A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Positive Rights for Animals?

In response to Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Women, her former landlord and accomplished translator Thomas Taylor wrote a satirical book entitled A Vindication of the Rights of Brutes, which took the arguments Wollstonecraft had made in favour of women's rights and applied them to animals. Clearly in this context, The Rights of Brutes was intended as a reductio ad absurdum: back in the late eighteenth century, no-one in Britain would have taken seriously the proposition that animals had rights comparable to those of humans.

However, given many ideas which are nowadays commonly accepted I suspect that we are grossly hypocritical in our unwillingness to provide for the apparent positive rights of animals. My argument is roughly along these lines:
  1. Humans possess positive rights.
  2. There is some property which humans possess, by virtue of which they acquire these positive rights
  3. Animals also have this property, if not to the same extent as humans
  4. Therefore animals possess positive rights, if not as extensive as those of humans
I shall simply assume (1): personally I an not convinced that I agree with it, but it seems to be fairly widely accepted nowadays that there is a "right" to education and a "right" to healthcare.
(2) seems surely true if we accept (1): the idea that humans just *have* rights, and that there is no good reason for it, is strange if not contradictory. The question which we need to answer is, what is this property? I shall consider a number of examples and from this demonstrate the truth of (3), from which it seems that (4) follows logically.

Why might humans possess positive rights?

By saying that a person X has positive rights, I mean that others around them have an enforcible duty to provide certain goods and services to X if X does not or cannot provide them-self with such goods and service. If X has a right to healthcare, this means that should X fall ill and need healthcare then the people around them are morally obliged to pay for it.

Perhaps the most popular justification for such rights among modern political philosophers is simple membership of a society. The assumption tends to be that all members of a society implicitly contribute to all value created by that society, and therefore have a rights to some share of that value created. Can animals be considered part of a society? If by "society" we mean a group of persons/organisms providing each other with value, then yes: animals provide value as pets, as food, as entertainment. But when political philosophers talk of a society they more often mean something like "a group of people, all bound to a common set of rules". If animals follows these rules too, then this seemingly allows them, so perhaps our political philosopher might also impose some condition of consenting to these rules too. Requiring any kind of actual consent would go too far, since that doesn't exist even for humans, so we'll have to rely on hypothetical consent: "If humans were presented with these rules, they would agree to follow them." Even that is too strong - many of us wouldn't - so there will have to be something about a veil of ignorance to prevent us from consenting or not consenting on an individual basis. But if we're going this far away from real humans for their consent, then it doesn't seem unreasonable to suggest that animals should be considered in such a situation, as though they too were "as reasonable as rational beings" asked to consent to a set of rules.

In any case, this particular justification of positive rights is (in my opinion) complete hogwash. If people have positive rights, it is surely because there is something about humans which has intrinsic value. Claims about societies incurring duties for their members is silly as a political claim on numerous grounds (lack of voluntaryness, economic interaction has massive cross-society impact, etc) and moreover it suggests that we have no duties to those with whom we do not generally interact, such as isolated peasant communities, despite the fact that these are usually the people most in need of help! If someone is part of a community then they have an opportunity to improve their situation through trade and commerce: if we have a duty to help anyone it is the person without a society, isolated and compelled to be self-reliant.

Perhaps positive rights might be justified on grounds of agency? People make choices which can help or hinder others, and perhaps this somehow requires a certain standard of living in order to be properly informed about the choices they make. (I'm not bothering to put the argument in its strongest form, on the grounds that I see no need to knock it down). But if we accept a Compatibilist view of free will - the majority view among philosophers - then surely animals possess some kind of agency too? When confronted with a small child, a dog has the option of barking, of biting, or of lying on its back and waiting to be tickled. Obviously animals don't have as detailed a grasp of action than humans - a dog is unlikely to have much in the way of a system of ethics beyond "If I pee inside/ bark loudly at night/ run off when we're not at the park, then my master will shout at me," - but they are still capable of making these choices, which suggests that if we see agency as the source of the value of humans, animals also have this value.

Perhaps the ground of human value is more subjective - it is simply that we value humans, therefore they have value. In that case, animals - or at least some animals - obviously have value, because we value them enough to keep them as pets. And animals can value other animals - not just their children, but also animals in symbiotic or mutualistic relationships - so there's another source of value.

There are probably numerous other accounts of why humans are valuable, and I have neither the time nor the inclination to trawl through all of them. To finish, I'm simply going to point out that the idea that animals have positive rights is probably not as ridiculous as it sounds. Animal needs are presumably less diverse and easier to satisfy than those of humans - food, some kind of shelter, the option of socialising with other animals. And perhaps an iPad...

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