partners: the ethics of food tales]
Revue française d'éthique appliquée (2017) [link]

Jocelyne Porcher sets out to "reinvent" our relationship to animals in order to better "live with" them. This article provides a critical examination of her thesis that farm animals can be seen as proper workers, in a sense that precludes the sort of unjust exploitation that she ascribes to factory farming. Contrary to Porcher, the article considers relationships between humans and domesticated species which do not entail killing or even work for food production purposes. The present critique focuses on the distinction between the (industrial) "animal productions" and the (traditional) "husbandry" practices; the notion of animal worker and its implications; finally, the assumptions leading Porcher to overlook possible alternative relationships.

The values behind calculating the value of trophy hunting (coauthored with Jennifer Jacquet)
Conservation Biology (2016) [link]

Naidoo et al. (2016) assessed benefits from hunting and tourism in Namibia from 1998 to 2013 at 77 communal conservancies, which provide community-based wildlife conservation. They found that hunting and tourism each generates roughly the same economic value and that if trophy hunting were banned, some conservancies would be unable to cover their operating costs. As a result, the authors concluded that trophy hunting provides a benefit to conservation. We find problems with both their methods, which rely on opaque assumptions about the value of trophy-hunted meat and their conclusions about trophy hunting's relationship to conservation in Namibia. Both their methods and conclusions rest on narrow (and in some aspects unclear) assumptions about values. Furthermore, conservation decisions are not and should not be driven by economic benefits alone.

Un Singer peut-il en remplacer un autre ? [Can one Singer replace another?]
Klêsis, issue: Peter Singer (2016) [link]

In the third edition of 'Practical Ethics' (2011), Peter Singer reexamines the so-called "replaceability argument," according to which merely sentient beings, as opposed to persons (self-conscious and with a robust sense of time), are replaceable—it is in principle permissible to kill them provided that they live pleasant lives that they would not have had otherwise and that they be replaced by equally happy beings. On this view, existence is a benefit and death is not a harm. Singer's challenge is to avoid (i) the replaceability of persons while preserving the replaceability of merely sentient beings, (ii) the implication that parents are morally required to procreate if they can have happy children, and (iii) to do avoid these implications without having the proposed solution (the "debit view" of preferences) imply negative utilitarianism, or the conclusion that a nonsentient universe is better than any sentient universe. I review Singer's changing views since 1975 and I argue that his attempt to avoid the replaceability of persons fails: either both non-persons and persons are replaceable or neither are. Singer can only avoid this conclusion by appealing to controversial metaethical claims (attitude-independent moral objectivism) and/or giving up on essential features of utilitarianism.

Etudes animales : une perspective transatlantique [A transatlantic perspective on animal studies]
Tracés : Revue de Sciences Humaines (2015) [link]

This review essay offers a personal account of the intrinsic complexity of animal studies, of the contrast between French and English-speaking approaches, and of the essential tie between theory and practice. I outline the diversity of the field, suggest that animals studies have an inherently critical component, and focus on the example of philosophy and significant differences between the US and France.

Une théorie morale peut-elle être cognitivement trop exigeante ? [Can a moral theory be cognitively too demanding?]
Implications Philosophiques, issue: Empirical ethics (2015) [link]

Starting from the typical case of utilitarianism, I distinguish three ways a moral theory may be deemed (over-)demanding: practical, epistemic, and cognitive. I focus on the latter, whose specific nature has been overlooked. Taking animal ethics as a case study, I argue that knowledge of human cognition is critical to spelling out moral theories (including their implications) that are accessible and acceptable to most ordinary agents. In a nutshell: knowing more about our cognitive apparatus with in order to work better with it. This meta-theoretical suggestion, however, differs from a classical objection drawn from the intuition that a given theory demands too much.

La mort : un mal non nécessaire, surtout pour les animaux heureux ! [Death is not a necessary evil for happy animals]
Revue semestrielle de droit animalier, issue: Factory farming (2014) [link]

I argue that death is a significant harm to many animals, hence, that raising animals for food raises serious moral questions. Justifications of the practice of raising and killing "happy" animals (so-called humane farming) presuppose the recognition that farm animals have intrinsic or final value, which turns out to make their death even more morally problematic. In other words, humane farming addresses the issue of harmful death by emphasizing the value of the happy life bestowed on such individuals, thereby making their killing all the more in need of justification. I briefly present the 'replaceability argument' (implying that killing and replacing happy animals is permissible). I then adduce empirical considerations to support an argument that killing happy animals is pro tanto harmful and wrongful to them (depending on the lives they could have had). Finally, I review different accounts of the badness of death, how they apply to animals, and suggest that the more plausible account supports an argument for the pro tanto impermissibility of killing happy animals.

Moral status, final value, and extrinsic properties
Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society (2014) [link]

Starting from a distinction between intrinsic and final value, I explore the implications of the supervenience of final value on extrinsic properties regarding moral status. I make a case for 'extrinsic moral status' based on 'extrinsic final value'. I show that the assumption of 'moral individualism', that moral status supervenes merely on intrinsic properties, is misguided, and results from a conflation of intrinsic with final value. I argue that at least one extrinsic property, namely vulnerability, can be the basis of both final value and moral status, and that dependence on such extrinsic properties is compatible with the requirement of agent-neutrality.

Pour une éthique animale descriptive [Plea for descriptive animal ethics]
Klêsis, issue: Experimental philosophy (2013) [link]
Czech translation by
Olga Smolová, Journal of Medical Law and Bioethics 6(1) (2016) [link]

This article outlines a 'descriptive animal ethics' based on the study of people's intuitions about particular cases, in order to determine which moral theories best comport with those intuitions. I suggest that the latter need not be unreliable since they may be endorsed as considered judgments, and that even if they were, knowing them would still provide relevant information for a complete moral theory concerned with what moral agents can do. I describe a survey in descriptive ethics, discuss the results, and introduce prospective experiments. I then set forth hypotheses and propose a dual model of moral status attribution in terms of both intrinsic and extrinsic properties. I rely on recent empirical research in psychology and experimental philosophy, which I confront with the above results, to support my hypotheses. The model predicts that attributions vary depending on the capacities of entities, their context (including relationships), and the context of the attributor. These facts of descriptive ethics, I conclude, are directly relevant to normative ethics insofar as our cognitive apparatus constrains our ability to act morally. Moreover, they suggest ways to improve moral perception, education, and motivation.

Chapters (books, encyclopedia, proceedings)

The Replaceability Argument in the ethics of animal husbandry
Encyclopedia of Food and Agricultural Ethics, D. Kaplan & P. B. Thompson. eds. 2nd ed. (2016) [link]

Most people agree that inflicting unnecessary suffering upon animals is wrong. Many fewer people, including among ethicists, agree that painlessly killing animals is necessarily wrong. The most commonly cited reason is that death (without pain, fear, distress) is not bad for them in a way that matters morally, or not as significantly as it does for persons, who are self-conscious, make long-term plans and have preferences about their own future. Animals, at least those that are not persons, lack a morally significant interest in continuing to live. At the same time, some argue that existence itself can be good, insofar as one's life is worth living. For animals, a good life can offset a quick, if early, death. So, it seems to follow that breeding happy animals that will be (prematurely) killed can be a good thing overall. Insofar as slaughter and sale makes it economically sustainable to raise new ones, who would otherwise not exist, raising and killing animals for food who will have lives worth living is good overall. It benefits them as well as consumers, and makes the world better by adding to the sum of happiness. The process of raising and killing animals with positive welfare produces a sequence of replacement that maintains or increases overall welfare, all else being equal (assuming in particular no overall negative impact on the welfare of other parties). Call this the Replaceability Argument (RA) and the ensuing controversy the Replaceability Problem (RP). This is a problem at the crossroads of the ethics of killing, agricultural ethics, procreation ethics, and population ethics.

L'éthique animale en contexte [Animal ethics in context]
Recherches sur la philosophie et le langage: L'animal, M. Jouan & J.-Y. Goffi eds., Vrin (2016) [publisher]

In this paper I present an experimental study testing Palmer's "laissez-faire intuition" to the effect that our positive duties to animals vary across contexts (e.g. domesticated vs. wild). I discuss some methodological concerns and competing interpretations of the results. Although the causal version of Palmer's empirical hypothesis appears to be partly supported by these results, I emphasize the need for further studies to identify the precise criteria appealed to when justifying context-dependent differences in positive duties.

La sensibilité en éthique animale, entre faits et valeurs [Sentience in animal ethics, from facts to values]
Sensibilités animales - Perspectives juridiques, R. Bismuth & F. Marchadier eds., CNRS (2015) [publisher]

This chapter presents the main views on the role of sentience in animal ethics. Insofar as human sentience grounds moral and legal protections of human interests, why would the sentience of other animals ground analogous protections of their interests? "Sensibilité" is understood as the ability to suffer (sentience) and as sensitivity to others' suffering. It is both a matter of (physiological, cognitive) facts and a matter of values (what matters). I consider sentience/sensitivity ("sensibilité") in animal ethics from two standpoints: as a criterion of moral consideration and in relation to the notion of welfare.

Against moral intrinsicalism
Animal Ethics and Philosophy: Questioning the Orthodoxy, E. Aaltola & J. Hadley eds., Rowman & Littlefield (2015) [publisher]

This paper challenges a widespread, if tacit, assumption of animal ethics, namely, that the only properties of entities that matter to their moral status are intrinsic, cross‐specific properties—typically psychological capacities. According to moral individualism, the moral status of an individual, and how to treat him or her, should only be a function of his or her individual properties. I focus on the fundamental assumption of moral individualism, which I call intrinsicalism. On the challenged view, pigs, puppies and babies, insofar as they are intrinsically similar in morally relevant respects are equally deserving of having their interests satisfied. Moreover, relationships—merely agent-relative—are assumed to be irrelevant to moral status. I argue that, while some intrinsic properties are indeed fundamentally relevant, the principled exclusion of extrinsic properties (in virtue of extrinsicness) is unwarranted. From uncontroversial assumptions about supervenience, final value, and moral status, I argue for the relevance of extrinsic properties to moral status based on vulnerability and "reasonable partiality", as illustrated by pet-keeping.

Handicap et animaux [Animals and disability]
Tous vulnérables ? Le care, les animaux et l'environnement, S. Laugier ed., Payot-Rivages (2012) [publisher]

This chapter addresses issues in comparing nonhuman animals and severely disabled human beings in terms of their morally relevant characteristics. Through a discussion of the works of Jeff McMahan, Eva Feder Kittay and Martha Nussbaum, the paper offers a defense of the importance and possibility of extending care and compassion to nonhumans without collapsing relevant species differences.

Work in Progress

The boundaries of cities and captivity (under review; draft available upon request)

What we owe morally to nonhuman animals living within or around cities and urban areas has only come under the scrutiny of ethical and political theory fairly recently (Palmer 2003, 2010; Donaldson and Kymlicka 2011). Urban animals challenge common frameworks, primarily designed to address the case of either domesticated or wild animals, or those we use for research or entertainment. Urban animals do not fit any of these categories as borderline or ‘liminal’ animals. This paper sets a further challenge by offering an account of urban animal captivity. Urban animals can benefit from living in cities. But this also makes them especially vulnerable, as they increasingly depend on the advantages of urban life. This article aims to draw a surprising conclusion from an analysis of the concept of captivity, pushing the boundaries of the concept while the boundaries of cities expand. Drawing on a simple analysis of captivity, first developed by Lori Gruen, I argue that insofar as urban animals are confined, controlled and dependent, they are often captive of expanding urban areas. I also emphasize the various types and contexts of urban captivity, as well as its value-neutrality. I conclude by outlining the potential normative implications of seeing urban animals as captives.

Valuing humane lives (draft forthcoming)

In 'Personhood, Ethics, and Animal Cognition' (2012), Gary Varner offers a detailed reading and defense of two-level utilitarianism, as articulated by R. M. Hare in 'Moral Thinking' (1981). Relying on a large body of empirical research in moral psychology, animal cognition, and animal welfare science, Varner examines how Hare’s theory, when combined with this research, can inform our treatment of nonhuman animals in a variety of contexts, both for purposes of everyday interactions (‘intuitive-level’ or ILS rules) and with a view to maximizing value (‘critical level’). This article takes up the promise of two-level utilitarianism to reveal an internal weakness. By accommodating folk psychology the theory aims to make utilitarianism seem more appealing and less demanding, combining an effective decision-procedure with fundamentally utilitarian commitments. But this in turn generates internal fragility. For its foundations, by revealing themselves in justifying the procedure, threaten to destabilize the latter and make it less effective. The central concern of this article is whether the lives of humanely raised and killed animals—humane lives—are properly valued in the two-level utilitarian theory by its own lights. I argue that they are not. I draw on recent empirical work on moral cognition to question the purported descriptive adequacy of his choice of ILS rules. Drawing on the notion of commodification, I also ask if good ILS rules can commodify animals while requiring that they be treated humanely and argue that Varner introduces a bias in favor of a particular utilitarian axiology at the intuitive level.

Meaningful lives and complicity in collective harms
(draft forthcoming)

Large-scale practices like factory farming involve large amounts of harm caused by the aggregated effects of individual acts, supported by structural features of such practices. But individual consumers often cannot make a difference. That is, whether or not I purchase a serving of meat, or even consume meat and animal products regularly, it is most likely that my acts (or omissions) won’t make a difference. My acting or not is typically superfluous with respect to the outcome. This is a classic example of collective harm in large-scale systems. Although we know that, collectively, consumers bring it about that animals and humans will be negatively affected by the effects of the system, there is no tracing back particular harms to particular individual purchasing acts. A form of this puzzle is the Inefficacy Objection. The puzzle has generated much discussion, either rejecting the Objection, or rejecting the relevance of efficacy to moral responsibility (Complicity or Participation Arguments), or, rejecting both approaches, arguing that non-superfluously helping bring about an outcome does not require making a difference (Nefsky 2017). I sidestep these discussions and offer an alternative approach to the puzzle: an account of the reasons we take ourselves to have to avoid complicity in wrongful practices that doesn't turn on a causal solution to the problem of responsibility. Whether or not we are responsible or blameworthy for our participation, we nevertheless have reasons to alter our individual decisions. I call these meaning-based reasons, such that contributing constitutively to final (dis)value provides sufficient reasons for (avoiding) participating in some activities. Living meaningful lives involves participating in finally valuable activities, whether or not such activities succeed, and such activities include trying to make the world better, fighting for justice, and being mindful of one’s potential impact on others, all of which are largely incompatible with knowingly participating or tolerating the wrongful practice of factory farming.

The meaning of animal labor (draft forthcoming)

Jocelyne Porcher sets out to “reinvent” our relationship to animals in order to better “live with” them. She argues that maintaining meaningful relationships with animals, which is itself valuable, entails meaningful work with domesticated species. Crucially, she assumes that the working relationship is non-substitutable, and therefore that animal liberation is misguided. I start by providing a critical examination of her thesis that farm animals can be properly seen as workers, in a sense that precludes the sort of unjust exploitation that she attributes to factory farming—in a purported but deceptive contrast between (industrial) “animal productions” and (traditional) “husbandry” practices. I also emphasize Porcher’s controversial restriction of the range of alternatives, her implicit reliance on a version of the “replaceability argument”, and her assumption that premature killing is both entailed by the only possible form of work and of little moral significance. Contrary to Porcher, the article then considers relationships between humans and domesticated species which do not entail killing or even work for food production purposes. Drawing on an account of meaning in life developed in Purves and Delon (2018), the article envisions alternative interspecies relationships that could be meaningful for both humans and nonhumans, which may include forms of work, but which preclude the forms of exploitation that Porcher’s view entails.

Also in preparation:

Wittgenstein on animal minds and the problem of death
Animals sneaking into Bentham's
Wild animal suffering is psychologically intractable
Parfit, Scanlon, Nietzsche, et le problème de la souffrance animale