Ethics are very often framed around humans. Utilitarianism focuses on human happiness. Kant talks about never using humans as tools, which he states is an equivalent formulation of his categorical imperative. These two alone probably make up the two most famous ethical theories.

Why is this so? Why is the notion of humans so central to the notion of ethics? Surely ethics has an independent existence of humanity? If I was the only human in this world with only myself, my thoughts, my actions, animals, and nature, then surely, in such a world, it would still be possible for me act morally.

It becomes even less intuitive when one considers that while humans can be a source of good, they can also be a source of evil. So why define morality based on how it affects humans, when humans themselves can be a force of immorality?

To sum it up, my question is, why are moral actions so often defined around humans, when morality (intuitively) exists independent of humans and when humans (sometimes) are immoral actors themselves?

  • 3
    Because by definition ethics studies "principles that govern a person's behavior or the conducting of an activity". Until recently only humans were considered to have the capacity to follow any such principles (now, some animals are also admitted to some degree). The idea that morality exists independently of humans is called moral realism and it is a minority opinion today. It is unclear why a human who was brought up in total isolation from others would have any idea of morality.
    – Conifold
    Nov 16, 2017 at 20:57
  • I take consciousness to be required for morality. One may argue, as Seneca did, that it is foolish complain about animal behaviour because the animal acts solely on instinct and it is thus unavoidable. One can, however, develop an ethical position in relation to non-conscious beings, as with animal ethics. This is interesting because people justify human behaviour towards animals, sometimes consider the whole spectrum of beings and their place in nature, without taking into account that man should be outside of this scope because of our possibility to formulate ethical thoughts.
    – Gabriel
    Nov 16, 2017 at 21:08
  • "when morality (intuitively) exists independent of humans" It is NOT intuitive at all.
    – Gabriel
    Nov 16, 2017 at 21:09
  • I would differentiate between morality (issues of the heart) with ethics (issues of reasonable behavior). Take care not to conflate them because they would have different answers. It is unethical for a politican to hide spending for his own constituency, while it is immoral for him to kill those who disagree.
    – Marxos
    Nov 16, 2017 at 23:35

2 Answers 2


Actually, it isn't most of the times. But in practice, we tend to apply it only on humans.

The theory: it's not only humans

Kant specifies that any rational agent is an end in itself, not only humans. So if angels, robots, aliens or non-human animals can be shown (or suspected, depending on your prudence) to be rational agents, they all have to be treated as ends in themselves according to Kant.

And it is in utilitarianism that the reflection on specism is born, because philosophers like Peter Singer don't restrict their ethics to the minimization of human suffering but extend it to any living being that exhibit the ability to suffer.

The practice: we relate to humans and have moral intertia

The problem is twowfold.

First, we tend to relate to beings we know best and to care to the ones we have created strong relationships with. It is actually the basis of care ethics. So whatever our supposed moral theory, we tend to take great care in applying it and adapting it to those we care about, but we easily dismiss others (e.g. of course we have to fight for voting rights, but that doesn't apply to women and black people, or of course we have to fight against slavery, but we can turn a blind eye if it's applied to people in China and we get iPhones in exchange…)

Second, as shown by researchers like Jonathan Haidt, an experimental moral psychologist, we don't construct a moral theory first and apply it later, we make moral choices first and then rationalize them later, most of the times. And it takes a lot of energy to make us reevaluate our views.

The result is that we created moral theories that don't necessarily exclude non-humans, but we naturally excluded them from their application and now that we realize the problem, e.g. with apes that can talk and create art, with balk at being consistent with our various moral theories.


There seems to be a confusion in the way you're phrasing the question. It is true for all moral systems that their imperative is imposed (almost) entirely upon humans. However, contrary to what you seem to be asserting, it's not true of all moral systems that the subject of their obligations is entirely humans. (In fact, it's not even true often.) In your hypothetical scenario where you're the only human alive, there are plenty of moral systems that would still apply to you, because the subject of their obligation is not necessarily humans. However, they would only apply to you because humans are still the object of those moral codes.

Examples of moral systems that don't always impose obligations towards humans:

-Western religions consider actions that are an affront to God to be immoral. This includes cursing in his name, according to the Jews, or desecrating a holy book, according to Muslims.

-Utilitarians, such as Peter Singer, according to his book "Practical Ethics", believe that we have moral obligations towards animals that can be considered self aware and aware of their potential future. As do many vegans.

So if your question is why are humans the subject of moral obligations for all moral systems, the premise is wrong.

You can still ask why humans are the object of (almost) all moral obligations for all moral systems. As it stands, we never had a situation in which we ought to apply moral obligations to non-humans because we cannot practically impose a system of justice towards such. We can pragmatically account for the way non-humans behave, such as wearing protective gear against bears. However it is practically useless to come up with a system of ethical codes for bears to follow, which is based on concepts of deterrence or retribution.

I did say "almost" all, because even then it's not true that all moral systems have only humans as the object of their code. You can consider a system in which the behavior of a pet is rewarded or punished with the intent of a Pavlovian response system to be a very rudimentary form of a moral code. As well, a new burgeoning field in philosophy is surfacing called machine ethics, which is primarily concerned about the ethics of AI. If we anticipate a society in which many of the rational actors will be AI, there is obviously a need for an ethical system to be imposed upon them.

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