Animal Rights

Read this article for an introduction to the topic of animal rights. At the end of the short introduction, there is a series of important questions; attempt to answer these using your own views about animal rights. Then, read the "Notes" section, which outlines some of the major opinions surrounding this issue. At the end of this section, there are three questions. Write a short answer to these questions based on your reading thus far and your personal views.

The basic issue here is whether animals have moral rights? Many will claim that at least some animals do have such rights. But if you look at the way we behave towards non-human animals, it seems clear that if they do have rights, they either don't amount to much, or we just ignore them. We kill, eat, hunt, experiment on, 'enslave', etc. a wide range of animals. Also, humans have destroyed large parts of the natural environment depriving animals of a place in which to live. The question remains, though: does any of this matter morally?

Utilitarians argue that pleasure and pain are the relevant things to consider in making moral evaluations. It follows, then, that anything that can feel pleasure or suffer pain ought to count, morally. Jeremy Bentham, for one, thought that sentient animals ought to feature in utilitarian calculations. Peter Singer is a contemporary philosopher who thinks that it is "speciesist" to exclude sentient animals from moral evaluations.

Kant did not think animals had rights. We may have a duty not to hurt some particular animal, a dog, for instance, but only because this might either wrong the dog owner in some way, or reflect in us an immoral tendency that might be transposed to humans. Tom Regan, though, has argued along Kantian lines that at least some animals have intrinsic value, and because of this have moral worth. His main point is that it is morally wrong to treat anything with intrinsic value as a means to some other's end. We do this when we farm, test on, commercially hunt, etc. animals. This treats animals as a resource to be exploited.

What is needed, it seems, in order to settle this issue, is some way of determining if animals have morally significant interests -- i.e., interests that if denied would matter from a moral point of view. The first question is: Do animals have a good or well-being that can be harmed or benefited? It seems so, but then so does a lawnmower (i.e., it is not 'good' for the lawnmower to be run without oil). The second question is: Do animals have wants or desires that can be satisfied or frustrated? Lawnmowers obviously do not have desires, but do animals? Many would say "Yes", but it's not easy to show this to be true. Some argue that to have desires that can be satisfied or frustrated you have to have beliefs about the future, i.e., your future satisfaction or frustration. It is not at all clear that animals have such beliefs.

Important Questions:

  • What are the criteria for moral standing?
  • Do non-human animals have moral standing?
  • If so, do non-human animals have the same moral worth as human beings?
  • Even if animals have no moral standing, is there any moral reason to restrict our behavior towards them?
  • Are we morally obliged to be vegetarians?
  • Is animal experimentation immoral?

Important distinction:

  • moral agents (those capable of moral reflection and decision) and moral patients (those owed certain duties).
  • intrinsic (or inherent) value vs. extrinsic (instrumental) value.



Rational Beings Alone have Moral Worth
Immanuel Kant

Kant argued that our only duties to animals are indirect duties to humans.

Animals are not self-conscious or rational, so have no independent moral standing. They exist merely as means to our ends. However, this does not mean that we can treat animals in any way we choose. Because our behavior towards animals is analogous to our behavior towards other humans, we must treat them with due respect.

If a person mistreats animals, it is likely that this type of behaviour will lead to the person mistreating humans.

We might put this in terms of the distinction between a duty to something and a duty regarding something. That is, we have no duties to animals, but we have duties regarding (our behavior towards) animals.


A Utilitarian Defence of Animal Liberation
Peter Singer

Singer argues that animals have morally relevant interests in virtue of their capacity to suffer. [He employs basic utilitarian considerations.]

First, Singer gets us to consider the arguments which were used to support Women's Rights/Liberation -- i.e., based on the relevant equality of men and women. He then asks: Can this same move be applied to animals? The answer: Clearly not in exactly the same way, for animals are different from humans in crucial ways. However, this does not mean that there should not be equal consideration in some respects.

We are to ask ourselves the following question: Why is it wrong to discriminate on grounds of race or sex? Presumably, we answer that it is because the differences -- e.g., gender or skin color -- are not morally relevant. Probably the most common reason given for unjustified discrimination being wrong is that it involves unequal treatment where the unequal treatment is not warranted. That is, it breaches the principle "Treat equals equally". Utilitarians would add that treating equals unequally leads to more harm than good overall in society. Also, most think that sound moral principles must be universalizable -- the principle "Treat equals unequally" is likely not universalizable. Singer asks, if these ideas about unjustified discrimination are right, how can it be legitimate to discriminate on grounds of species?

Now consider the utilitarian principles: (i) "Each to count for one, and none for more than one". That is, everyone's interests are to be weighed equally. And (ii) That one counts if one has interests in not suffering -- "The question is not, Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer"? (This quotation is from Bentham.)

So, to exclude sentient non-human animals from our moral evaluations/calculations is "Speciesism".

Singer says: " If a being suffers there can be no moral justification for refusing to take that suffering into consideration".

Of course, there are differences in capacities to suffer. We can suffer in more ways than, say, a cow. But it does not follow that the cow's suffering can be ignored. What may follow, though, all other things being equal, is that in a particular instance, overall the human's interests might win over the cow's.

What about killing? That is, even if animal suffering must be taken into account, is there anything morally wrong with painless killing?

This looks to be something of a problem for Singer. His answer is that any view which denies any kind of right to life for sentient animals is also speciesist -- though non-human animals may not have the same right to life as (appropriate) humans.

The final conclusion: Non-human animals have moral standing, even if it is not the same as humans.


A Radical Egalitarian Case for Animal Rights

Tom Regan

Regan presents a rather radical animal rights view. He argues for:

  • The total abolition of the use of animals in science.

  • The total dissolution of commercial animal agriculture.

  • The total elimination of commercial and sport hunting and trapping.

However, Regan rejects both the 'indirect duties' view (Kant) and the utilitarian view based on suffering (Singer).

Regan claims that what is wrong with the way we treat animals is the system that allows us to use animals as means to our ends -- that is, as resources to use as we see fit. [Notice that this is a Kantian style maneuver.]

Regan considers the merits of certain moral theories in the context of animal rights:

(1) Contractarianism -- i.e., social contract idea.

This is found wanting because it fails to guarantee justice -- i.e., if not everyone is a 'signatory' to the contract.

[Note: I suspect that Contractarians would find this a rather inaccurate account of the theory, and a weak criticism. It is also question begging because the contract is supposed to set the principles of justice, so it's not appropriate to judge the theory by some independent notion of justice.]

(2) The Cruelty-Kindness view -- that we have duties not to be cruel and to be kind to animals.

This fails because cruelty and kindness fail to give proper guides to moral behaviour.

(3) Utilitarianism -- as Singer argues above.

This is rejected because it has no place for the inherent worth of individuals. Rather, it focuses on, in a sense, disembodied interests (in particular, receiving pleasure and avoiding pain). Also, Regan presents standard counterexamples.

[Note again: this is a simplistic evaluation of utilitarianism. It also looks question begging because it establishes supposed counterexamples, with their moral evaluation, on grounds independent of utilitarian calculations.]

Regan's answer is to suggest a moral theory based on the idea of inherent value -- i.e., that individuals of moral worth have a value independent of their capacities or interests. This establishes a Rights-Based moral theory -- i.e., a being has rights if it has inherent value.

What things have inherent value (of the right kind)? Regan says that anything that is an "experiencing subject of a life" has inherent value. Moreover, all who have inherent value have it equally.

So, given that sentient animals are 'experiencing subjects of a life' (by definition), they have inherent value, and so have rights.


A Critique of Regan's Animal Rights Theory

Mary Anne Warren

Warren argues against Regan's Animal Rights view, rejecting what she calls "the strong animal rights position". However, she supports a "weak animal rights view".

In short, Regan's view is that certain animals are experiencing subjects of a life -- i.e., they have capacities for emotion, memory, belief, desire, intentional action, self-awareness, as well as conceptual abilities and a sense of the future. It follows from this that they are subjects of a life which can go better or worse for them, and so they have inherent value -- a value which if possessed is possessed equally. The Principle of Respect requires that anything that is an experiencing subject of a life must (morally) be treated with equal respect -- e.g., must not be harmed.

First Problem:

The notion of Inherent Value is too obscure to do the job Regan requires of it. It is presented as some mysterious non-natural property -- one that is never properly explained. Why think that things which are experiencing subjects of a life have inherent value? Or, have it equally?

Also, there is no clear connection between value and moral rights. Something might have inherent value yet have no moral standing.

Second Problem:

It is not clear that a sharp line can be drawn between those animals which have inherent value, and those that don't. Any line drawing looks arbitrary. However, Regan needs a clear line because of his claim that inherent value does not come in degrees. This is problematic for the further reason that Regan's criteria for being a subject of a life look like they do come in degrees -- i.e., degrees of sophistication of the relevant capacity.

The conclusion drawn from noting these two problems is that Regan's strong animal rights view looks untenable. Warren proposes, then, a weak animal rights view.

Weak Animal rights:

The crucial question is: What reason is there for thinking that animal rights are weaker than human rights?

Warren answers that what divides human animals from non-human animals is the capacity for rational thought, which provides for reasoned co-operation and non-violent conflict resolution. Also, our capacity for rational thought makes us more dangerous, which leads to the need to have clear controls over our behavior. So, being able to change our behavior based upon reasoned thought/argument is what separates us from other animals.

For human morality to be workable it must be grounded upon the idea that humans are of equal moral worth.

We might wonder, though, how there can be this equality if rationality is the defining feature -- i.e., surely humans possess that in degrees. Warren's answer is that even the less rational humans are sufficiently rational to qualify. This is not obvious, at least in some cases. And, what is sufficient? Warren's further answer is that there are independent reasons for regarding non-rational humans as having morally worth.

Warren argues that we should maintain a weak animal rights view because anti-cruelty principles are not sufficient to provide adequate protection and do not recognize the wrong of harming and killing (painlessly) animals.

[We might ask, though, how it is judged that anti-cruelty protection is inadequate.]

The conclusion:

(1) Animals which pursue certain satisfactions have the right to a life in which they pursue those satisfactions.
(2) Sentient animals have the right to live without intentionally inflicted suffering.
(3) Sentient animals have the right not to be killed without good reason.


Animal Liberation: A Triangular Affair

J. Baird Callicott

Callicott begins by noting that the history of ethics shows that traditionally, non-human entities have not been accorded moral standing ("ethical humanism"). Further, a relatively recent move away from this has been the animal rights or animal liberation movement ("humane moralism"). However, Callicott is critical of this as the path down which environmental ethics should go.

Callicott proposes that Aldo Leopold's "Land Ethic" is the proper model for future environmental ethics. There are two key implications here: (1) that a purely human-centered ethic is inadequate (that is, inadequately accounts for the way we ought to behave towards the environment); and (2) that an animal-centered ethic is also inadequate.

Callicott notes that there are two ways in which extensionism might occur in environmental ethics. The first is the way proposed or implied by animal rights/liberation -- namely that the criteria for moral standing be modified such that to what species some animal (or thing) belongs is irrelevant. This allows for the extension of the boundaries of the moral community out beyond merely humans. The second way is again to propose a change in the criteria of moral standing, but not by permitting individual rights to be ascribed to non-human individuals. Rather, moral standing is to be accorded to the 'biotic community' as a whole. Environmental ethics would then have an ecological basis.

The problem with the first way is that it is atomistic. Firstly, it looks implausible to think that an environmental ethic could be created with the outcome that individual rocks, tree, pieces of land, etc., as well as individual animals, had rights. Second, any kind of atomistic view is going to create inconsistent prescriptions. It will not be possible to protect all individual things.

The Land Ethic offers a different model. One thing to note is that Leopold presumably was not being simply inconsistent when on the one hand he advocated the Land Ethic, but on the other hunted and ate animals. This displays, practically, the fundamental difference between an extended atomistic view and the holistic land ethic. In an important way, individuals are not of direct moral concern. Rather, primary moral concern is directed at the biotic community as a whole. Hunting and eating animals is not inconsistent with the Land Ethic.

We have seen the typical criteria for moral standing suggested by both ethical humanism and humane moralism -- rationality, self-consciousness, sentience, etc. The Land Ethic, as defended by Callicott, has a different approach. As Callicott says, the summum bonum (fundamental good, or first principle) of an adequate environmental ethic will be"

"the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community"

Clearly, this places ecology at the center of environmental ethics. But it does look compelling to link an environmental ethic with ecological principles/laws. [There is an issue here, re. the fact/value lacuna which we may address in class.] It does seem reasonable to think that our actions concerning the environment ought to be constrained taking into consideration how the actions influence the whole rather than clashes between individuals. We might also be able to make plausible the idea that the notion of 'society' could legitimately be extended to include the whole 'biotic community'.

[More is needed to fully outline an environmental ethic based on the Land Ethic. More later.]

Some questions

  • What are the consequences of a Land Ethic type extension?
  • Can animal rights and the Land Ethic be reconciled?
  • How do we determine the (moral good), non-anthropocentrically?

Source: Michael Fleming
Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 License.

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Last modified: Monday, January 11, 2021, 6:21 PM