“Animal Rights”?

Animal rights is the belief that human treatment of animals should be based first and foremost on respect for their rights, not on using them for our purposes. Since that is so far from reality, it is also the belief that human treatment of animals needs to change radically. Its most direct consequence is the moral case for a vegan diet.

Since this remains very much a fringe position, a brief run over some common arguments may be useful.

Why do animals have rights?

Because they are conscious; because they are able to suffer and to be happy, to perceive and to desire, to have ‘a life’. This applies, as far as we know, to the majority of vertebrates – as well as, perhaps, some invertebrates (octopuses and squid are the most strikingly intelligent invertebrates). My position is focused on those animals. I am not interested in defending rights for sea anenomes or animals without brains, who are closer to plants.

Animals, of course, do not have something called “reason”, nor language, nor science or religion or complex societies and thought. But it is simply a self-serving fantasy to imagine that this is the important thing to look for in a being with rights.

Young children do not have these abilities – some adults, with various sorts of mental disabilities, do not have them either. They do not thereby become beings without rights. But the only relevant difference between a very young child and the average mongoose is membership of the species Homo sapiens*. Membership of a species, in abstraction from any of the normal traits and abilities of that species, is an arbitrary basis to apportion rights. Human corpses, after all, are for a while full of human DNA.

*Or perhaps the genus Homo? Would a meat-eater be happy to eat a steak made from Homo habilis, or some other ‘cave-man’?

So do you believe animals have equal value to humans?

I do not believe this is the right question to ask.

Animals have the same basic single right as humans: that when doing things to them we consider the effects on them first, and the effects on others only secondarily. My ‘moral value’ is not that my pain is more important than, less important than, or as important as, other people’s pain – it is that when you do things to my body, things that directly affect me,  you prioritise my pain. This is how we treat persons.

The problem in how we treat animals is not that we don’t ‘give their interests sufficient weight’. The problem is that we treat them as property, not persons. We prioritise our desires over theirs completely, even when we are physically ripping them open.

The real value of equality is not in my number being ‘1’ and yours also be ‘1’ (for then how can we be so certain that no-one is ever 0.9 or 1.1?). The value of equality is equal relationships – relationships where neither partner can command or coerce the other, where both partners must treat each other with respect in order to secure each other’s co-operation.

That equality is mainly to do with how society works – and animals do not, and to a great extent cannot, be part of human society. So the question of their ‘equality’ is beside the point. The point is simply that they are the type of thing that deserves respect.

What about if animals are caged and killed in better, less cruel conditions?

I do not want us to use animals for our own purposes more humanely. I do not want us to give their interests “greater weight” while we are overriding those interests. I want us to treat them as persons, not as resources. I want us to stop killing, caging, and creating animals as if they were things. As long as this basic set-up remains, the issue of how cruelly animals are treated is secondary.

But animals kill other animals!

If this is meant to cast moral judgement on the animals, it is absurd. Animals are not rational, self-aware creatures to the degree that adult humans are – they are not fit subjects for moral appraisal. More to the point, it is very unlikely that the chickens and cows killed for food by humans ever killed anything. Animals are not a single homogenous mass, nor a collection of ‘species’. They are individuals.

If, on the other hand, the point is just that animals die all the time and we can do nothing about it, then that is true. Any attempt, at the current time, to end “the barbarity of the food chain”, would simply bring about a lifeless desert. We are simply unable to ‘save’ all animals from being eaten.

But the fact that people are dying and we cannot stop it makes no difference to the rightness or wrongness of murder. As morally responsible individuals, we must do what is right, whatever is happening elsewhere. As a morally responsible species, we must do what is right, whatever happens in ‘the wild’.

Maybe in the far future things will be different. In the here and now, all we know is that meat is murder.

Some posts of mine about animal rights:

How significant is the fact that most animals can form cross-species relationships?

It makes no sense to say that animal experiments are ‘necessary’

Animals, like oppressed humans, are often the targets of, strictly speaking, ‘hate speech’

What is the ideological ancestry of ‘animal rights’?

31 Responses to ““Animal Rights”?”

  1. freethinker Says:

    Have you seen this article?
    http://www.animallaw.info/articles/arus17hstwlj1.htm

    Read it a long time ago. It draws on works of Michel Foucault and Donna Haraway to talk about how the current attitude toward ‘lower’ species was shaped in the context of Enlightenment.

  2. Anarcho-pragmatiste Says:

    I agree with most of this post.

    But I think hunting reasonably is a good thing. But the statist-capitalist intensive agricultural exploitation of animals has to be stopped.

  3. Anarcho-pragmatiste Says:

    hunting or fishing reasonably

  4. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    “I agree with most of this post.

    But I think hunting reasonably is a good thing.”

    I don’t really understand. If you mean hunting in a situation of absolute necessity, then maybe, in the same way that cannibalism in a situation of absolute necessity may become the best course of action.

    But so little hunting is like this, that I can’t imagine that’s what you mean by ‘reasonably’ – so it still seems to involve a willingness to kill something that desperately wants to avoid that.

  5. Anarcho-pragmatiste Says:

    Traditional and reasonable hunting (not poaching) is an ecological activity. A lack of hunting could result in surpopulation, endemic diseases of animals and sometimes, extinction of other species in the alimnetation chain. A contrario, Statist-capitalist agricultural exploitation of animals is insane, anti-ecological and economically bad.

    For example, look at the case of cod fishing and seal hunting in Canada. Cod population is very low because of excessive state-capitalist industrial cod fishing but even if Canada limits vigourously cod fishing now, Brigitte Bardot, Paul McCartney and other statist-animal-fascist mother-fuckers like the European Union manage succefully to create a lack of seal hunting (I don’t talk about baby seals here)

    The result: seals eat a lot of cod and their population continue to decrease.

  6. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    I think the idea that humans should take it upon themselves to kill the right numbers of animals in order to ensure ecological balance only makes sense if we also accept that some humans should take it upon themselves to kill the right number of humans in order to ensure ecological balance.

    That is, as you say, humans are taking a lot of cod, not just seals, so we should cull humans. More broadly, humans are the only species that poses a threat to the biosphere as a whole, so we should cull them.

    I don’t accept that logic for humans, so I don’t accept it (nor the assumption that human interference won’t get it spectacularly wrong, again) for other sentient beings.

  7. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    I also don’t accept that the word ‘fascist’ means ‘works through the state’.

  8. Anarcho-pragmatiste Says:

    Replace “fascist” by “statist” if you find it too harsh.

    What would you doing about the aboriginal traditional hunting?

    “I think the idea that humans should take it upon themselves to kill the right numbers of animals in order to ensure ecological balance only makes sense if we also accept that some humans should take it upon themselves to kill the right number of humans in order to ensure ecological balance.”

    I think the main problem is still the human violence supported by the State. If you eradicate this form of violence, the humain violence towards animals will decrease substantially. But, the amimalist-statist ideology is insane and anti-ecological.

    “That is, as you say, humans are taking a lot of cod, not just seals, so we should cull humans. More broadly, humans are the only species that poses a threat to the biosphere as a whole, so we should cull them.”

    Not killing humans but ceasing to breed is a good idea and a must for the interests of anarchists.

    http://francoistremblay.wordpress.com/2008/12/22/why-parenting-is-invalid/

  9. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    “What would you doing about the aboriginal traditional hunting?”

    Same thing I’d do about societies which preserve their culture through mutilating children – oppose it, and try to encourage cultural change from within. That seems like the most sensible approach.

    “I think the main problem is still the human violence supported by the State.”
    I guess I disagree – there can be great violence outside state structures.

    “Not killing humans but ceasing to breed is a good idea”
    I am quite supportive of non-breeding, and sympathetic to, though in disagreement with, voluntary human extinctionism, and have been called crazy for it. But as an analogy it’s only an argument in favour of regulating animal reproduction – which I think is an acceptable technique, though I remain sceptical in general about our ability to improve ecosystems.

  10. Anarcho-pragmatiste Says:

    “Same thing I’d do about societies which preserve their culture through mutilating children – oppose it, and try to encourage cultural change from within. That seems like the most sensible approach.”

    In substance, I agree here. But in form, the aboriginal hunting is necessary to human live for these people, espacially in Northern Europe and Northern North America, when the winter is so rigourous.

    “there can be great violence outside state structures.”

    But the State is the main generator of violence and is the main cause of the violence outside State structures.

    It’s not in the interest of the Anarchists to breed.

  11. Francois Tremblay Says:

    Surely we can all agree that we judge child mutilation and hunting very differently, no? At least personally, I see child mutilation as a crime (in the proper Anarchist sense), while it is not clear to me at all that hunting is a crime.

    If we’re talking about “violence” specifically, then yes, I would agree that the State is the main cause. In fact, States have killed many, many times more people (either through war or democide) than private crime ever has.

    As for the breeding issue, well, I guess you guys already know that I am a human extinctionist, so my position is gonna be pretty obvious.

  12. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    “aboriginal hunting is necessary”
    The aborigines you speak of can survive without hunting, it will just require a cultural adjustment, like accepting food from non-aboriginal societies at certain times.

    “we judge child mutilation and hunting very differently, no?”
    Well, clearly you do. I see many differences but they’re both intimate violations of sentient beings, which is the analogy I was trying to draw.

  13. Francois Tremblay Says:

    Do *you* see child mutilation and hunting as different from a moral standpoint?

    “The aborigines you speak of can survive without hunting, it will just require a cultural adjustment”

    Yea, that really worked out for the inuit. Now they live like trailer trash.

  14. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    “Do *you* see child mutilation and hunting as different from a moral standpoint?”
    Like I said, there are differences. Cutting off a foreskin is different from cutting off a clitoris is different from killing is different from imprisoning. A fish is different from a deer is different from a 4-year-old human is different from a 40-year-old human. Whether a given difference is relevant from a moral standpoint will depend on what question you’re asking.

    “Yea, that really worked out for the inuit.”
    I don’t accept that ‘other’ cultures should be allowed to continue with oppressive practices because of what’s happened in the past.

    Analogously, I don’t think the disastrous consequences of the Soviet or US invasions of Afghanistan imply that we should give up the idea of sexual equality for Afghan women. We should just be cautious and humble, as in all things.

  15. Francois Tremblay Says:

    I’m merely asking whether there is a difference from the moral standpoint between hurting a baby and hurting a deer. It’s not really a complicated question.

    “I don’t accept that ‘other’ cultures should be allowed to continue with oppressive practices because of what’s happened in the past.”

    There’s nothing “oppressive” about hunting seals, unless you’re willing to argue that seals can be oppressed.

  16. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    “It’s not really a complicated question.”
    Ok, yes there’s a difference. But for the question at hand, namely do people have a right to violate sentient beings because it’s an integral part of their culture, they are relevantly similar. Hence I drew an analogy.

    In a broad sense (of a rarely-defined word), seals can be oppressed.

  17. Francois Tremblay Says:

    I don’t think sentience is a relevant moral factor. What’s important is whether the beings in question can enter in society with me or not. A seal can’t be in society with any humans.

  18. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    Paragraphs 5 and 6, above. Many humans cannot enter society with you, they still have rights.

  19. Francois Tremblay Says:

    No. All humans can be in society with me. You mean all humans are not actually in society with me, which I don’t see as being a problem. The fact that I don’t recognize rights to some people doesn’t mean I have to go around hurting them.

  20. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    Then I don’t know what you mean by ‘be in society with’. If I’m not ‘in society with’ my pet cats, but I can be with a 6 months old baby or someone permanently at the “mental age” of a small child, it seems like you’re just defining something that all humans have but no animals.

  21. Anarcho-pragmatiste Says:

    “Yea, that really worked out for the inuit. Now they live like trailer trash.”

    Alderson, even if I agree in substance with you on the aboriginal issue, this is the result of a state-control change of culture to assimilate Inuits within the North American White culture and this is a outright failure.

    On the hunting issue, I don’t want state’s ban of hunting, but for the rest, your position is not so problematic.

    “I don’t think the disastrous consequences of the Soviet or US invasions of Afghanistan imply that we should give up the idea of sexual equality for Afghan women.”

    I don’t think that the disastrous (although less) consequences of femi-favoritism imply that we should give up the idea of feminism.

  22. Francois Tremblay Says:

    Yea, but you are in society with your pet cats aren’t you. So that disproves your claim.

  23. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    “Yea, but you are in society with your pet cats aren’t you. So that disproves your claim.”

    No, it disproves you. Because you started by saying “the only relevant factor is X, and all humans have X but no seals”. I don’t really have a clear idea what X is, but apparently it has the convenient consequence everyone wants.

    And now it turns out cats have X. But seals don’t.

  24. Francois Tremblay Says:

    Fine then, you try to be in society with a seal. If it works out, I’ll recognize the rights of that seal. Okay?

  25. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    First off, loads of human-seal relationships exist, mainly in water-based amusement parks.

    Secondly, you earlier seemed to distinguish between “can be in society with” and “actually in society with”. So if it’s the former that’s important, all seals have rights because all seals have the potential to form relationships with humans.

    Thirdly, I still have no idea what your criterion X actually is, how ‘in society with’ is defined, and how cats are different from seals.

  26. Francois Tremblay Says:

    Well, I guess I don’t know enough about seals then.

  27. Eamesy Says:

    Excellent article, but I think you meant “Homo Habilis” rather than “Homo Habilens”.

  28. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    So I did!

  29. Q Says:

    ‘they are not fit subjects for moral appraisal’
    You yourself admit the central part of the argument why other animals do not have rights as humans do when explaining why you do not condemn predators.
    Morality does not govern our actions with stones and trees (except as part of destroying an environment). They are not fit subjects for moral appraisal.
    Why draw the line at sentience rather than rational thought?

  30. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    Simple. If we draw the line at moral agency, as you seem to think is obvious, then small children and humans who don’t have rational thought (by whatever standard you select) will be worthless and have no rights. If I know anything at all about ethics, I know that’s not true.

    And if we draw the line anywhere ‘below’ sentience, we become incoherent. In short, a rock cannot have intrinsic rights for it has no intrinsic standard of what counts as harm or benefit to it. Those criteria must be supplied from the being’s own perspective, through the capacity for desire and suffering.


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