Should Animals Have Rights?
Switzerland JUST voted on a referendum to grant “domestic creatures” the right to sue in court. The vote is SO fresh (happened yesterday), even the Great Google doesn’t know the result! It’s too late to influence my Swiss readers, but what should the rest of us think?
“Treat like cases alike” is a meta-ethical principle penetrating virtually every moral tradition. It also undergirds legal systems, ensuring predictability and fairness. If Speeder A gets a $100 ticket for driving 70 in a 35, Speeder B, also doing 70 in a 35, deserves a $100 ticket too. Unless, that is, there’s a moral difference–like Speeder A was drag racing, but Speeder B was rushing to the hospital to give birth.
With that principle in mind, whether animals should have rights, and what sorts of rights, largely depends on whether they’re relevantly similar to humans.
Peter Singer famously argued that non-human animals are relevantly similar to humans in that they can experience pleasure and pain. Orgasms are equally enjoyable, and broken bones equally painful, whether they’re experienced by humans or hippos. Singer concluded that it’s therefore “speciesist” to arbitrarily rank creatures based on their biological category, just like it’s “racist” to arbitrarily rank humans based on their race. Neither DNA nor ethnicity is all that important when it comes to assigning moral worth. It’s the ability to feel pleasure and pain that really counts. And on that metric, humans and non-human animals are equal, and so should be treated equally. Since we wouldn’t harvest and kill humans simply to enjoy the taste of their flesh, we shouldn’t harvest and kill non-human animals simply to enjoy the taste of their flesh either.
Tom Regan settled on a similar conclusion, but used different premises to get there. He argued that whether a creature is a “subject of a life” was the important question to ask. That is, a thing has moral standing if it has emotions, thinks, makes decisions, has a sense of personal identity, and has some sense of time. Since all normal adult mammals are subjects of a life, they should be granted legal protections on par with those humans enjoy. The result would be a complete prohibition on hunting, factory farming and animal testing.
Both Singer and Regan make strong cases. But notice that neither prioritized the capacity to engage in higher reason–precisely what distinguishes humans from non-human animals. Giraffes make decisions–that’s clear enough. But as far as we can tell, they don’t ponder the nature of the universe. The question is, is being able to ponder the nature of the universe morally relevant?
Being able to engage in higher reason is morally relevant in that it allows a creature to be part of what Allen Fox calls a “moral community.” Pondering the nature of the universe isn’t a big deal, but being able to make ethical decisions–distinguish right from wrong, be motivated to do what’s right, and then act according to what’s right–is. It’s important because it enables a sort of reciprocity and mutual respect. Dogs and humans are similar in all the ways Singer and Regan mention. But this one key aspect sets us apart. Dogs can be good natured and obey their masters, but they can’t think through tough ethical quandaries or be motivated to act simply for the sake of acting rightly.
However, that doesn’t mean non-human animals lack any moral standing at all. It’s pretty clear that Singer and Regan’s arguments give us reason to take seriously the interests of non-human animals. Being able to feel pleasure and pain, having a sense of identity, experiencing emotions and the like do carry moral weight. But that key difference gives us good reason to place humans on a higher plane.
So, should animals have rights? Of course! Rights to natural habitat? Rights to bodily integrity? Rights to sue in court? I’ll leave that to the Swiss voters to decide! But I think it’s pretty clear that non-human animals do in fact deserve a strong degree of legal protection due to all the morally relevant similarities they share with humans. It’s appropriate to distinguish ourselves as full members of the moral community, but we should never be so arrogant as to treat thinking, feeling and loving animals as mere things.