Peter Singer, the Princeton philosopher who maintains that humans have no right to kill animals even for medical experiments, is a bad guy. He makes bad arguments, and he harbors a profound animus against capitalism and Western civilization that induces him to make bad arguments. But they are serious arguments, they must be answered seriously, and the blogosphere has failed, collectively, to answer them seriously.

Singer says, simply, that anything that feels pain has rights. Animals feel pain, therefore animals have rights. So we can’t experiment on them, or eat them, or make coats and shoes out of them.

Richard Posner argued in his dialogue with Singer last year in Slate that Singer’s views are so far at variance with ordinary moral intuitions that we are not obliged to take them seriously. This is of a piece with Dr. Johnson kicking the stone to refute Bishop Berkeley, and is no more impressive from Posner than it was from Johnson. I would find Susanna Cornett’s argument that animals don’t have rights because animals don’t have souls more convincing if I understood exactly what a soul was. (Insert joke here.) And to infer, as Jan Arild Snoen does, the falsity of the animal rights position from its intimate historical relations with fascism and reprehensible behavior of its exponents is a flagrant argumentum ad baculum.

But at least these are arguments. The more typical reaction has been invective. I sympathize, I really do, but this sort of thing gets us nowhere. (I thank Susanna for most of these links, even if I am giving her a hard time.)

Singer is wrong because sentience is not the standard for rights: moral agency is. Rights are the conditions that reasoning beings require to flourish. They are reciprocal because other reasoning beings require these same conditions. Animals have no rights because animals respect no rights, because nature is red in tooth and claw. This is why human beings who violate others’ rights forfeit their own: usually some of them, by imprisonment, or sometimes all of them, by execution, depending on the severity of the offense. A species will acquire rights when its representative asks for them — not because language is the standard, but because it’s as good a proxy as we have for the time being.

Minors and morons have some, but limited rights for the same reasons. They do not fully understand moral agency. When children reach a certain somewhat arbitrary age, they graduate as full moral agents, with concommitant obligations and privileges. Mental defectives have rights exactly as far as they are able to understand the rights of others and act as moral agents. They had to shoot Lenny in Of Mice and Men, remember?

Finally, many people who despise Singer rush to defend the laws against animal cruelty as a way of proving their bona fides. Folks, these laws are a baaad idea. Experiments on animals are cruel, there’s no getting around it — useful, indispensable, but cruel. Today the animal cruelty laws are used against people who turn pit bulls into killers, tomorrow they’ll be used against animal researchers; just as RICO was first used against mobsters, then against stockbrokers. It’s just as cruel to test cosmetics on a lab animal as it is to test them on my pet cat. The only principled, legally sustainable distinction is that my pet cat belongs to me, and the lab cats belong to the lab.

Aaron Haspel | Posted July 14, 2002 @ 6:01 PM | General

4 Responses to “Animal Rights”

  1. 1 1. Norman Kabir

    In the same argument you state that we are entitled to "rights" (very vague statement that you implicitly substitute with "law") due to our moral agency. That moral agency separates us from other living things. And in turn gives us the right to torture or destroy them for any reasons we deem fit.

    You don’t find it ironic that you use "moral agency" as a tool to sanction the infliction of pain and death on other lifeforms?

    Oh right, property rights. I paid someone for it. That makes it ok. Who even needs moral agency when one can furnish a receipt?

    Very principled indeed.


  2. 2 2. susanna

    Well, Aaron, bust on me all you like 🙂 I can take it.

    Your argument doesn’t really advance anything. Some of the arguments in favor of Singer (see Jason Rylander’s, linked on my page) point out specifically that some animals appear to make moral choices – i.e. choices based on what’s "right" vs what’s "expedient" or safest for them. Often it’s associated with protecting someone/thing they have a connection to, which arguably could be instinct, but then you’d face the argument that perhaps the same behaviors are instinct on the human level too.

    You skid perilously close to Singer on your discussion of humans with less sentience (the young and mentally disabled) by basically saying they do have fewer rights. Well, yes and no. They have narrow ranges of "permission" to do things in our society, but no less rights in the basic shelter-food-protection triad. Less sentient humans can’t be used for experimentation, for example, while animals can.

    I see nothing in your argument that moves it beyond what others you dismiss have said.

    As for Mr. Kabir, I’ll consider your argument when you can assure me you do not own anything using leather or animal byproducts; you eat no meat or anything that uses animal byproducts; and that you have not benefited from the use of animals in medical experimentation or any other advancement of human technology, and would reject any use of such for yourself or your family regardless of the consequences from such a rejection. I’ll respect your position then, and call you very principled indeed, even if I still disagree with your conclusions.


  3. 3 3. Norman Kabir

    I’m not proposing that we eliminate the use of animals as a resource in the pursuit of knowledge (biology) or for the protection of humanity (epidemiology). For example, I think it is completely justified for scientists to use animal models to find cures for diseases. However, I also believe it is a moral imperative for those scientists to endeavor to develop alternative models i.e. tissue culture and simulation in order to avoid unnecessary suffering or destruction.

    FYI, I am a vegetarian–although I won’t proselytize at someone’s barbecue. I think honoring the host’s hospitality is more important than promoting my world view.

    As for being principled, bollocks. I’m not principled. I’m just wading through confusion as best I can. I know I’m full of sh*t–I’m just amazed by people who pretend that they are not.


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