This project consists of four chapters and a conclusion. The first chapter introduces the concept of speciesism through a literary analysis of Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal. I argue that the logic of Swift’s satire operates effectively only because of the speciesism underpinning it.

The second chapter offers a brief history of philosophical thinking about nonhuman animals, tracing some of the ways animals have been discussed in the philosophical discourse since Descartes. Historically, debates about animal ethics have revolved around discussions of cognitive capacities, and the degree to which the interests of a moral subject ought to be considered has been defined in terms of that subject’s possession of capacities like the ability to reason, to speak, and to suffer. This section provides a snapshot of the philosophical discourse for the purposes of critiquing it later.

The third chapter is divided into two major subsections: one analyzing Gulliver’s Travels and the other Moby-Dick. Throughout these subsections, I pay special attention to the historical contexts in which these authors wrote, noting how concerns present in those contexts can and have informed how these authors portray nonhuman animals in their work. These analyses highlight how culturally ingrained biases shape how the identities of nonhuman animals are socially coded.

The fourth chapter makes up the bulk of the philosophical argument of this project. I argue against an approach to animal ethics based on cognitive capacities, taking utilitarianism as the most philosophically viable version of such an approach. I turn to a kind of virtue ethics as an alternative approach that decenters the role capacities play in ethical practice, emphasizing the role of fellow-feeling.

The project concludes with some remarks on what progress animal ethics ought to consist in. It offers Herman Melville as a moral exemplar of sorts who embodies an approach to nonhuman animals based on virtuous interpretation. Finally, I conclude by arguing that progress in animal ethics ought to consist in an evaluation and scrutinization of the virtues we abide by when discussing nonhuman moral subjects in both literary and philosophical discourses.


Curry, Devin

Second Advisor

Barnard, John


Philosophy; English


English Language and Literature | Philosophy

Publication Date


Degree Granted

Bachelor of Arts

Document Type

Senior Independent Study Thesis



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