Animal Rights



First, we will consider the traditional view, which is that animals have no rights.  Proponents of this view do not claim that it is permissible to cause pointless animal suffering, but they do insist that we have no obligations to the animals themselves.


Kant “Why We Have No Obligations to Animals”


Immanuel Kant was an opponent of utilitarianism who wrote 70 years before Mill.  We will discuss his theory in more detail in the coming weeks.


Kant’s Categorical Imperative (the formula of the end in itself):


Act as to treat humanity, both in your own person, and in the person of every other, always at the same time as an end, never simply as a means.


Basically, this means that we should respect people by not using them in ways they would not consent to.  We should respect people because they are autonomous:  Autonomy is the freedom that human beings have to pursue their own ends (goals).  Kant believed that autonomy was extremely valuable, but in order to have it one must have free will, which requires having self-consciousness and the capacity to be guided by reason.  But animals, according to Kant, are not autonomous.  Therefore, the Categorical Imperative does not apply to them.


Animals are not self-conscious and are there merely as a means to an end.  The end is man.”


Thus, we have no direct duties to animals.  That is, we have no duty to respect or foster the ends of animals.  However:


If any acts of animals are analogous to human acts and spring from the same principles, we have duties towards the animals because thus we cultivate the corresponding duties towards human beings.”


Our duties to animals are indirect, and derive from our to duty to respect and foster the ends of humanity (the categorical imperative).  This is the traditional “animal rights” doctrine.


If he is not to stifle his own feelings, he must practice kindness towards animals, for he who is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men.  We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals.”


Kant’s contention was that cruelty to animals leads to cruelty to humans.  Thus, it is in the self-interest of humanity to treat animals humanely, at least most of the time.  Kant’s view was that we should refrain from pointless cruelty to animals.  Since animals are here only to serve man, causing animal suffering is justified whenever it suits our interests.  For example:


Vivisectionists, who use living animals for their experiments, certainly act cruelly, although their aim is praiseworthy, and they can justify their cruelty, since animals must be regarded as man’s instruments; but any such cruelty for sport cannot be justified.


Note that Kant recognizes here that animals do suffer.  This distinguishes him from those who believed that animals are unfeeling automatons.


According to Kant, Cruelty to animals is justified in cases where the benefits to humans outweigh the harm to humans.  He believed that the scientific value of animal experimentation outweighs the negative effects on the scientists in their dealings with others.  Notice that this consequentialist reasoning is available to Kant only because we have no duties to animals.  Rights always trump consequences, on Kant’s theory.



Carl Cohen, “Why Animals Have No Rights”



“A right is a claim, or potential claim, that one party may exercise against another.”

The differing targets, contents, and sources of rights, and their inevitable conflict, together weave a tangled web. Notwithstanding all such complications, this much is clear about rights in general: they are in every case claims, or potential claims, within a community of moral agents.  Rights arise, and can be intelligibly defended, only among beings who actually do, or can, make moral claims against one another. Whatever else rights may be, therefore, they are necessarily human; their possessors are persons, human beings.”

     “[Nonhuman animals] are not beings of a kind capable of exercising or responding to moral claims. Animals therefore have no rights, and they can have none…The holders of rights must have the capacity to comprehend rules of duty, governing all including themselves. In applying such rules, the holders of rights must recognize possible conflicts between what is in their own interest and what is just.”

     “Humans have such moral capabilities. They are in this sense self-legislative, are members of communities governed by moral rules, and do possess rights. Animals do not have such moral capacities. They are not morally self-legislative, cannot possibly be members of a truly moral community, and therefore cannot possess rights. In conducting research on animal subjects, therefore, we do not violate their rights, because they have none to violate.”

             A common objection, which deserves a response, may be paraphrased as follows:

"If having rights requires being able to make moral claims, to grasp and apply moral laws, then many humans -- the brain-damaged, the comatose, the senile -- who plainly lack those capacities must be without rights. But that is absurd. This proves [the critic concludes] that rights do not depend on the presence of moral capacities."

     This objection fails; it mistakenly treats an essential feature of humanity as though it were a screen for sorting humans…The issue is one of kind. Humans are of such a kind that they may be the subject of experiments only with their voluntary consent. The choices they make freely must be respected. Animals are of such a kind that it is impossible for them, in principle, to give or withhold voluntary consent or to make a moral choice.

     A second objection, also often made, may be paraphrased as follows:

"Capacities will not succeed in distinguishing humans from the other animals. Animals also reason; animals also communicate with one another; animals also care passionately for their young; animals also exhibit desires and preferences.  Features of moral relevance - rationality, interdependence, and love -- are not exhibited uniquely by human beings.  Therefore [this critic concludes], there can be no solid moral distinction between humans and other animals."

     This criticism misses the central point. It is not the ability to communicate or to reason, or dependence on one another, or care for the young, or the exhibition of preference, or any such behavior that marks the critical divide. … Actors subject to moral judgment must be capable of grasping the generality of an ethical premise in a practical syllogism. Humans act immorally often enough, but only they -- never wolves or monkeys -- can discern, by applying some moral rule to the facts of a case, that a given act ought or ought not to be performed.

     … Does a lion have a right to eat a baby zebra?  Does a baby zebra have a right not to be eaten? Such questions, mistakenly invoking the concept of right where it does not belong, do not make good sense. Those who condemn biomedical research because it violates "animal rights" commit the same blunder."

It does not follow from this, however, that we are morally free to do anything we please to animals. Certainly not. In our dealings with animals, as in our dealings with other human beings, we have obligations that do not arise from claims against us based on rights. Rights entail obligations, but many of the things one ought to do are in no way tied to another's entitlement. Rights and obligations are not reciprocals of one another, and it is a serious mistake to suppose that they are.


Cohen’s argument that animals don’t have rights:


1)           A right is a claim that one party may exercise against another.


2)           Rights exist only among beings who can make moral claims against one another.


3)           The attributes of human beings that give rise to their ability to make moral claims against others are lacking in animals.  These attributes are intellectual, and include the ability to understand ethical principles and guide one’s actions accordingly.


4)           Therefore, animals cannot make moral claims against others.



5)           Therefore, animals do not have rights.





The Basic Principle of Equality



BPE:  The interests of all persons are deserving of equal consideration.


This is widely regarded as the ethical foundation for equal legal rights among persons.  There are different ways in which we might give people “equal” consideration, and these give rise to different forms of equality.


Maximum equal liberty*                                            libertarianism

Slogan: “My freedom ends where yours begins.”


Equal liberty and equal opportunity                 liberalism

Slogan: “Level the playing field.”


Equal liberty, opportunity, and outcomes     radical egalitarianism

Slogan: “No one deserves more than anyone else.”


Each person’s happiness counts equally    utilitarianism

Slogan: “Maximize happiness, everyone considered.”



*Note that maximizing equal liberty is not the same as maximizing liberty.  One way to maximize liberty might be to enslave certain people so that others would have more freedom to do as they please.  But this would not be equal liberty.



Utilitarians are egalitarian in that they count everyone’s happiness equally.  As we have seen, this doesn’t imply that everyone is owed an equal amount of happiness!


A utilitarian would say that we have one basic interest, and that is to be happy and avoid unhappiness.  All other interests would derive from this basic interest.  Mill’s definition (pleasure and the absence of pain) will serve well enough for our purposes.


Utilitarianism does not have any built-in provisions for recognizing rights.  (Jeremy Bentham referred to rights as “nonsense on stilts”.)  It is somewhat ironic, then, that Peter Singer uses utilitarianism as the basis for arguing that animals have rights.




Peter Singer, “All Animals are Equal”



Speciesism:  The belief that the interests of (a member of) one’s own species count for more than the interests of (a member of) another species.


Singer likens “speciesism” to racism and sexism.  He asks:  What is the ethical basis for opposition to racism and sexism?


An answer he rejects:  The sexes and all of the different races are equal with respect to their intellectual and moral capacities.


There are two problems with this response.


(1)  Even if the sexes and races are all equal in these respects, it is still not true that individuals are.  For example, some people have greater intellectual capacities than others.  Does it follow that those with greater capacities should be given more consideration than those with less?  No. (IQ example)  So, factual equality between groups does not establish equal rights for individuals.


(2)  It suggests that if the sexes and races were not equal in these respects--if there were a difference, on the average, between two groups--then sexism or racism would be justified.  But racism implies that someone belonging to a certain race is owed less moral consideration than someone of another race.  Why would racism be justified by there being differences—on the average—between groups?  It wouldn’t.


Singer claims that the real basis for opposition to racism, sexism or elitism is not that individuals or groups are in fact equal in terms of their abilities, but that their interests count equally.


Equality and the interests of animals


BPE extended to animals: 


The interests of all beings are deserving of equal consideration.


If a being suffers, there can be no moral justification for refusing to take that suffering into consideration. No matter what the nature of the being, the principle of equality requires that its suffering be counted equally with the like suffering—in so far as rough comparisons can be made—of any other being. If a being is not capable of suffering, or of experiencing enjoyment or happiness, there is nothing to be taken into account. This is why the limit of sentience (using the term as a convenient, if not strictly accurate, shorthand for the capacity to suffer or experience enjoyment or happiness) is the only defensible boundary of concern for the interests of others. To mark this boundary by some characteristic like intelligence or rationality would be to mark it in an arbitrary way. Why not choose some other characteristic, like skin color?”


The capacity for suffering and enjoyment is both necessary and sufficient for having interests.


For Singer, a being has rights if and only if it has interests; it need not have autonomy, membership in a community, the ability to respect the rights of others, a sense of justice, etc.


Singer’s view seems to be that what matters is not who or what suffers, but the suffering itself.  If the suffering itself is equal, then our concern for that suffering ought to be equal.  This follows from the idea that suffering is intrinsically bad.


Singer concludes that “speciesism” is unjustified.


What follows is not that animals have the same rights as humans, but that their interests should be given equal consideration.  Because they have different capacities they will have different rights.  “Since dogs can’t vote, it is meaningless to talk of their right to vote.”


Question:  What if dogs did have the capacity to vote?  Should they then have the right to vote?  Twelve year olds have the capacity to vote..


On Factory Farming...


Having argued that the interests of animals deserve equal consideration, Singer goes on to argue that factory farming is unjust discrimination against animals:


It is not merely the act of killing that indicates what we are ready to do to other species in order to gratify our tastes. The suffering we inflict on the animals while they are alive is perhaps an even clearer indication of our speciesism than the fact that we are prepared to kill them. In order to have meat on the table at a price that people can afford, our society tolerates methods of meat production that confine sentient animals in cramped, unsuitable conditions for the entire durations of their lives. Animals are treated like machines that convert fodder into flesh, and any innovation that results in a higher "conversion ratio" is liable to be adopted…

Since, as l have said, none of these practices cater for anything more than our pleasures of taste, our practice of rearing and killing other animals in order to eat them is a clear instance of the sacrifice of the most important interests of other beings in order to satisfy trivial interests of our own. To avoid speciesism we must stop this practice, and each of us has a moral obligation to cease supporting the practice.”


On Animal Experimentation...


Singer objects to experimentation that causes harm to animals on the same grounds.  Such should be undertaken only in cases where an experiment that caused similar harm to humans would be justified.


(tacit) objection:  A typical human would suffer more than, say, a rat, from the same kind of stimulus (e.g. an electric shock) because a typical human being is more self-aware, has a sense of dignity and self-worth, would experience more emotional suffering, etc.  Moreover, a typical human has a family that would suffer greatly from his/her captivity and torture.


(tacit) reply:  In that case the harm is not similar.  So it is true that it would be worse to shock a human than a rat, other things being equal.


However, the harm would be similar in a case where the human is an infant orphan with irreversible brain damage preventing further mental development.  We should be willing to shock the rat only in cases where we are willing to shock the infant.


Singer thinks that most animal experimentation that harms its subjects should be eliminated on these grounds.  He thinks that such experimentation seldom has enough utility value to justify the suffering it causes.


Singer’s main argument:


1)  Suffering is intrinsically bad.


2)  If suffering is intrinsically bad, then what is morally relevant is not who or what suffers, but the suffering itself.


3)  Therefore, the suffering of all beings is deserving of equal consideration.


4)  Therefore, we ought to cause suffering to animals only in cases where causing an equal amount of suffering to humans would be justified.


5)  The factory farming of animals would not be justified if it caused an equal amount of suffering to humans instead.


6)  Most experiments that cause suffering to animals would not be justified if they caused an equal amount of suffering to humans instead.


7)  Therefore, the factory farming of animals is morally wrong, and most experiments that cause suffering to animals are morally wrong.


Questions, comments for Discussion


·  Is it just the suffering of animals that Singer objects to, or does he also object to the shortening of their lives?  A utilitarian might object to the former but not the latter, which would leave room for humane factory farming.


·  Would Singer object to altering animals so that they do not suffer from factory farming?  (Douglas Adams’ example from “Restaurant at the End of the Universe”, genetic engineering example)



Singer says that sentience implies moral significance:  “To mark this boundary by some other characteristic like intelligence or rationality would be to mark it in an arbitrary manner.  Why not choose some other characteristic, like skin color?”


·  Many philosophers would take issue with this statement, and consider it question-begging.  Why think that any other characteristic would mark an arbitrary boundary?  It is one thing to say that equal suffering counts equally, but it is another thing to say that it is the only thing that counts.


Suppose we agree, with Singer, that equal suffering counts equally.  We can still maintain that there are other things that count, such as our obligation to treat autonomous agents with dignity, an obligation we don’t have to animals.


·  Perhaps Kant’s argument against animal cruelty can explain why experiments on the brain damaged are more suspect than experiments on animals.  If cruelty to animals has some tendency to foster cruelty to humans, then cruelty to the brain-damaged can be expected to have a greater tendency to foster cruelty to humans.


· Some animal experimentation has great utility value.  Virtually every vaccine, medical procedure, etc. was developed with the help of animals, would have been difficult to develop otherwise, and would have required human suffering in the place of animal suffering.  Do viable substitutions exist in most cases?  This seems doubtful, especially in new forms of research.


· Suppose that a house is burning and we have just enough time to save (a) an orphan, or (b) a family of rats.  Does Singer’s position imply that we should save the rats?


If it doesn’t, if one orphan’s interests outweigh those of a large number of rats (1,000+ rats) then does this suggest that animal research can be justified?



· Singer follows the lead of Jeremy Bentham.  But Mill contended that the higher faculties give rise to higher quality pleasures.  Higher quality pleasures count for much more than lower quality.  Since humans, but not animals, are capable of higher quality pleasures, this would seem to imply that the interests of humans count for more than those of animals, for Mill.  The higher faculties of humans are morally significant not only because those who have them experience greater happiness and suffering, but also because they lead to accomplishments that can create even greater happiness in the future.



· How would Singer respond to a social contract theorist who argues that we have no obligations to animals because they aren’t part of the social contract?