Community Philosophical Forum (2) — Animal Rights

Sarah Jacob and I have recently begun to lead community philosophical conversations once a month at the Luna Star Cafe in North Miami, FL. So far, we are largely following the template for such conversations developed by Christopher Phillips and discussed in his book, Socrates Cafe. More on Phillips and his community philosophy movement can be found here. We have so far hosted two conversations. Here I will outline the conversation from the second one and offer some further reflections on the topic we discussed. I plan to edit this after adding a reflection on the first of our Community Philosophy Forum conversations.

Conversation 2 — Topic

Our topic for the second discussion was somewhat cryptically formulated: “Animal Rights, Why? How many? What kinds? Etc.” This topic is very broad and contains many assumptions — chiefly that there are such things as animal rights. As in our first public conversation, we spent much time in the discussion examining the assumptions. Amy, one discussant in our conversation, who had spent 12 years in one of Christopher Phillips’ early conversation groups, pointed out some of the assumptions early on. Main questions concerned, for example, What are rights? When we speak of animal rights, what animals do we have in mind?

Are animal rights new?

Various discussants underlined that humans too are animals. While some were of the view that it is new that we pay attention to non-human animals, others — in particular Hugo, Rick, and Sarah — emphasized that there is a long tradition of paying attention to the rights of animals in non-Western cultures. This is seen, for example, among various Indigenous peoples and in Eastern societies. Most of the conversation proceeded by focusing on a shift that had occurred more recently within Anglo-European culture that had newly emphasized animal rights. As Sarah pointed out, Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation, from 1975, was an early book drawing attention to this. But we saw also already in Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century a call for legislation preventing cruelty to animals.

The selective care for animal pain

Henk pointed out the relative hypocrisy of much of the discussion of animal rights.  We might defend the rights of pets, yet we continue to slaughter domesticated farm animals. Joel underlined that we speak of different kinds of rights of animals: rights of species, rights of individuals animals. Clearly Bentham’s early efforts to curb cruelty to animals are based on the fact that many animals can experience pain. These efforts, too, though, had a focus on some animals that could feel pain while they ignored many others that could also experience no less pain.

From animal rights to environmental rights

Amy brought up the idea of the equality of all forms of life. Here the conversation spilled over beyond animal rights into questions of environmental ethics or possibly environmental rights. But building an ethics on the idea of the equality of all life is of course complicated by the fact that some forms of life, such as cancer cells, might threaten human beings. At least in line with common moral intuitions that it is hard to imagine shaking, it would seem odd to equate the “rights” of some amoebas or bacteria with those of humans who they can harm. Early animal welfare proponents highlighted especially those animals that can feel pain. As Joel underlined, for this reason the concerns when it comes to individual organisms tends to be on vertebrates.

Other concerns of animal rights, though, move beyond the focus on individual organisms. They focus on species rights. So we see movements to protect biodiversity that do not focus on individual members of the species under consideration. Again, this discussion moves us beyond animal rights or animal welfare and into environmental ethics, though we didn’t clearly enough note that in our conversation.

The difference between animal and human rights

For those who do focus on individual animals, we of course do have to recognize that their rights are not the same as human rights. Though we might elect individuals to stand in for animal interests in our political systems, it would of course be ludicrous to grant animals rights to vote. And we can imagine how giving a right to life to individual deer, for example, could lead us to the absurd conclusion that we should move into nature to attempt to protect individual deer from predator lions. The rights of individual animals for which many advocate are to live a thriving life in accordance with their own capabilities, which differ from human capabilities. This might require the preservation of ecosystems that the animals need in order to live thriving lives.

Freedom from confinement?

Sarah suggested that animals might be freed from confinement. In line with this, some asked whether we should have pets. Are they not confined? Others emphasized that the laws that have addressed individual animal welfare issues have not focussed on the release of animals from confinement but on maintaining more acceptable living conditions for animals that are in confinement — often though just until they are killed. In some cases laws regulate the conditions under which animal experiments can be conducted, the size of the cages in which lab animals are kept, the conditions under which they can be experimented upon, the risks to which they can be subjected and the rationale for which such risks are justified. Various animal rights advocates will find most animal experimentation questionable.

What are rights?

As the discussion took place, varying ideas of rights came to the fore. Evan highlighted legal rights and that it is people who grant them. Henk, who also underlined this, viewed rights as related to the abdication of certain freedoms. One’s individual rights entail the limitations of another’s freedoms. Or reversed, in a rights-based system, one’s legal freedom ends where another’s individual rights begin. Both of these ideas align with the modern tradition of social contract theory. Rick brought up the view of rights central to Kant’s view — namely that it is inherent rationality of the human being that makes him (and her) deserving of respect. For Kant humans had a special dignity because they give themselves their own purposes and live self-directed lives. Yet Kant did not think animals were deserving of the same respect. Though we did not emphasize it, there is a split between the social contractarians in systems like Locke’s and Kant’s and the views of animal rights advocates. In Locke’s view, the social contract emerges for the reciprocal advantage of individuals of roughly equal abilities. For Kant rights are limited to self-legislating human agents. Here, some intellectual shifts are needed to expand such rights to non-human animals, since they are neither of equal ability with humans, as that is traditionally understood, nor self-legislating. Bentham and the utilitarians had said that animals deserve moral consideration for one fundamental reason. They can suffer. As contemporary utilitarians, like Peter Singer, underline, if our lives are not enormously benefited from their suffering — such as when we eat them — then that suffering is not morally acceptable. In light of this Singer argues strongly for vegetarianism. Utilitarians however have been somewhat reluctant to speak of these matters in terms of rights. They often prefer to speak of animal welfare.

Pippa and some others present tended to speak of these issues more in the language of care than rights.

Legal rights and moral concerns

But the conversation of animal rights took place against the background of concepts not clearly enough thematized. On the one hand, any existing legal regime reflects a given state of affairs. But the discussion about whether the existing legal order is adequate takes place against a background of some idea of what is at times called ethical rights or at least of an ethical framework. The question here is: Are there some “rights” that should be recognized that are not? There are varying natural rights theories that aim to clarify this. John Locke provides one.  Like the founding fathers of the United States after him, he spoke of rights as God-given and self-evident. But any student of history can see that what seems self-evident or God-given in one time and place is all but that in another. Henk underlined the paradox that the same U.S. founding father’s who declared equal rights were slaveowners. Clearly, of course, animal rights were not an issue of those writing the constitution of 1786.

Students of the philosophy of law underline in any case that there are always a set of moral concerns against which our positive legal systems are written. LaSherry suggested two ideas. One related to the question of whether we should focus on animal rights at all? Given that so many human beings have miserable, unrealized lives, should we be turning our focus toward animals? This of course is reminiscent of the quip by Marx when speaking of the working conditions in 19th century England, as he noted, “Poor dogs, they want to treat you like human beings.” Evan and Sarah however highlighted that the rights of humans and animals need not stand in contradiction. As Evan sees it, those who treat animals badly are more likely to treat other humans badly.

Is there a social evolution of our Western ethical understanding?

LaSherry and Sarah also brought up the possibility of a social evolution of our ethical perspectives in Western society. As Peter Singer has suggested, in the West we seem to have progressed to some extent beyond the sexism and racism of earlier generations. In Singer’s terms, might we now progress beyond “speciesism” as well? That is, might we broaden our ethical framework to be more inclusive of animals?

Much of the conversation did take place against a background assumption that there are moral concerns against that create the context in which the legal order grants rights. This view was that the moral concerns inform the legal ones. Many clearly thought the legal order needed to do more to protect animals — and the environment. We need to care more about animals and nature than we do; and the legal order needs to reflect that care.

Do we need the language of rights for animal welfare?

A couple topics were enmeshed in this discussion. One was whether we need the language of rights to protect the status of animals. Even in the contemporary discussion of human rights, there are some detractors who think that the “rights” language focuses too much on individuals. Charles Taylor, a philosopher well-known for his communitarian stance, has highlighted, for example, that many Buddhists prefer language of compassion over language of rights for this reason. Many inspired by the communalism of the Confucian tradition similarly find the focus on the individual that is basic to rights talk to be troubling and to run against the grain of their own culture. Might we get similar results to those the rights theorists are looking for if we use language of compassion or care? Our legal system wouldn’t then establish “rights” so much as codes of conduct based on compassionate or caring treatment of animals. This point is relevant to the discussion noted early about the treatment of animals of indigenous people and in non-Western cultures. Are we doing a disservice to the ideas of those cultures by saying the cultures had granted animals “rights?”

Why give animals legal rights?

In addressing the question of why we think animals should have rights or greater moral consideration, two main ideas were brought up. First, in the West, we now see more clearly than in the past our dependency on the natural world and the way that our own activity might endanger our own well-being. This is the impetus behind many of the concerns for the rights of species or the legal protection of species such as is found in the endangered species act.  Second, human beings simply can develop empathy for the suffering of other animals that can feel pain.

The youth on animal and environmental rights

The conversation ended with a discussion of whether the youth today are more or less aware of these things than older people. Some suggested that the teaching of philosophy and aesthetics in schools was particularly important given that many youth today seem unaware of the relationships that we had spoken of, and in some cases kids don’t even know where their meat comes from. Yet, others emphasized that the youth today seem much more aware of the dangers of climate change than most adults. The Climate Strike lead by high school students around the world was planned and has now taken place. One thing seemed clear to most of us: If animals and other species are to receive adequate legal protections, it will require a continued change in what human communities care about.

Summing up

The conversation went on for two hours. We touched on the main questions and pursued background questions. We did not discuss how many animal rights there were, but we did suggest a rough typology.

Are there really such rights? Well insofar as the legal order can codify what rights are, then there certainly can be “legal rights” for animals if we decide we care about animal welfare enough to create them and decide that we want to uses rights language rather than the language of welfare, care, or compassion. Many of those at the table seemed to think that the legal system would do well to reflect more care for animals (and the environment) than it now does.

Had we had more time we surely would have gotten around to clarifying more than we did the differences between animal rights and environmental rights. These overlap in many ways, but not in all. For such things there is thankfully another Community Philosophy Forum in the coming month.

We’d like to thank all those who participated in the conversation. If any participants find I have misrepresented things you said, please let me know and I can delete the reference. I’m sorry that I didn’t include all of the interesting ideas brought up. I’ll try to take closer notes, but will of course always have to edit this for a particular focus.





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