31 January 2005

Conservatism and Animal Rights

I’m a conservative. I’m also a proponent of animal rights. I won’t say I’m a proponent of animal rights because I’m a conservative, the way Peter Singer says he’s a vegetarian because he’s a utilitarian, because that would imply a logical connection between them. I don’t think there’s any logical connection between conservatism and animal rights, or indeed between any political morality and animal rights. But they’re not incompatible, either. One can be a conservative and a proponent of animal rights or a conservative and an opponent of animal rights. That there are more of the latter than of the former is an accident.

Let me explain what I mean by “proponent of animal rights.” Animals matter. Morally. They have intrinsic moral significance, just like human beings (but unlike plants). Immanuel Kant famously denied that animals have intrinsic moral significance. If it’s wrong to treat animals in certain ways, he held, it’s not because the animal is wronged but because some human being who takes an interest in the animal is wronged. Utilitarians such as Jeremy Bentham say that it’s not rational agency that confers moral status on a being; it’s the capacity to suffer, and animals have the capacity to suffer.

I’m not a utilitarian, but I’m not a Kantian, either. I’m a nonKantian deontologist who believes that it’s wrong to harm others. Animals can be harmed. Their lives are valuable to them in the same way that your life is valuable to you. Why is it wrong for me to kill you? I suspect you will say that my killing you deprives you of your future, which contains enjoyments, experiences, projects, and activities. Animals such as dogs, cows, pigs, and chickens are capable of enjoyments, experiences, and activities, too, although perhaps not of having projects. If animals can suffer the same sorts of loss that you can, then if that loss makes it wrong to kill you, why doesn’t it make it wrong to kill an animal?

Why should my conservatism be thought to deny any of this? It might be said that conservatism is committed to conserving traditions, and that it’s traditional to treat animals as resources for human use. But no conservative endorses all tradition. Slavery is traditional. No conservative defends slavery. There must be a criterion for distinguishing those traditions that are worth preserving and those that are not. I suggest that the criterion involves harm to others. Slavery harmed slaves. That is why it need not and should not be conserved. But using animals for food and other purposes (entertainment, for example) harms them. That it’s traditional to so use them is therefore irrelevant. Bad traditions should be abolished, not conserved.

I’ve only sketched my argument. The main point of this post is that there is no logical incompatibility between being a conservative and being a proponent of animal rights. If there is, then I’m horribly confused.

No comments: