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N. 35, April 2003
Whence animal rights?
Do animals have rights? Just posing the question is likely to draw
reactions ranging from outright scorn for the idea to very passionate appeals
in defense of non-human living species. It seems to me that this is a crucial
question because of what it says about how we intend to treat the environment
in which we live. Yet, it is a question that opens up endless avenues of
discussion that may not necessarily lead one towards a simple answer.
To begin with, as I have argued in this column before, “rights” are not a
feature of the natural world, but rather an entirely human construct. That,
of course, doesn’t mean they are not interesting or important. Democracy
is also a human construct, but its existence or lack thereof affects the
lives of billions on the planet. The fact that rights are a human construct,
however, means that we cannot appeal to the laws of nature to defend any
particular viewpoint about them.
One could then construe the idea of animal rights as reflecting our acknowledgment
that we live in a complex world that we share we other creatures, and that
these other creatures should not be considered as pure means for our ends
(in perfectly Kantian fashion, for the philosophically inclined). I am going
to assume that all but the most callous individuals will agree to this rather
mild statement. But we are just beginning to unravel the complexity: what
should the extent of these “rights” be, to what range of other species should
we extend them, and using what criteria?
Clearly, here opinions soon diverge radically. Consider individuals who choose
a vegetarian life style in order not to harm other living creatures. There
are several styles of vegetarianism, from people who don’t want anything
to do with any animal product whatsoever (including eggs, cheese, etc.),
to people who are comfortable eating some animals, for example invertebrates
(shrimp, clams), or even some vertebrates (fish). Furthermore, the motivations
for being a vegetarian may also range enormously. Some feel this is a matter
of not using other living creatures for our ends (however biologically justified
this may appear to be), while others object to human practices of animal
husbandry and are content when eating free-range or otherwise “humanely”
raised animals, even chickens.
None of these positions is intrinsically irrational (though some may lead
to a few internal contradictions when pushed to the limit), and there doesn’t
seem to be a way to decide among them according to purely logical criteria.
For example, one common thread emerging from the consideration of the range
of vegetarianism is that people seem to apply a rough biological criterion
to their choices: the spectrum from vegans to people that eat free-ranging
chickens could be interpreted as a continuum along evolutionary time (species
that diverged early on from us, like plants, are OK to eat, those more closely
related to humans, like most vertebrates, are not allowed). Or it could represent
an assessment based on the degree of complexity of each species’ nervous
systems (most invertebrates, except squids and octopuses, are really dumb
and it is difficult to think of them as having feelings, but dogs and even
cats clearly seem to have them).
I am not saying that people consciously think in terms of evolution (heck,
remember that about half of Americans don’t actually believe in it!) or neurobiology,
but they seem to feel that those are reasonable criteria. The difference
between different kinds of vegetarianism, and indeed even the one between
vegetarians and meat-eaters (actually, omnivores, since nobody eats only
meat) then becomes a question of where one chooses to draw the line in the
sand of biological complexity. Few seem to want to draw the line at the boundary
between the organic and inorganic worlds (i.e., refusing to eat even plants),
but anything beyond that is rather arbitrary.
Arbitrary lines in the sand, of course, are not irrational to draw. We do
it all the times in our lives, simply because the world is too complex to
attempt to live without holding any belief or engaging in any behavior
that is contradictory with others we also espouse. The real questions seem
to be: first, what criteria should we agree upon to sensibly talk about animal
(or human, or plant) rights? Second, and once we have answered the previous
question, how do we negotiate as a society where that line in the sand is
The problem that many people are likely to find with this approach is that
it doesn’t fit simplistic positions: vegetarians, for example, can’t simply
claim that eating animal flesh is immoral without being willing to do the
additional work of answering the two questions posed above. They don’t get
to hold the high moral ground by default (I am aware, of course, that the
question of animal rights is much broader than just vegetarians vs. meat-eaters,
but this particular debate well illustrates the broader issues). Omnivores,
on the other hand, can’t just reject the other side’s position as silly,
or they will logically be faced with uncomfortable questions of their
own (so, if it is OK to eat animals, what about your dog? Chimps?)
I don’t pretend to have an answer, but I think it is important to pose the
questions more broadly and invite a less emotional discussion to take place.
For the record, I do eat meat, but I object to the treatment of animals by
the large meat-producing companies that run most of the business in modern