Announcing new abolitionist literature

The Boston Vegan Association:
Respecting animals means going vegan

The BVA’s 8-page abolitionist vegan outreach pamphlet is now ready and available for viewing online and sharing. I have also had a “generic” version prepared so that you can include your own information on the back cover instead of the BVA web address and logo (pictured). If you would like to receive copies for distribution, please get in touch.

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Animal Rights 101, part five: Utilitarianism

Utilitarianism

In a nutshell, utilitarianism holds that the consequences of a given action is what determines its moral worth. According to the principle of utility the right action is that which maximizes “utility.” Under hedonistic or classical utilitarianism, utility is defined in terms of pain and pleasure. The morally correct action to take in any given situation, then, is the one that leads to the greatest pleasure for the greatest number of individuals affected by that action.

In counting the pleasures and pains of all those affected, each individual must “count for one and none for more than one.” Because nonhuman animals can also be affected by an action (i.e., an action can cause them pleasure or pain), their pleasures and pains must also be taken into consideration when deciding whether an action is wrong or right.

Peter Singer

Peter Singer, probably the most well-known modern proponent of utilitarianism, defines utility in terms of preferences rather than pleasure and pain. Preference utilitarianism holds that what is intrinsically valuable in any given scenario is not pleasure, per se, but the satisfaction of preferences (i.e., desires or interests).[1] Of course, these preferences might include avoiding pain and seeking pleasure, but preference utilitarianism might be seen as a more nuanced or graded approach.

In addition to the principle of utility, Singer advocates even more forcefully for a principle of equal consideration for other beings’ interests. In determining the consequences of our actions, he argues that we must accord equal consideration to equal interests, even going so far as to say that nonhuman animals have a right to this consideration. He describes at length how excluding nonhuman animals from equal consideration (or otherwise disregarding their interests) is speciesist, an arbitary bias in favor of one’s own species membership that is analogous to excluding humans from equal consideration on the basis of their race or sex.[2]

Singer later expressed regret at allowing “the concept of a right to intrude into [his] work so unnecessarily.” Though he is often called “the father of the animal rights movement,” this stance is not all that surprising when you consider that his views do not and cannot lead to a respect-based animal rights view given his adherence to the principle of utility.[3]

Issue: Tension between equal consideration and utility

The principle of utility is problematic for a number of reasons, not the least of which is–under Singer’s view–the tension between considering like interests equally and maximizing utility.

Despite his belief that we ought to determine what will maximize utility on a case-by-case basis, Singer holds that animals’ interests must always be given equal consideration. Though this insistence also informs the egalitarianism of rights theory put forth previously, it creates problems here because taking all interests equally into consideration may well fail to maximize utility, at which point we would no longer operating in the realm of utilitarianism.

The corollary here is that the principle of utility conflicts with the principle of equal consideration when maximizing utility would require us to ignore the interests of some individuals or otherwise allow them to be harmed if doing so serves the “greater good.” In other words, utilitarianism’s emphasis on the consequential benefit of a potential act favors the majority and allows for exploitation of the minority.

As Tom Regan writes, “The modest point being urged here is that, for all its emphasis on equality, utilitarianism would sanction recognizable forms of sexism and racism, if the facts happened to turn out a certain way.”[4]

Issue: Treats interests as tradable

The rights view protects interests even when it would benefit others (or the greater good) to violate or ignore them. “[T]he defining characteristic of a respect-based right is that the interest that it protects cannot be compromised for consequential considerations alone.”[5] Utilitarianism, on the other hand, treats interests as tradable. If ignoring the interests of certain individuals maximizes utility overall, then utilitarianism would say that the right thing to do in that situation is to ignore those interests in favor of the interests of the many, effectively treating interests as tradable, not inviolable. Such a view “is consistent with animal exploitation if the consequences justify that exploitation and if the decision to exploit is not based on species discrimination.”[6]

Indeed, though Singer advocates vegetarianism, it is not certain how he can prescribe this measure on a utilitarian basis. An appeal on consequentialist grounds would suggest that vegetarianism maximizes utility, but the principle of utility could well come down against vegetarianism if the consequences of everyone becoming vegetarian actually turned out to have less utility than if everyone continued to eat at animal products.

Singer thinks that the negative consequences for the animals involved in factory farming outweigh the benefits, but as Regan points out, “[t]he animal industry is big business,” and although “[i]t is uncertain exactly how many people are involved in it, directly or indirectly, . . . the number must easily run into the many tens of thousands.” Those involved in animal agriculture “have a stake in the animal industry as rudimentary and important as having a job, feeding a family, or laying aside money for their children’s education or their own retirement.” . . . The problem is that once the preference satisfaction of everyone involved in factory farming (humans and nonhuman) is deemed relevant and counted equitably, Singer’s assumed result appears to be much more controversial than he recognizes.[7] 

In light of these complications, the utilitarian impact of becoming vegetarian is not at all clear, particularly on the individual level. Because utilitarians must make the moral calculations on a case-by-case basis, they cannot demonstrate that becoming vegetarian will always maximize utility, which means that utilitarianism can make no standing argument for vegetarianism at all, much less veganism.

More consistent with the utilitarian view is his assertion that it may be morally justifiable to eat animals who “have a pleasant existence in a social group suited to their behavioral needs, and are then killed quickly and without pain.”[8]

Issues: Fails to offer normative guidance

The vegetarian question points to a lack of normative guidance (i.e., guidelines for standard, everyday behavior) offered by Singer’s views. In Animal Rights Theory and Utilitarianism: Relative Normative Guidance, Gary L. Francione reveals utilitarianism’s lack of normative guidance by focusing on three components of moral theory that he identifies as the ideal level, the micro-level, and the macro-level.

The ideal level asks what ideal state a theory aims to achieve. The clarity of a theory’s ideal state is important because it helps guide micro- and macro-level components of moral decision-making. The micro-level component of a theory guides our personal behavior. The macro-level component examines whether a theory prescribes how to effect incremental change in order to achieve a theories ideal state of affairs.

Under the rights view, it may be said that the ideal state is the complete abolition of institutionalized animal exploitation, a fairly clear, measurable objective. Knowing that this is our ideal state, it becomes rather plain that our personal obligation on the micro level is to avoid participating in activities that, at the very least, contribute directly to animal exploitation (i.e., we ought to be vegan). On the macro level, a coherent prescription for incremental change guides us to a strategy of spreading rights-based ideology and veganism.

Singer’s ideal is much more vague, requiring as it does that offer nonhuman animals equal consideration for their interests while maximizing utility. How do we describe or measure this objective, much less know when we have reached it (assuming it is a place one could even “reach”)? This view offers no practical guidance for making decisions, ultimately leading us to make best guesses about what is likely to “reduce” suffering to some indeterminable extent.

The calculations required to follow this rule for micro-level decision-making are stunningly complicated. Among our variables are every individual who might be affected by what we choose to do, the preferences those individuals have, and the varying weights of these preferences. Assuming it was possible to gather all this data, we would then have to make comparisons of these preferences between individuals and across species, and we would have to determine which satisfied preferences maximize utility, which don’t, and so on. As if this wasn’t burden enough, we must perform this complex calculus for every considered action, and there’s still a chance our estimates could be wrong due to our lack of perfect knowledge, our inability to predict how other involved parties might behave, much less our general inability to predict the future.

On the macro-level of decision-making, the admonition to do whatever we think might best reduce suffering is equally unhelpful. Already our ideal state is vague, so this sort of guidance makes it hard to know where we’re headed incrementally as a group. Nor do we always know whether and how much our actions will reduce suffering, which is perhaps what leads certain animal advocates to focus on what some new welfare advocates call the “low-hanging fruit.”

This approach to advocacy involves welfare campaigns that are problematic for a number of reasons that I will analyze in my next AR101 installment. Suffice it to say for now that the macro-level component here fails to meaningfully distinguish our incremental actions as a movement from those who exploit animals (none of whom believe we ought to, say, increase suffering). It is hard to see how animals will be liberated if we are merely reinforcing the existing paradigm that it is acceptable to use animals, so long as we minimize their suffering.

Conclusion

Compared to a rights-based approach, which simply tells us that equal consideration means equal protection for those interests that are equal (leading to veganism), utilitarianism is unclear and could possibly even lead to immoral results. In my next installment of AR101, I will examine the new welfare approach of the modern “animal rights movement,” which is informed by utilitarian thought. As we shall see, utilitarianism’s vague, conflicting, and difficult-to-fulfill prescriptions offer little, or worse, confusing guidance for our advocacy.

Next: New Welfarism

Previous: Property


1. Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 14.

 

2. ______, Animal Liberation, Ecco paperback, first edition (New York: Harper Collins, 2002), 6.

3. Much is made of the influence wrought by Animal Liberation on the “animal rights movement,” though its author distances himself from rights theory, calling his use of the term a concession to popular moral rhetoric (Peter Singer, “The Parable of the Fox and the Unliberated Animals,” Ethics 88, no. 2 {January 1978}, p. 122). Despite this, the utilitarian’s groundbreaking 33 year-old book continues to be recommended by a number of prominent advocates, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, as the “animal rights ‘bible’.” PETA’s merchandise catalog states, “If you read only one animal rights book, it has to be this one.”

I want to be clear on a few things. Animal Liberation does raise some important philosophical questions regarding our treatment of animals. It is not a trivial work, and it obviously influenced a new movement on behalf of animals that, in some form, is still around today. However, its own author has disavowed rights, and Animal Liberation does not promote any sort of rights theory whatsoever. It is not an animal rights book. As such, it does not provide any clear guidance for rights advocacy.

If you want to read an animal rights book, and you can read only one for some reason, then allow me to recommend Gary L. Francione’s Introduction to Animal Rights: Your Child or the Dog? Within that book, you’ll find a concise and easy-to-understand discussion of animal rights theory, along with a coherent prescription for a rights-based approach to abolishing animal exploitation.

4. Tom Regan, The Case for Animal Rights, 1st ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 227-28.

5. Gary L. Francione, “Equal Consideration,” in Animals as Persons: Essays on the Abolition of Animal Exploitation (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 168.

6. ______, Rain Without Thunder: The Ideology of the Animal Rights Movement (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996), 49.

7. ______, “Animal Rights Theory and Utilitarianism: Relative Normative Guidance.”

8. Singer, Animal Liberation, 229-30


I hope you’re finding this series useful. I enjoy the reading comments I’ve been receiving so far, so please continue to share your thoughts by commenting below.

 

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Proposition 2 and online debates

California’s Proposition 2 has stirred up plenty of controversy, both between the animal exploitation industries and the animal protection industry, and between animal advocates.

Proposition 2, a ballot initiative that will be voted on this November, is intended to eliminate certain confinement practices used by animal agribusiness, albeit with some exemptions. Basically it would require that, for the majority of each day, calves, egg-laying hens, and pregnant pigs be confined only in ways that would allow them to lie down, stand up, fully extend their limbs, and turn around freely. In other words, it doesn’t eliminate confinement systems; it merely modifies some of them to be slightly less restrictive (in the case of California, this mainly affects egg production). Exceptions are built in for seven-days prior to a pregnant pig’s expected date of delivery, and for 4-H programs, rodeos, fairs, research, veterinary purposes, slaughter, and transportation. Violations of the regulations would be misdemeanors, restricting the potential fine to $1,000 and/or imprisonment up to 180 days.

Recognizing the disagreement between different types of animal advocates over Proposition 2, Doris Lin, the host of About.com‘s new animal rights topic, is hosting a debate on Proposition 2. Professor Gary L. Francione, author and abolitionist animal rights proponent, represents the con argument, while the the pro argument is offered by animal welfare proponent Paul Shapiro, the Senior Director of the Humane Society of the United States‘ Factory Farming Campaign. Shapiro calls the ballot measure Making History for Animals, while Francione calls it A Losing Proposition. Of course, it’s a strange debate because there’s no real back and forth between the two debaters, not to mention the fact that HSUS’s mission is modifying animal use, not abolishing it.

While you’re off reading online debates, you might be interested in some other topics hosted by Opposing Views. The site asks a lot of controversial questions, not just animal-related issues, and it seems to be fairly well designed and easy to navigate. In addition to calling on “experts” (mostly special interest groups) to debate the subject, Opposing Views invites your comments, involving you directly in the debate. The issue of “pet” ownership finds Francione and HSUS in opposition once again. You can also read their arguments and the arguments of other “experts” on a variety of related topics, including using animals in research, keeping animals in zoos, and “meat”-eating. There’s no debate on Proposition 2 over there as of yet, but they do take suggestions for topics, and maybe Opposing Views would provide a better format for that debate than the statements offered at About.com, seeing as how it allows for counterpoint and objections.

Back to Proposition 2, of course the animal exploiting industries are totally opposed. They don’t want animal advocates making any inroads on regulating how they use animals. They see the measure potentially leading to other regulatory reforms around the country, so they have more or less united in their opposition to it.

Seems intuitive how an animal-friendly person might vote, right? Well, consider that this measure does not come close to questioning animal use; it merely modifies how animals are used in such a way as to make it seem somewhat less objectionable. Also consider the following:

1. Veal crates and gestation crates (for pigs) have already been phased out or are being phased out by the industries in California as this debate goes on. At this time, there is no indication that doing so is harming the industries or reducing consumption of flesh products from calves and pigs.

2. Proposition 2’s regulations apply only to producers in California. It is not a ban on products produced using these methods. Stores seeking less expensive eggs to sell their customers may buy them from out-of-state producers, and egg companies that don’t want to follow the new regulations can move their operations out of state.

3. Proposition 2 does not end the confinement and torture of animals from their artificially-induced births to their untimely killings. If successful, sustained, followed, and enforced, Prop 2 will only allow certain animals a bit more space to move and adjust their position while they are being confined, and for only part of the day. Even then, all bets are off during transport and slaughter. It does not address the myriad other harms caused to animals throughout the production process.

4. Egg production systems in Europe have gone cage-free, and the barn systems they are using there have even received a seal of approval from the Royal Society for the Protection of Animals, which leads consumers to believe that the animals’ welfare is being given top priority. The video below shows that there are plenty of problems inherent in cage-free systems.

What do you make of all this debate over Prop 2? What do you make of the proposition itself? Share your comments below

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Vegan brunch

I had brunch at a new Boston area restaurant today, Vej Naturals, and very much enjoyed my Southern Platter…

(Pan-fried seitan cutlet served with Home-style Gravy, scrambled tofu, grits, and greens)


…and the bites of French Toast my friend (the photographer, Laureen) was kind enough to share with me:

(Sliced bread dipped in a sweet cashew milk, grilled then topped with fresh fruit and whipped “cream”)

Just a brief reminder how, ahem, “deprived” vegans are.


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Letter published in the Washington Post

I wrote a letter to the Washington Post in response to Wednesday’s article, A Dish That Gets a Fuzzy Reception. That letter, which they called Those Rabbits: Friend or Food?, was published today, FYI.

From the article:

Chef Stefano Frigerio braces himself when he puts rabbit on the menu at Mio. It’s only a matter of time before someone complains.

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Animal Rights 101, part four: Property Status

Property status

Humans have long dominated animals, including wild (or “free-living”) animals, treating them as if they were our property since well before our laws formally defined them as such. Over time, our sense of entitlement to use animals as things for our benefit became firmly embedded in our culture. Indeed, it was animals’ de facto property status that led to them being legally classified as property to begin with.

This deeply entrenched property status is the key obstacle to securing legal rights for nonhuman animals because, as long as humans perceive nonhumans to be property, we will be unable to abolish their legal property status. As mentioned in my previous post, property cannot possess legal rights, only persons can.

Persons are the humans, corporations, and other institutions endowed with rights by law, including the right to own and use property as a means to some recognized end. For instance, a person’s bicycle is a means for her to travel from one place to another. That bicycle belongs to her, and she may use or not use it as she sees fit. Because the bicycle is an inanimate object, it is not sentient, and therefore it has no interests for her to take into consideration.

Unlike bicycles and all other inanimate objects, sentient animals do have interests that merit consideration, and this presents us with our problem: Because they are legally classified as property that humans may use as a means to any recognized end, just like inanimate objects such as bicycles, they are prevented from possessing any legal rights that would protect their interests.

Legal welfarism

In lieu of legal rights, numerous welfare laws and anticruelty statutes have been enacted over the past 200 years or so, with the intent of protecting at least one very important animal interest that humans have recognized as significant enough to be given our consideration: that of not being made to suffer. To avoid causing animals “unnecessary” suffering in the course of our using them as means to our ends, welfare laws seek to ensure that persons treat animals “humanely.” “Necessity” is evaluated by balancing human interests against the interests of animals in a given scenario.

Gary L. Francione identifies the futility of this balancing act in Animals, Property, and the Law:

…although the law prohibits the infliction of “unnecessary” pain and suffering on animals and requires that they be treated “humanely,” these terms are interpreted in light of the legal status of animals as property, the importance of property in our culture, and the general tendency of legal doctrine to protect and to maximize the value of property. (p. 4)

In other words, as long as animals are regarded as the property of humans, their interests will never count for as much as legally protected human interests, and so the scale will be rigged in favor of humans before the balancing has even begun. Despite the existence of myriad animal welfare laws and cruelty statutes intended to protect animals from suffering, then, animals’ interests remain more or less unprotected. Without legal rights, even an animal’s most significant interests cannot be protected from being traded away in favor of any trivial human interest so long as that human interest is in some recognized end (see Legal welfarism illustrated, below, for an example).

Francione calls this entire framework “legal welfarism.” Unlike rights theory, which regards every animal as an end, legal welfarism regards nonhuman animals solely as a means to some end (“food animals,” “lab animals,” “game animals,” “fur animals,” “companion animals,” “animal actors,” etc.). Presuming from the outset that animals are property for us to use, legal welfarism asks only that we determine whether or not an animal is being treated “humanely” in the course of being exploited–and provides them with only that level of protection that facilitates humans using them as a means to their recognized ends, e.g., advancing scientific knowledge, producing food, and so on. As Francione suggests, “The only activities that remain to be prohibited by such statutes are those where no socially recognized benefit can be traced to the animal killing or suffering.” (p. 129)

Legal welfarism illustrated

To illustrate legal welfarism in effect, let’s examine a couple of hypothetical scenarios involving the use of a cow. Bear in mind throughout that the cow has an interest in not being used as property precisely to avoid being the victim in either of these hypothical scenarios in the first place.

Now, to determine whether or not an activity would be prohibited by an anticruelty statute, we must break the question of “necessary” suffering into two parts (See Figure 1, below). Part 1 asks whether the end is recognized, i.e., whether or not using the cow provides some recognized human benefit. If the end is, say, “satisfying a teenager’s sadistic interests,” the answer for Scenario 1 is “No.” The law does not recognize the end of satisfying one’s sadistic intersts as providing some human benefit–quite the contrary. Regardless of the teenager’s exact plans for the cow, any suffering he causes the cow in the end of satisfying his sadistic interests will be considered “unnecessary,” and is thus prohibited.

Case closed. On to Scenario 2.

If the end in question is “using a cow for the purpose of food, clothing (or some other recognized end),” then the answer to Part 1 under the legal welfarism paradigm would be “Yes.” While the cow has the exact same interest in not suffering as in Scenario 1, the law recognizes that producing food and clothing provides a human benefit, and so it is determined that this activity or end is “necessary.” The cow’s interest is effectively trumped, and so we move on to Part 2.

Part 2 asks whether the means the cow’s owner employs to the end of using a cow to produce food or clothing is consistent with that end. If the cow’s owner lets her starve due to neglect, then the owner will have caused “unnecessary” suffering. Neglect is therefore prohibited. Starving one’s cow is not consistent with the end of using that cow to produce food or clothing. It’s a pointless “waste.”

On the other hand, if a cow experiences suffering in the course of being used as a means to the end of producing food and clothing for human benefit, that suffering is considered “necessary” so long as the suffering is the result of a standard industry practice. Of course, the law also recognizes as “necessary” the death of the cow as a means to achieving the recognized end of feeding and clothing humans, despite the cow’s demonstrable interest in staying alive.

The law will rule as “unnecessary” only that suffering which does not conflict with the animal owner’s ability to exploit an animal efficiently. Generally, however, the law will defer to property owners when determining whether or not a certain activity is necessary.

It’s generally assumed under the legal welfarism paradigm that a property owner wouldn’t intentionally devalue his property by causing that property “unnecessary” suffering. Therefore, whatever suffering the owner does incur must be “necessary” to increase the value of the property or maximize the benefits of that use for humans.

What about “wild” animals?

Though many nonhuman animals are born free in nature, as non-persons they still do not have a legal right not to be property. Though they may not technically be property, they are still regarded as if they are property (e.g., as mere things, or potential property), and our laws allow humans to “convert” certain wild animals into their personal property through the act of hunting and capturing or killing those animals.

All animals’ interests may be traded away in favor of human interests as long as they are not protected by legal rights. And, even though some animals aren’t technically personal property, their property status always tips the scale in favor of human interests, as if they were in fact property.

Conclusion

As long as animals are regarded as property, the balancing of animal and human interests is futile. The only way to balance the scales–to honestly give the like interests of humans and nonhumans equal consideration–is to give animals legal rights that protect their interests, too. Then we’ll be on a level playing field. But if we ever want to see this happen, we must first abolish their property status–starting with the very perception that it is acceptable to use animals as if they were property.

Next post: Utilitarianism

Previous post: Animal Rights

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Animal Rights 101, part three: Animal Rights

Introduction

As with the term “rights,” there is a great deal of confusion about the term “animal rights.” Much of this confusion has been caused not just by the media and the industries that exploit nonhuman animals, but also by activists and animal advocacy groups using the term to loosely describe any actions purported to improve the conditions of animals used by humans. In other words, rather than promoting the moral or legal rights of animals, some so-called “animal rights activists” focus on regulating animal welfare–how animals are treated.

Further confusing the issue, some animal rights activists seek legal rights for only a select category of sentient nonhuman animals (such as great apes), based on characteristics such as higher-order cognitive abilities. The rights theory I put forth here–laid out in far greater detail in Gary L. Francione’s highly recommended Introduction to Animal Rights: Your Child or the Dog?–holds that any sentient being has at least one basic moral right simply by virtue of that being’s sentience: The right not be treated merely as a means to another’s end.

Sentience

To be sentient is to be conscious or self-aware, capable of perception or feeling. Sentient humans and nonhumans feel sensations of pain, pleasure and so on. When a being is sentient, s/he will naturally have interests. For instance, the capacity for sentient beings to feel pain provides them with a clear interest in not feeling pain.

In recognition of this particular interest, we generally consider it unacceptable to inflict pain on another sentient being unless there is an extraordinarily good reason. Take the example of a boy who harms a nonhuman simply to satisfy his morbid curiosity. He straps an ordinary dog down on a table and cuts her open to have a look inside. As he does this, the dog yelps, howls, and struggles, but the boy keeps cutting, ignoring her cries.

I think it’s safe to assume we all find the boy’s behavior objectionable. Various reasons may be offered for this, from our concern that the boy has psychological problems–and that these problems could lead to him harm other humans some day–to our concern that the dog might belong to another human who has an emotional attachment to her. But these are not the fundamental reasons for our objection. We are upset by the example because we recognize that the boy is causing the dog unnecessary pain.

If the dog was not sentient, then she wouldn’t have an interest in not being caused pain (because non-sentient beings are unable to sense pain), and so there would be no harm done. But, of course, we know that the dog is sentient, and we know that the boy’s actions cause her much pain.

Now, if we were to agree that the pain was for some justifiable reason necessary, we might be distressed by what is being done to the dog, but we would not object to it as a moral matter. For instance, if the boy was attacked by the dog and killed her to protect himself from a similar fate, we might be saddened by her death, but we would say that it was justified in this particular situation. However, it cannot be reasonably held that the boy needs to harm the dog merely to satisfy his curiosity.

This example illustrates how, as long as a being is sentient, we recognize–as a moral matter–that the being has an interest in not being harmed, which cannot be ignored or overridden unless it is truly necessary to do so. This belief is based on no other characteristic than the being’s ability to feel that pain. No other characteristics beyond sentience are necessary to merit moral consideration.

Equal Consideration

The principle of equal consideration holds that, as a basic moral matter, we ought to treat like cases alike. Viewed in terms of interests, the principle requires that the like interests of various beings must be given equal consideration. As described above, nonhumans and humans are alike in at least one important, morally relevant respect: they are sentient and, as such, they have interests that must be considered. Extending the principle of equal consideration to all sentient beings requires that we give nonhumans’ interests equal weight to humans’ interests. Where our interests are the same, we must weigh them equally.

So how does this work?

Let’s examine a simple case involving humans. Morally, we disapprove of killing other humans without justification (e.g., self defense). This is because we recognize that human beings have an interest in not being killed. We take this interest very seriously, protecting it with a legal right. A person’s interest in not being killed does not derive from skin color, sex, or cognitive abilities. When we give equal weight to the interests of white and black people, people of any sex or intelligence level, we recognize that they all have an equal interest in continued existence, and we accept that we might protect this interest equally.

Species is not the basis for an interest in continued existence, either. Humans do not have an interest in continued existence because they are human, but because they are sentient. As previously discussed, all sentient beings have interests, including a fundamental interest in staying alive.1 According to the principle of equal consideration, to whatever extent we respect a human’s interest in not being killed, then we must also respect a nonhuman’s interest in not being killed. If we accept that a human’s interest in continued existence cannot be outweighed by another human’s interest in pleasure, then we must accept that a nonhuman’s interest in continued existence cannot by outweighed by a human’s interest in pleasure.

There is simply no non-arbitrary difference between humans and other animals that justifies treating their like interests differently.2 Remember, we accord equal consideration where our interests are alike. Because there is no characteristic possessed by sentient nonhumans that justifies giving their like interests less consideration than our own, they ought to be protected equally. This brings us to animal rights.

Animal Rights

Recall from my previous AR101 post that rights protect one’s interests against those who would disregard those interests. All sentient beings have interests, both human and nonhuman, and so they all belong in the moral community of rightholders. When we say that nonhuman animals have moral rights, we are basically acknowledging that some of their interests are like ours and that these interests must be given equal consideration to our own. So, if we have a moral right not be killed (even if it might benefit someone to kill us), then our understanding of the principle of equal consideration leads us to the conclusion that nonhuman animals have that moral right as well, as they have the exact same underlying interest.

As discussed previously, we expect that, at some point, legally defined rights will reflect the moral rights that we already accept. Moral and legal rights for animals, then, derive from the notion of equal consideration for their basic interests. Saying that animals have rights is the same as saying that animals are rightholders. It doesn’t necessarily say which rights animals have morally, and which they should be granted legally. Moral rights would, of course, become better understood as we begin to give the interests of nonhuman animals equal consideration. The expectation is that legal rights would follow along the same lines.

While we may not agree on all the specific moral rights possessed by sentient nonhuman animals, but there must be at least one fundamental moral right they hold if any other rights are to make sense: The right not be treated as a thing, as merely the means to another’s end. This must also be granted as a legal right if any other legal animal rights are going to mean anything. Nonhuman beings simply have no legal rights as long as they are regarded as property, i.e., a means to the ends of a person. Remember, property cannot have rights, only persons can.

In my next post, part four of AR101, I will discuss in more detail how property status relates to animal rights, along with its implications.

Next post: Property Status

Previous post: Rights

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1. Remember, if one is not sentient, one simply has no interests to speak of.
2. There are certainly some interests sentient beings do not have in common. For instance, nonhumans do not have a demonstrable interest in voting, bearing arms, and so on, and therefore we are not obligated to consider those interests. After all, you cannot give consideration to an interest if it does not exist.