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3.5: Again, the Issue is Not (Necessarily) Animal “Rights”

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  • To revisit an issue introduced in the first Chapter, sometimes people describe all “pro-animal” thinkers as “animal rights” advocates. This isn’t correct: e.g., Singer, for one, argues in defense of animals without much mentioning any idea of rights. So, again, one can think that animals’ interests must be taken seriously, that it’s seriously wrong to harm animals in most circumstances, that animals have a high “moral status,” etc., but not think that they have rights or, at least, not find that to be a useful way of presenting one’s views.

    But what are moral rights anyway? First, views that maintain that animals (and human beings) have moral rights are often moral theories that appeal to the idea of a moral right in explaining what makes wrong actions wrong and permissible actions permissible: usually they claim that an action is impermissible if it violates a right; thus, rights are constraints on behavior. We will examine two rights theories – Regan’s and Rowlands’ – in detail. While these theories typically support the view that most harmful uses of animals are morally permissible, the theory and the particular judgments about what’s morally permissible are, strictly, speaking, distinct.

    A bit about moral rights: moral rights, if they exist, are not “man made,” and individuals who have right have them even if others do not recognize or acknowledge that. Moral rights are not “granted” or “given” by anyone: e.g., slaves had moral rights (to life, to liberty) even though many people did not respect or acknowledge these rights. When these moral rights were acknowledged or recognized, it is not the case that slaves were “given” or “granted” moral rights, since they already had them. Thus, sometimes people often ask whether animals should be “given” rights. Since moral rights are not “given,” this question is founded on a mistaken assumption.

    Moral rights are always a right to something or a right from something, e.g., a right to life or a right from interference. There are no generic moral rights – just plain moral rights – so if someone claims that animals have (or lack) moral rights, the question we must ask is, “A right to what, or right from what?” Here there are many candidates: rights to life, to respectful treatment, to not being caused to suffer, to not be harmed, to have their interests taken into consideration, to liberty, to not being considered “property,” to not be “used” to benefit others, and on and on: there are many possible moral rights to consider.

    Whenever we discuss a claim that animals have or lack moral rights, we need to be specific on which moral right(s) is under consideration. Some advocates of animal use have claimed that, e.g., animals have a right to be eaten, and a right to be skinned (alive!) for their fur, and thus calling themselves advocates of animal rights! Focusing on specific moral rights, such as rights to not be caused various kinds of harm, will prevent those who harm animals from being considered legitimate animal rights advocates.

    Finally, appeals to moral rights can sometimes be “question begging,” which means to say that they just assume the conclusion that’s being defended, stating it in other words instead of supporting it. This can happen with other moral issues: someone might claim that abortion, i.e., killing unborn fetuses, is wrong because unborn fetuses have a moral right to life. Unless this person explains why fetuses have such a right, this argument might amount to just saying that killing fetuses is wrong because killing fetuses is wrong, which is just restating the conclusion as one’s premise. Similarly, someone might say that eating animals is not wrong because humans have a moral right to eat them. Again, unless this person explains why we should think that we have this right, what might be said here is just that eating animals is not wrong because it is not wrong for us to eat animals. Since arguments should never just assume their conclusion, or merely restate it in different words, these arguments are no good.

    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.

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