PETA – An Organization with Actionable Ethics


There is an age old tradition of counting sheep as a way of easing oneself into a deep sleep. How many sheep do we count before we are asleep? Do we fade in and out of consciousness, missing some sheep while accounting for others? Why is the tradition not counting ants as they march in a line or geese as they fly in their majestic V formation? Would people count ants and geese, or would they only feel comfortable keeping with the tradition of counting sheep? In this case, the same questions asked about a technique for helping one get to sleep can also be applied to the realm of animal ethics, and specifically, ethical extensionism. According to Joseph Desjardins, ethical extensionism is the attempt to “extend ethics and give moral standing to things other than human beings” (Desjardins, 105).  Exploring ethical extensionism means asking the question of who counts. Do humans count? Do sheep, ants, or geese count? People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) would argue that they all count, and we need to extend our ethics equally to them all. But what is the criteria by which we make the decisions of who counts? These are the questions that Peter Singer and Tom Regan explore in their chapters A Utilitarian Defense of Animal Liberation and The Radical Egalitarian Case for Animal Rights, respectively. This paper offers specific case studies of PETA in action over the last 36 years. Afterwards, it reviews Singer’s and Regan’s approaches to ethical extensionism as a way of understanding the ethical stance driving PETA’s radical actions. The story of this controversial organization starts in 1980 with a few fervent animal lovers on a mission.

PETA’s Story – The Founding and Key Historical Events

1980 – The Founding

This part of the paper will tell the story of PETA’s operations over the last 36 years to give greater context to the organization and its ethics. PETA was founded in March 22, 1980 by Ingrid Newkirk and Alex Pacheco. Headquartered in Norfolk, Virginia, PETA is the largest international nonprofit organization dedicated to the equal rights of animals. PETA focuses its energies in four main areas: 1) factory farms 2) clothing trade 3) laboratories 4) entertainment industry. Their mission, according to is this: “People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is dedicated to establishing and protecting the rights of all animals. PETA operates under the simple principle that animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on, or use for entertainment.” PETA works towards achieving their mission through public education, animal rescue, research, legislation, public protests, and more. Before PETA was founded, there was no powerful nonprofit organization dedicated to animal rights. People who felt the need to support animal rights could volunteer at a local animal shelter or donate money to a humane society. However, when Newkirk and Pacheco founded PETA, suddenly there was an organization that promoted a healthy vegan diet and cruelty free shopping; and more than that, PETA publicly protested against cruelty to animals in a formal way that gathered serious attention. After years of unorganized quiet protesting, PETA brought together scientific, corporate, and legislative communities to enact broad, long-term change across several massive industries. To further develop PETA’s case study, the next few paragraphs will highlight key historical events in which PETA was a central player.

1985 – The Case that Launched PETA

In 1985, PETA co-founder Alex Pacheco and Anna Francione published a controversial article that would forever be looked upon as the case that launched PETA. The article is called The Silver Spring Monkeys, and it exposes the Institute for Behavioral Research (IBR) for its severe malpractice in their experiments on monkeys. An article from gives a brief cronicle of the momentous event. “This groundbreaking investigation led to the nation’s first arrest and criminal conviction of an animal experimenter for cruelty to animals, the first confiscation of abused animals from a laboratory, and the first U.S. Supreme Court victory for animals used in experiments. It even led to landmark additions to the Animal Welfare Act—and unrelenting public scrutiny of the abuse that animals endure in experimentation.” The reason that PETA made such a splash in the media with their report was because they exposed brutally raw information and photographs of IBR’s malpractice. The photograph below of a monkey being experimented on provides a glimpse at the gorey details of the experiments. The photograph is included here to show that PETA cut through all of the noise and had no fear when it came to its efforts to fight for animal rights.

At the end of the report, Pacheco and Francione say this:

I believe that it is best to take a strong ethical stand and to be strategically assertive, never forgetting – not even for a minute – our ultimate goal. Realizing that total abolition of some aspects of animal exploitation may never come, we should not simply demand ‘total abolition or nothing at all’, as that often ensures that those suffering today will continue to suffer. Nor should we hold a conservative line, which will also make tomorrow’s suffering assured and accepted. Difficult as it may be, I believe that tactfully and strategically we must combine parts of both approaches: we must fight for today’s reforms while aiming for and advocating abolition.

This quotation provides a direct link to PETA’s mindset in its actions to achieve its mission. They will not achieve equal rights for animals all at once, but by working consistently and steadily, PETA believes they will eventually succeed. Their actions over the next 30 years show that working consistently is exactly what they did.

1999 – PETA’s Grassroots Campaign

In 1999, PETA’s International Grassroots Campaign (IGC) made another big impact that reached the attention of The White House and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). “PETA’s grassroots campaign, Congressional testimony, and scientific documentation drive the White House and the EPA to spare 800,000 animals from chemical toxicity testing in the high production volume chemical-testing program.” By 1999, PETA had established itself as force for change in factory farms, the clothing trade, laboratories, and the entertainment industry. The IGC made, and continues to make, change in each of these areas. This example shows a clear win against factory farms. The next example shows PETA taking a stab at the clothing industry.

2013 – Saving Sheep

When clothing companies want to make an article of clothing out of wool, they have several ways to access that wool. Some wool suppliers engage in a practice called mulesing, which is the practice of removing skin from the backside of sheep to prevent a disease called flystrike. Those sections of wool are removed without painkillers and can be extremely painful for the sheep.

Some wool suppliers do not engage in mulesing because they believe it is unethical. In 2013, exposed mulesing to the world. As a result, “more than 50 national and international clothing retailers, including Abercrombie & Fitch, Liz Claiborne, H&M, Kenneth Cole, Perry Ellis International, and Express, state that they will use wool that comes only from nonmulesed sheep, as the industry begins to phase out the cruel practice.” Without PETA as the whistleblower, the world may never have been made aware of mulesing. This 2013 event was big victory for PETA and the animal rights movement in relation to the clothing industry. PETA continues to expose to the world unethical practices such as mulesing. The next section will dig deeper into the ethical theories related to animal rights as a way of understanding why PETA holds the beliefs that it does.

Understanding Ethical Extensionism


Singer expresses a utilitarian approach to ethical extensionism. His essay pushes for a “mental switch” in the way we think about and treat animals (Singer, 73). The mental switch involves thinking of animal species as equal to the human species but only equal in certain ways. For an animal species to achieve a level of equality they must meet certain moral requirements. For Singer, “the essential point is that the capacity to suffer and the amount of suffering are what determine specific moral requirements” (Desjardins, 111). The animal species must at least have a level of sentience that drives them to have an interest in not suffering (Desjardins, 111). Once a species has been labeled sentient, they have earned a level of moral consideration that changes the way that we treat them. Here, some ethicists start to worry. If we extend moral consideration to humans and animals, are we considered the same? The answer for Singer is no. Desjardins explains that “this does not mean that we are required to make no distinctions between humans and other animals. Humans are different from other animals” (Desjardins, 111). Identifying differences between humans and animals is where Singer sees problems begin to arise, problems driven by a utilitarian, anthropocentric ethic. Three examples of practicing utilitarianism towards animals include eating them, experimenting on them, and using them for entertainment. Eating animals “is a clear instance of the sacrifice of the most important interests of other beings in order to satisfy trivial interests of our own” (Singer, 77). “The same form of discrimination may be observed in…experimenting on other species in order to see if certain substances are safe for human beings” (Singer, 77). Singer’s approach asks the question of how we can take a utilitarian approach to animal species when they exhibit clear forms of sentience.

PETA’s values connect directly with Singer’s theories. Many times, PETA’s efforts are targeted at operations where animals are hurt. The photographs and videos that PETA posts online make it clear that animals are suffering as a result of human actions. For example, the photograph of the monkey being experimented on conveys a state of fear and discomfort. For both PETA and Singer, putting the monkey through this torture does not merit the scientific knowledge that can potentially be gained from doing it. In sum, PETA protests against a utilitarian ethic of animal rights. Causing pain to animals to achieve a positive human result is unjustifiable.


Regan’s word choice in the title of his paper fits the extreme ethic that he proposes. “He calls for not reform but the total abolition of the use of animals in science, the total dissolution of the commercial animal agriculture system, and the total elimination of commercial and sport hunting and trapping” (Regan, 81). The reason Regan calls for radical reform is because he believes in the concept of equal intrinsic value for humans and animals. Based on equal intrinsic value, he “has developed a rights-based defense of animals” that calls for respectful treatment of animals by identifying animals considered ‘subjects-of-a-life’ (Desjardins, 112). “To be a subject-of-a-life is to…have beliefs and desires; perception, memory and a sense of future” (Desjardins, 114). A key point here is that “Regan is unwilling to attribute rights to species,” he only extends rights to individual animals. In sum, Regan extends rights, equal to those granted to humans, to individual animals that have earned a label of inherent value by proving that they are a subject-of-a-life.

PETA and Regan have ethical beliefs in common, but also differ on crucial parts. Based on PETA’s consistent protection of animal lives, it is clear that they, like Regan, believe that animal lives have intrinsic value. Although the definition of subject-of-a-life is not concrete, PETA cast a wide net in terms of the kinds of animals they protect. PETA disagrees with Regan on one large aspect. Regan does not extend his ethics to species of animals at large, only individual animals. While this is a very unrealistic and tedious approach to ethical extensionism, it is what he believes. PETA disagrees because they absolutely extend ethics to species of animals. In fact, they extend their ethics to most animal species. Although they disagree in this area, the key is that both PETA and Regan assign intrinsic value to animals.


The flaws that run through the theories of ethical extensionism from Singer and Regan do not take away from their good intentions. PETA is in a similar position. Their controversial tactics make PETA questionable in the eyes of society, but what other organization is dedicated to moving the needle on animal rights? They are the only one. Whether employing a utilitarian approach or a more deontological approach, PETA and both thinkers believe our treatment of animals needs significant, if not radical, adjustment. One might point out that human bias pays a significant role in deciding who counts in our ethical extensionism. In reality, attempting to avoid human bias presents a conundrum. This is the case because we cannot avoid human bias when humans are apparently the only organisms capable of performing ethics in the first place. Thus, philosophers, ethicists, and everyday people thinking about these issues find themselves at a standstill. We will continue to ask: Who counts? Humans? Sheep? Ants? Geese? Based on what we know about human nature, we will continue going back to the drawing board until we are satisfied. In the meantime, it may be best to simply count our familiar sheep and dream.


Works Cited





DesJardins, J. R. “Environmental ethics: an introduction to environmental philosophy. Wadsworth.” Inc. Belmont, California (1993).

Pacheco, Alex, and Anna Francione. “The Silver Spring Monkeys.” (1986).WestShepherdPaper2 (1)

Regan, Tom. “The radical egalitarian case for animal rights.” Food Ethics(2011).

Singer, Peter. “A utilitarian defense of animal liberation.” Environmental ethics: Readings in theory and application (1998): 39-46.



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