A second possible interpretation of the core questions of animal ethics is that they are about whether animals have “rights.” On this view, to ask whether various uses of animals are morally permissible or not is just to ask whether animals have rights or not. It is very common for these two notions to be equated, but they shouldn’t be, for a variety of reasons.
Legal Rights: Not the Issue
First, the term ‘rights’ is multiply ambiguous. One kind of rights are legal rights. Legal rights are such that, in theory, if they are violated, somebody can be punished by the criminal system. Legal rights are “man-made” and vary by time and location: the legal rights women have in the US differ from the legal rights women have in, e.g., Afghanistan. To figure out what legal rights animals have is often easy: just check the law books. There you would find that there are few laws that protect animals from harm: they have few legal rights.
Legal rights are not of much interest to us as ethicists, however, because what’s legally permitted need not be morally permissible: e.g., slaveholding in the US South hundreds of years ago was legal yet immoral; and what’s legally required may not be morally permissible: e.g., the legal requirement that drugs be “tested” on animals might be an immoral requirement. Although legal standards can be sometimes seen as a highly imperfect expression of a society’s general views on what’s moral and immoral, we will generally not discuss the law beyond our readings’ occasionally observations that animals have few legal rights.
Moral Rights: Not Necessarily the Issue
A second possible kind of rights are moral rights. What are moral rights? Later Chapters will address some common misunderstandings and resulting confusions about moral rights, but the most important reason to not equate the questions of what uses of animals are permissible and whether animals have moral rights is this: although this might sound odd to some people, it’s possible that many uses of animals are wrong even though animals have no moral rights. Various uses of animals might be wrong for other moral reasons besides their having rights, so even if animals have no rights, it doesn’t immediately follow that harmful animal use is morally permissible. Equating the two issues conceals this possibility.
Again, the core questions in ethics and animals are what moral categories we should think specific uses of animals fall into – morally permissible, morally obligatory, or morally impermissible/wrong – and the reasons why we should think this. Thinking in terms of moral rights can make the issues more confusing than they have to be.