Do animals have rights?







Meet Grandpa Ledo… We met him in Estes Park, near (very) our cabin…

The question is whether or not animals, domestic or wild, have rights?

The question of what kinds of things are “rights” — i.e. what are our “rights” as human beings is beyond the scope of this post.  Let’s assume a very minimal set of “rights” as a starting point.  Perhaps the right not to be eaten (when there is an appropriate alternative) and not to be used as a means only — as in used for medical experiments — is a good place to start.

Singer’s argument against speciesm is that animals feel pain in ways similar to some humans.  It is uncontroversial that all humans have the right not to be eaten and experimented upon, so animals have rights on the same basis as humans.  To treat animals differently than we’d treat humans who have the intellectual capabilities at, or below, the level of animals is to treat similar things in different ways, and thus unacceptable.  Just like racism and sexism are not permissible because the result is different treatment of similar things, speciesm is unacceptable.

Singer looks at rights on an organism by organism basis.  So, for Singer an individual being’s ability to feel pain (Singer is a utilitarian) is what entails the being having rights.  Thus, Singer is able to compare infants with chimpanzees and see that human infants have lower functions than chimps, thus reasoning that it can’t be intellectual functions that grant the human rights while denying them to the chimp.

The question is whether or not this is a valid way of looking at rights.  It could clearly go the other way for Singer — perhaps we could conclude that some human beings don’t have rights, the mentally handicapped, the mentally ill etc.. then animals at that same level of functioning (a few cats I’ve had… for example) wouldn’t have rights either.

A better way to look at rights is as a function of a moral community.  If one kind of thing has rights within the moral community, then all similar things have those same rights.  So, instead of rights being an individual attribute, they are part of the attributes associated with membership in the group.

Further, it seems to me that rights are reciprocal — in that they are a function OF a group of beings.  So, you have rights because you are in the group and membership in the group requires you (morally) to respect the rights of other members of the group.  This means that rights aren’t a natural thing, rather they are a socially constructed idea that a group can decide to have.

So, it seems that human beings have decided to grant one another rights.  Animals (as a large group) have not.  My cat would LOVE to eat the birds who are building a nest on our deck.  They watch, plot and try to persuade the birds to come closer to them.  The birds know that if they get close enough to my cats, they’ll be lunch.  So, there doesn’t seem to be an inter-species agreement among animals not to eat one another.

Perhaps animals have a sense that they ought not eat members of their own species, or some individual members of other species that live in their “homes” — thus, my cats don’t eat one another and I’d expect any dog living in my home not to eat the cats (this may take some training… sadly).  On the other hand, my cats would try to eat a goldfish or hamster, so we don’t have them.

Let’s look at this in terms of the intersection between groups.  I’m pretty sure that if you were being eaten by a shark while surfing, telling the shark that you won’t eat him if he doesn’t eat you just won’t work.  Clearly, there is no agreed upon set of rights between humans and animals in general — and, I suspect that if my cats could eat me, they might do so —

What does this do to Singer’s argument about speciesm?  The problem seems to be that he’s lumping humans and animals into a large category (i.e. making a category mistake) and calling it “speciesm” when one member of the group gets eaten and another doesn’t.  Further adding to the complications for Singer is the simple fact that animals eat one another…. so it seems that their behavior violates rights when they eat one another.

If rights are group creations, it seems pretty clear that humans have created rights and animals have not.  This doesn’t mean that the human attributes of compassion and empathy don’t come into play when dealing with animals.  So we ought not abuse them for fun, but it seems that we ought not do so for what it does to us as human beings (i.e. practicing cruel behavior), rather than because animals have a right against us.

Another way to look at the human-animal relationship is to say that humans assume duties to animals when they take on responsibility for the care of individual animals.  So, when I adopt a cat it’s now my duty to make sure the cat is happy and healthy.  I don’t have a duty to ALL cats, but rather to the particular cat I live with.  This is a duty I’ve assumed and it isn’t the case that these duties are because of rights my cats have.

and… here are my cats…







Spock….  and Tera





Filed under Applied Ethics

2 responses to “Do animals have rights?

  1. Pingback: Silence is good… « leftyconcarne

  2. Cynthia

    Interesting post as always. My friend does work with animal theory, and I think she’d find this compelling. Thanks! 🙂

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