21 March 2004

Animal Rights

My Australian friend Dr John J. Ray over at Dissecting Leftism mentioned me in a post about animal rights. See here. He says he can't see any basis for rights other than contract; and since nonhuman animals can't contract, they can't (and hence don't) have rights. But this can't be the correct account of rights, for many humans can't contract. Some (e.g., infants and the severely retarded) have never had the capacity to contract. Others (e.g., the comatose and the senile) have had the capacity but lost it. I don't want to push this line of thought, though, because John might bite the bullet and say that these humans lack rights.

I see no conceptual barrier to ascribing rights to nonhuman animals. In other words, it's no contradiction to say (for example) that Sophie and Shelbie, my canine companions, have rights. So the question is whether they have rights (and, if so, which). That, of course, depends on what one takes rights to be. If rights are valid claims, as Joel Feinberg says, then animals have rights, for they have valid claims. We should also ask whether we're talking about moral rights or legal rights. Animals clearly have many legal rights. John must know that. (Actually, he does seem to concede this in his post.) In my opinion, animals should have more legal rights than they do, and one day, I am confident, they will—especially if we keep working at it in their behalf. Animals have more legal rights in Sweden than they do in the United States, which is why you see so many animals swimming toward Sweden. Just kidding about the swimming part.

Whether animals have moral rights depends on one's moral theory. According to my moral theory, deontological egoism, they do. According to Tom Regan's moral theory, they do. According to utilitarianism, they don't. But then, not even humans have rights according to utilitarianism, except in a manner of speaking, and in that manner of speaking, so do animals. (Read your Bentham.) Whether contractarianism (social-contract theory) leaves animals out in the cold remains a matter of dispute. Some say yes; some say no. In my view, any moral theory that precludes animal rights is to that extent unacceptable.

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