The Argument from Animal Rights
A stronger argument is made by people who maintain that animals have rights. In particular, it has been argued that animals have a right to life. So, even if animals are killed painlessly and raised for food in humane ways, it is wrong to kill them. The question is, of course, whether animals do have a right to life.
The answer to this question turns on what is meant by having a right. The subject is a large and controversial one. On some very sophisticated analyses of rights it is at least debatable whether all animals have the right to live. For example, on Tooley’s analysis, having a right to life is the same as being a person. A necessary condition for being a person is having the capacity for desiring self-continuation, and for this it is necessary to have a concept of the self.
Now, although it is plausible that adult animals of some very intelligent species, e.g., dolphins and chimpanzees, have such a concept, it is not clear that adult animals of other species do and it is very likely that young infants of any species do not. It is also probable that very subnormal adult human beings do not. On this analysis of right, then, many animals and some human beings may well not have the right to life although most human beings and some animals do have such a right.
This would not necessarily mean that animals have no rights. Presumably most animals—even infants—would have the right not to suffer. As Tooley puts it, although “something that is incapable of possessing the concept of a self cannot desire that a self not suffer, it can desire that a given sensation not exist. The state desired—the absence of a particular sensation—can be described in purely phenomenalistic language and hence without the concept of a continuing self.” Given this view of rights, then, many animals probably have no right to life, but all of them have a right not to have pain inflicted on them. Consequently, the killing of some animals for food, if done painlessly, is not morally objectionable.
KBJ: Martin forgot about the human beings who lack a right to life, including infants. They, too, may be killed and eaten on the view under consideration, provided, of course, that they are killed painlessly. I say this not because I advocate such a thing, but to call the view into question. Any view or theory that has an unacceptable implication is unacceptable.
Some vegetarians have argued that it is impossible for one to maintain without absurdity that animals have a right not to suffer pain and yet have no right to life. For it is argued that since every animal will suffer at least once in its life, we have a duty to kill all animals painlessly to prevent this future suffering. To avoid this absurd consequence, it is said, we must admit that animals do have a right to life.
KBJ: I have never heard anyone make this argument. I have been reading animal-rights literature and discussing animal rights since the early 1980s.
I do not believe that this conclusion does follow, however. The absurd consequence would follow only if preventing animals from suffering was the only or at least the overriding factor to be considered. But this is surely dubious. After all, killing all animals would completely upset the ecological balance of nature; it would destroy some creatures of great aesthetic value; it would destroy certain food sources for future generations; and so on. Consequently, any future suffering that could be prevented by killing animals now would have to be weighed carefully against other factors. It is certainly not obvious that these other factors would not tip the scale and allow many animals to live. Thus, humane nonvegetarians may argue that it is enough to try to prevent suffering to living animals as best we can without killing them in advance to prevent their possible suffering.
Some philosophers have disagreed with Tooley’s analysis of person, and consequently with his analysis of right, and have given alternative analyses. But far from supporting moral vegetarianism, these alternative analyses seem to make moral vegetarianism even more difficult to support in terms of animal rights. S. I. Benn, in a critique of Tooley, has argued that a person is a moral agent, a being having “the conceptual capabilities of considering whether to insist or not on his rights, of manipulating, too, the ‘pulls’ it gives him on the actions of others, capable, in short of having projects and enterprises of his own.” According to Benn, only moral agents have rights. It is clear that few animals, if any, are moral agents in this sense. Consequently, on Benn’s analysis, few if any animals have rights of any sort. Benn argues, however, that just because a being does not have rights it does not mean that it is morally permissible to treat it cruelly. In fact, he maintains that some actions are seriously wrong for reaons [sic] other than that they violate rights. The question remains whether it is seriously wrong to kill animals for food. Clearly, given Benn’s analysis, in order to establish that it is wrong to eat animals for food, another sort of argument is needed, an argument that is not based on an appeal to animal rights. An argument of this type is in fact implicit in Benn’s position, and I will consider it presently.
KBJ: There are two types of rights: autonomy rights, which protect autonomy, and welfare rights, which protect interests. Only moral agents have autonomy rights. If no animals are moral agents, as seems plausible, then no animals have autonomy rights. But this says nothing about whether animals have welfare rights. Since (most) animals are sentient, (most) animals have at least one important interest, namely, the interest in not suffering. This interest can serve as the basis of a welfare right. There is, in short, no logical barrier to animals having rights.