- The animal rights movement has gained considerable momentum in recent years, fuelled, in part, by the theoretical arguments of moral philosophers. Indeed, it is striking that almost all of the books and articles recently published on this issue have argued in favour of the moral standing of animals. This is not because the consensus amongst moral philosophers as a whole is that animals have rights. It is rather because, for one reason or another, most of those who take the opposite view have chosen to remain silent. This book is written in an attempt to redress the balance.
- My view is that the case for the moral standing of animals is weak, and that the contrary case is, by contrast, very powerful. In fact, I regard the present popular concern with animal rights in our culture as a reflection of moral decadence. Just2 as Nero fiddled while Rome burned, many in the West agonise over the fate of seal pups and cormorants while human beings elsewhere starve or are enslaved. This reaction is, to a degree, understandable. For animal sufferers are always blameless, and the steps necessary to improve their situation are generally plain. Our response to human suffering, in contrast, is often complicated by the suspicion that the victims, or their political representatives, are at least partially responsible for their fate, and by knowledge of the fearsome complexity of the economic and social problems involved in such issues as famine relief. Whatever may have been true of Nero, our species of decadence may consist in a weakness for easy options, rather than in any failure of moral sensitivity.
- The recent explosion of interest in animal rights has had a variety of sources, no doubt, besides moral paralysis in face of the enormity of the world’s human problems.
The main purpose of this book is to show that these charges can be rebutted. Besides exposing the implausibility of those theories that would grant rights3 to animals, I shall defend a theoretical framework that accords full moral standing to all human beings, while non-arbitrarily withholding such standing from animals.
- One such source may be the increasing urbanisation of Western culture, that has dramatically diminished the extent of personal working contact with animals. The sentimentality that many people feel for their pets has thus come to spread itself over the whole animal domain.
- But another source has undoubtedly been intellectual. The philosophical gurus of the animal rights movement have managed to seize the moral high ground, charging those who oppose them with inconsistency or morally arbitrary speciesism.
- In attacking those who attribute moral standing to animals, however, I am not opposing those who are animal lovers, as I explain in the opening chapter. Indeed, I count myself as belonging to the latter group. But it is one thing to love animals for4 their grace, beauty, and marvellous variety, and quite another to believe that they make any direct moral claims5 upon us. Nor should I be seen as placing myself in opposition to recent ecology movements. But my view is that rare species of animal and rain-forests are worth preserving for their importance to us, not because they have moral significance, or moral rights, in their own6 right. Far from being strengthened, the ecology movement is only weakened by association with such extreme and indefensible views.
- This book is aimed primarily at non-philosophers, in the sense that I try to take nothing for granted, and lay out my material as clearly and explicitly as I can. All I assume is that my readers are prepared to think while they read, and that they can follow the course of a rational argument. This does not mean, however, that I talk down to my audience. I do not write from any position of specialised knowledge or superior wisdom, but only as one who has tried to think honestly and openly about the issues. In any case, I belong to that breed of contemporary philosopher who holds that the life-blood of philosophy is accessibility. Where philosophy retreats into technicality it withers and dies, and where it takes refuge in obscurity it only forms a rallying point for those who care nothing for truth.
- Although human beings are, strictly speaking, a species of animal, for reasons of simplicity I shall use the term ‘animal’, throughout, in such a way as to contrast with ‘human being’. So when I raise the question whether any animals have rights, what I am asking, in fact, is whether any non-human animals have rights. …
Footnote 1: Truncated.
Footnote 3: I agree they don’t have rights, but we have duties not to treat them any worse than is strictly necessary for our legitimate aims.
- I don’t accept the analogy, or the example.
- It’s not as though helping human beings and helping animals are mutually exclusive.
- Also, there are (I imagine) arguments in favour of seal culls from within an animal welfarist (or at least consequentialist) perspective.
- But, seal pups are not the critical case. The “fiddling” is taking action on this issue when billions of chickens live lives of terror and misery.
Footnote 4: While OK as far as it goes, this just treats animals as objects, rather than as ends in themselves.
- I don’t see why a contractarian framework can’t be made to work, even though animals can’t sign up.
- They don’t deserve a free lunch, but in return for their performing whatever role they are bred to play in our affairs, they receive good care and support insofar as this is practical for “their humans”.
- How can this be right? While human beings have tried to control and enslave nature, and have been mostly successful, the negative consequences of this approach are now apparent.
- When the last tiger becomes extinct, this isn’t just bad for us, nor even for the tigers. Arguing for this intuition is difficult, however, as the arguments tend to be instrumentalist, with talk of food chains and the like – or even “grace and beauty” (though such aesthetic considerations are important – and beyond the sensibilities of particular societies; just because we disapprove of Roman religion doesn’t mean we can without loss destroy their temples).
- We need to think of ourselves as part of nature and not its master – which we are not, except when things go well. In reality, we live a very precarious existence – something mostly lost on academics with tenure.
Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)
- Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2019
- Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)