Do Animals Have Moral Rights?
by Fred E. Foldvary, Senior EditorSome people oppose the cruel treatment of animals and even killing and using some animals because they think animals have inherent, natural moral rights. Others think that only human beings have moral rights, while still others think there are no natural rights at all. To cut through this tangle of differing views, we need to analyze what is a moral right in the first place.
Philosophers say that rights are correlatives of wrongs. In plain English, this means that a right is the flip side of a moral wrong. The moral right to own property means it is morally wrong to steal another's property. The right to free speech means it is morally wrong to restrict another's honest and peaceful speech.
If there are universal and natural rights, this implies there must be some universal morality the rights are based on. I described this "universal ethic" in my September 1998 editorial, available here. Its basic rule for evil is that it is morally wrong or evil to coercively harm others. The question then is, who are these "others"? Are they only human beings, or is it also immoral to harm animals? Suppose aliens came to earth from another planet, and they were just like human beings. Would it be immoral to hurt them?
Since I dealt with animal rights in the chapter on "Environmental Ethics" in my book The Soul of Liberty, I will quote from that work, since it expresses my thoughts on that topic:
"There is no objective reason to exclude any living being from the concept of 'harming others.' On the level of life, we humans are animals just as much as any other beast. Our blood, bones, cells and brains are animalistic components very similar to those of other animals. From the objective viewpoint of the universal ethic, independent of our religious and cultural views, one animal as an animal is no better or more worthy or important than any other. Thus, if it is wrong to harm another human, it is wrong to harm any other animal" (p. 198, with minor editing).So animals and even plants do have natural moral rights. But do they have rights that are equal to those of human beings? And do animal rights make it immoral to eat and use animals or plants? My answer in Soul is that the rights are not equal because "human beings exist on another level beyond that of sheer life, the level of sentient intelligence. It is this quality that distinguishes humans as self-conscious, reasoning, sensitive beings who have a large degree of self-control over their own actions and the capacity to direct their lives far beyond that of most other animals. This human level of intelligence, awareness and consciousness, which we can summarize by the term sentience, if you will, is a quality quite distinct from 'animalness'" (p. 198).
In harming others, there are therefore two qualities that can be harmed: sentience and life. So more harm is done in killing a sentient person than in killing a plant with little or no sentience. This greater harm that can be done to human beings gives them moral rights greater than those of less sentient species. Humans can therefore use and kill animals. But, since animals can still suffer from harm, and have some level of moral rights, there is a moral constraint to the damage we may inflict.
"A human being may own, control, and even kill animals for his benefit, but the harm done to an animal must never exceed that necessary to obtain its utility. Utility is the use of an animal for food, materials, companionship, and other legitimate purposes. The right of self-defense also gives us the right to kill those animals, such as mosquitos and rats, which are harmful to our survival and well being" (p. 200).Since the harm done depends on the level of sentience a species has, "the higher in sentience an animal species, the more harm can be done to it, and the greater right it has to be free from harm by humans. A few animals, such as dolphins and apes, are so high in intelligence that their right to live exceeds the right of almost any kind of human use, and the worse we may ethically do is keep them in pleasant captivity" (p. 201).
"Utility does not include the sadistic thrill of torturing an animal, nor does it excuse cruelty to animals in experiments out of convenience or idle curiosity, the use of painful steel traps, nor crushing a baby seal's skull in front of the screaming mother, nor killing an entire elephant just to get its tusk... Why not? Because such cruelty is not necessary!" (p. 201).
The preservation of the earth's natural environment and wildlife therefore has two moral grounds. First, the natural endowment of the earth belongs equally to all human beings, so its destruction harms all of us, and we therefore have the natural right to the preservation of the natural environment. Secondly, the living beings on earth have their own rights, which human beings as moral agents are obligated to respect. Living beings can be harmed, and it is wrong to harm them, so all living beings are endowed with the natural right to be free from harm by persons. The rights of human beings can override those of non-persons, but subject to the moral constraint of only doing that damage necessary to obtain utility, which excludes unnecessary cruel treatment.
"The humane and ethical attitude towards life is to use and enjoy what nature has to offer, while respecting the integrity of all living beings and things in the universe" (Soul, p. 203).
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Copyright 1998 by Fred E. Foldvary. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, which includes but is not limited to facsimile transmission, photocopying, recording, rekeying, or using any information storage or retrieveal system, without giving full credit to Fred Foldvary and The Progress Report.