03 June 2005

Animal Rights

Many people have a visceral response to the idea of animal rights. They say it’s impossible, nonsensical, absurd. But why? To say that an animal has a particular right, such as a right not to be harmed, isn’t to say that it has any other particular right, such as a right to vote, much less that it has all rights. We know that children, for example, have certain rights but not others. Why can’t the same be true of animals?

Another important distinction, often ignored, is that between positive and negative rights. A positive right is a right to do or have something. If there is a right to health care, as liberals claim, it is a positive right. Voting is a positive right. But many rights are negative. I have a right not to be killed, battered, robbed, stolen from, or defamed. Why can’t animals have negative rights? Perhaps animals have only one right: a negative right not to be made to suffer.

Yet another confusion is between absolute and defeasible rights. An absolute right may not be infringed; a defeasible right may be infringed under certain circumstances. Most of our rights are defeasible. There is a right to speak, but not to yell fire in a crowded theater. There is a right to exercise your religion, but not if it requires human sacrifice. Rights are defeasible because there is more than one valuable thing. Even the right to life is defeasible, which is why execution of murderers is not a violation of it.

There are many other important distinctions to be made in the realm of rights. Let me mention just one more: between legal rights and moral rights. Legal rights are conferred by government and would not exist without government. Moral rights exist independently of government. Indeed, they set limits on what government may do. Read Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence to see an example of moral (often called “natural”) rights. There are two sorts of argument one can have about legal rights. The first is whether a particular legal right exists. Lawyers are expert in answering this question. The second is whether a particular legal right should exist. Everyone is competent to answer this question, since it’s a moral question. (There are no moral experts.) Even if animals had no legal rights, it could be true that they should.

When I say that I’m a proponent of animal rights, all I mean is that I believe that animals have moral status. They’re not nothing, morally speaking. There are moral limits to what we can do to them. We can wrong them. They have (valid) claims on us. They’re entitled to be treated a certain way. There’s nothing mysterious about any of these claims. Indeed, we say such things all the time about humans.

By the way, utilitarians don’t believe in rights (even for humans), but this doesn’t prevent them from using the language of rights. Here is Peter Singer:

In misguided attempts to refute the arguments of this book, some philosophers have gone to much trouble developing arguments to show that animals do not have rights. They have claimed that to have rights a being must be autonomous, or must be a member of a community, or must have the ability to respect the rights of others, or must possess a sense of justice. These claims are irrelevant to the case for Animal Liberation. The language of rights is a convenient political shorthand. It is even more valuable in the era of thirty-second TV news clips than it was in [Jeremy] Bentham’s day; but in the argument for a radical change in our attitude to animals, it is in no way necessary. (Peter Singer, Animal Liberation, 2d ed. [New York: The New York Review of Books, 1990], 8 [endnote omitted])
The question is not whether animals can have rights, or even whether they do in fact have rights, but which rights they have. I submit to you that they have one basic right: the right to have their suffering taken into consideration in our deliberations. If that right were respected, it would change the world.

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