Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Why Animals Have Rights

Last week, Blake Hereth of Drake University came to Bethel and defended veganism.  Blake is a long-time vegetarian, but he recently graduated to veganism, so that he neither eats animals nor uses any animal-related products.  The reason is that, in his view, animals have rights.  An abridged version of his argument for this conclusion follows.

But first, a picture of me and Blake standing by a poster in the stairwell...

And now Blake.  P.S.  Citations have been removed from this paper.  If you want to see them, let me know.

Why Animals Have Rights

Animals have rights, and for the same reason we do: because they’re proper members of the social contract, members to whom we have direct (as opposed to indirect) duties.

John Rawls, in A Theory of Justice, argued that the true principles of justice (and, by extension, the true principles of morality) are the ones that fully rational beings would agree to behind a veil of ignorance.

What is a veil of ignorance? In brief, it’s what it sounds like: it’s being in a state where you don’t know who or how you’ll be in the world. You don’t know if you’ll be male or female, bisexual or heterosexual, rich or poor, South American or European.

Being in this state matters because it removes the possibility of bias. Thus, when you choose what principles everyone will live by, you choose ones that favor not only who and how you will in fact turn out to be, but who and how you might turn out to be. Because you might turn out to be anyone, the principles you would choose would protect everyone equally.

Who can be a direct party to the social contract? The answer is: anyone who stands to gain or lose anything from the terms of that contract.

Who has something to lose or gain from the terms of the contract? Certainly, anyone from the perspective of whose life it would be better or worse to live as a result of employing the terms of that contract.

Suppose someone defended the sexist view that females aren’t members of the social contract. Against this, we could plausibly argue that because adopting such a view would entail a lack of (direct) obligations to females, which might drastically alter the quality of their lives from their point of view, they could reasonably reject such treatment. Additionally, each of us, if we were perfectly rational, would reject such treatment for ourselves if we believed that we might turn out to be females. Given these considerations, females are of course members of the social contract.

The same is true of many non-human animals. If, behind the veil of ignorance, we ask ourselves, “What if I turn out to be a dog? How would I agree to be treated?” we will discover that the terms of the social contract can affect the lives of animals. We will discover that there are better and worse animal lives from the animal’s point of view, just as there are better and worse lives from the point of view of human animals.

Being a member of the social contract has its perks. For one, it gives you rights. Here’s an example of how that works. Suppose someone beats you bloody for no good reason. This is an action that you could reasonably reject, assuming you had the opportunity for a prior say in the matter. (That’s what the veil of ignorance is for: having a hypothetically prior say.) Because you could reasonably reject being beaten bloody for no good reason, it’s wrong to do that to you. The only permissible acts are the ones that no one could reasonably reject. As T.M. Scanlon puts the matter,

When I ask myself what reason the fact that an action would be wrong provides me with a reason not to do it, my answer is that such an action would be one that I could not justify to others on grounds I could expect them to accept. ... In particular, an act is wrong if and only if any principle that permitted it would be one that could reasonably be rejected by people with the motivation just described (or, equivalently, if and only if it would be disallowed by any principle that such people could not reasonably accept).

The mere fact that non-human animals are direct members of the social contract tells us very little about what rights they have. So, what rights do non-human animals have?

One such right is the right not to be killed (recreationally or otherwise) for food. After all, it’s difficult to imagine how someone couldn’t reasonably reject being killed for food. Certainly I could reasonably reject such treatment, but then it’s also true that I would reject this behind a veil of ignorance, not knowing who I might become. If I were a dog, being killed and eaten would make my life worse from my perspective; it’s therefore a harm to me, and I can reasonably reject harm. Thus, I can reasonably reject this treatment whether I imagine myself as a rat or a pig or a dog or a boy.

This takes us further, all the way to ethical vegetarianism and even ethical veganism. Behind the veil of ignorance, we can reasonably reject principles such as these: “Others should be permitted to take from us, by force, our property”; “others should be permitted to imprison us without our consent for the sole purpose of harvesting valuable items from our bodies”; “others should be permitted to obtain, keep, and enjoy products which were obtained from us immorally.”

As examples, consider that we could reasonably reject being forced to surrender our kidneys, or being imprisoned without our consent merely to harvest our blood. We could also reasonably reject having our organs or blood used by others if they were obtained from us immorally.

The same is true of non-human animals: they could reasonably reject being forced to surrender their flesh, or being imprisoned without their consent merely to have their eggs or milk harvested. They could also reasonably reject having their meat, milk, or eggs used by others if they were obtained immorally. Thus, we ought to be vegans (at least in the majority of cases).


Michael Hands said...

The Veil of Ignorance works because we can imagine what it's like to be a "rich" human, "poor" human, "black" human, "white" human. The problem with using the veil to ground animal rights is that we have no idea what it's like to be a dog, lobster, moth, etc. Claiming to know what rights a "rational dog" expects is to be guilty of an anthropomorphic fallacy. We can imagine what it would like to be a human in a dog's body. But that's not relevant since we're merely imagining what it's be like to be a human in a dog's body and not a dog.

Zach Berry said...

Michael, when applying the veil of ignorance specifically to human beings, ought we attempt to imagine what is like to be like those that we can imagine to be like (e.g. the "rich" or the "poor" human) and merely consider the rights of those who we cannot think like (e.g. those in a persistent vegetative state)? It seems difficult to me to be able to think like a person in a persistent vegetative state or to think like a person with a mild or severe form of mental retardation. In light of this, while we cannot imagine what is like to be a person with even a mild form of mental retardation, must we consider their rights as a human being opposed to attempting to imagine what it's like to be like them? In the same way, rather than attempt to imagine what is like to be a rational dog, ought we to merely consider their rights similarly to human beings who we cannot imagine what is like to be like them?

Ray VanArragon said...

I want to explore an objection similar to Michael’s. Like him, I wonder whether there are better or worse animal lives “from the animal’s point of view.” I would doubt that an animal that is experiencing a lousy life has any conception of what a better life is like. The same probably applies to a person with severe mental retardation (as Zach pointed out). But to my mind this may mean that we should look elsewhere for a theory of justice instead of depending on Rawls.

Let me push this thought in a different direction. Suppose it DOESN'T matter that an animal lacks a point of view sophisticated enough to recognize that there is a better life available to it. It is still a direct party to the social contract. Should veil of ignorance reasoning then be applied to plants as well? The thistle plant in my backyard isn't sophisticated enough to recognize that a better life is available to it — a better life, that is, than its actual life in which I brutally chop it down and deposit it in the compost pile — but in fact a better life IS available to it, a better life (in some sense) from ITS point of view. So is it also a direct party to the social contract? I take it that’s a result that no one would want!

Ray VanArragon said...

Blake kindly sent me a reply in response to the objections so far. It is taken from an article called "Contractarianism and Animal Rights" by philosopher Mark Rowlands. Here it is. See what you think.

(1) Contractualism doesn't entail that persons with cognitive disabilities are persons to whom we lack direct duties. The reason is that cognitive gifts are part of the natural lottery, and whatever benefits accrue from the natural lottery aren't benefits to which one is entitled. Thus, cognitive gifts aren't a necessary condition for moral status.

(2) "The limits of morality are, on the contractarian approach, determined by what occupants of the original position should rationally care about. That is, the scope of morality is restricted to things that an occupant of the original position could rationally worry about being. I can, in the original position, worry about being at least certain sorts of non-human animal since there is something that it is like to be them (at least for some of them). That is, non-human animals can, for example, suffer, and if I were one of them I wouldn't want this to happen to me. Plants and cars are not sentient, hence do not suffer. Therefore, in the original position, I would not vote to include these under the scope of justice just in case I became one. The contractarian position, therefore, makes sentience the cut-off point for moral considerability" (245).

Blake Hereth said...

Thanks to Ray for posting my (brief) replies. I'll now offer a more extensive reply to Michael's objection.

First, imagining one's self in various roles has obvious limits. It's arguably difficult to imagine myself as, say, a dog, because if I were a dog, I wouldn't be myself. However, it's crucial to realize that this epistemic limitation is grounded in a metaphysical truism with far broader implications than some realize. For instance, I can't imagine myself as *you* because, if I did, I wouldn't be imagining myself. (Or, rather, I'd be imagining myself looking like you, talking like you, etc., but not *being* you.) As another example, I can't imagine being a rock, because there's nothing that it's like to be a rock, though I can imagine myself being rock-like (e.g., hard and smooth, small, able to be skipped across a pond). Metaphysical impossibilities are literally such that they can't be imagined.

Second, these epistemic limits don't matter. Although I can't imagine myself as you (because, if I did, I wouldn't be imagining *myself* as you -- we're necessarily non-identical), I can imagine myself sharing morally relevant properties you have -- suffering, for example. The alternative is that I can't imagine what it's like for you, for example, to be kicked in the face repeatedly, in which case I don't know that it's harmful for you to be kicked in the face repeatedly, but then out goes my duty to refrain from kicking you in the face. (Why refrain if I have no reason to think it's wrong?) Clearly, however, this is misguided, because I have all sorts of evidence that kicking you repeatedly in the face would be harmful to you: (1) you tell me so; (2) you and I have very similar neuro-physiological properties which make pain possible; etc. But the same is true of animals, and no one can plausibly deny that animals can suffer.

Third, the fact that an experiencer, X, cannot recognize that life A is better than life B does not imply that there is no better or worse life for X. Due to my own cognitive limitations, there are various possible lives I cannot imagine which are invariably better than the one I currently live, but the fact that I cannot imagine them hardly implies that there are no better lives for me.

Now, Ray might reply that although this is true, A is not better than B *from my point of view* because I literally can't appreciate the difference. But that's irrelevant, because what matters isn't whether the actual entity sees the difference, but whether the hypothetical bargainers see a difference. On a contractualist view, the hypothetical bargainers determine the rules given a fully-informed tour of various possible existences.

Moreover, there is a sense in which it's true that experiencing pain or being killed and eaten is bad from my point of view even if I can't (currently) communicate it, understand it propositionally, and the like. Imagine that I'm having a stroke but it inhibits my ability to think propositionally. Thus, I can't think, "Ow! That hurts!" All I do is sense intense pain and I actively seek escape from it. But from my point of view, things are worse in the sense that I'm experiencing less pleasure than I was before; I desire to escape the current experience whereas I didn't when I was sipping my beer before the stroke; etc. These are features of my point of view, and things have, from my the vantage point of my conscious experience, disproved. Yet animals, too, have at least these abilities, and thus things can be better or worse from their point of view.

Ray VanArragon said...

Alright, so the social contract applies to beings that are sentient, and it applies to them even though they may not be capable of understanding that their lives can be better or worse than they are.

I want to pursue another line of questioning. I’m not sure that this contractarianism implies veganism.

Consider an egg-laying hen – not the kind confined to a factory farm, but the kind kept on a nice free-range farm, running around in a sizable pen, clucking happily, and laying eggs that the farmer sells at the market. I think I could will such an arrangement from behind the veil of ignorance.

After all, the domesticated hen’s options are limited. First, the hen could be let out to wander freely, in which case it would soon be brutally killed by predators. Sitting behind the veil, recognizing that I could be a hen, I wouldn’t want that. I’d want the protection of a happy farm. But would I want to be a free-loader, fed and protected without contributing? Well, if from behind the veil I’m trying to run a workable system, I can’t have freeloaders, creatures who milk the system, who have the ability to contribute something useful to it but don’t. This would apply to human beings who are able to do useful work but don’t want to. From behind the veil I would (with qualifications) want such humans to be paid only if they worked. But then same for the hens.

You may say, “But the chickens can’t give their consent! Making them contribute eggs is a violation of their rights!” But I’d think that their inability to give consent is irrelevant, just as their inability to recognize that they could have a better life is irrelevant. The perspective of a “hypothetical bargainer” like me is what matters. We hypothetical bargainers “determine the rules given a fully-informed tour of possible existences.” From behind the veil I don’t want a system of freeloaders, and I also don't think I'd mind being a hen under those conditions. Thus it would be rational for me to agree to a set of rules where I could end up being a hen who gives up her eggs essentially in exchange for her own happiness and protection.

But if so, then it would be acceptable for me to consume the eggs of properly-treated hens – that is, to not be a vegan.

Wheelz said...

I have a separate objection that I'd like to offer. Under the argument, we're supposing all animals to be members of society, party to the social contract, and possessors of certain basic rights. Some of the basic rights mentioned that animals possess are: the right to life (the right to not be killed for food, etc.), property rights (not being taken from without consent, and not being imprisoned to that end), and bodily rights (the rights to their own organs). I think there are a few more basic rights we need to discuss.

One of the most basic rights any member of society can have is that of self-defense. It can be considered a natural extension of the right to life (which animals would certainly have) and of rational self-interest. This is to say that if animals have bodily rights and property rights, then they have the right to defend their bodies and their property. At the very least, though, they have the right to defend themselves against unjust aggressors trying to kill them for food.

Well, let's think about self-defense for a minute. Typically it is allowed in discussions of the right to self-defense that one may provide defense for another innocent against an unjust aggressor. So, if I'm walking down the street and see a man attempting to rape a woman, I may intervene on her behalf.

When we extend this to thinking about the attacks of carnivorous animals on herbivorous animals, I think there may be problems. Remember that the deer has a right to life. It has a right “not to be killed (recreationally or otherwise) for food.” Is this not exactly what the wolf or the lion or the tiger is doing when killing the deer, antelope, elk, etc.? So the herbivore should have a right to self-defense against these carnivores. Unfortunately, though, these innocents lack the ability to defend themselves against such unjust aggressors.

Thankfully for the herbivores, other members of society may exercise their rights to self-defense on their behalf. Suppose I'm walking in the woods with my rifle when I spot a mountain lion stalking a fawn. There can be no more innocent creature than a newly born fawn. Should I not enact the fawn's right to self-defense against this aggressor by shooting the lion? I can't see why not – after all, the fawn has the right not to be eaten by food, the lion is attempting to usurp that right, and I am coming to the defense of that right.

Of course, if this is really the rationale that follows, carnivores can (and perhaps even should) be hunted into extinction (providing they are only killed when an attack on an innocent is immanent). The alternative could be capturing them all and holding them in cages, but that would probably violate their rights as well.

Michael Hands said...

Thanks for the thoughtful response, Blake.

I typed out a long comment but don't think it submitted correctly. Rather than retype it, here are the two gists:

It seems like harm is an essential concept in your essay and response, and you use the term in two senses: a specific sense related to pain and a sense related to general wellbeing.

1) Why does the "neuro-physiological properties which make pain possible," or capacity to feel pain, correspond to a right to life? The capacity to feel pain only implies a right not to be intentionally inflicted with pain or a right against torture. At best it's an argument for killing animals quickly or painlessly, but not against killing them in the first place. You need to either 1) make the connection between the capacity for pain and the right to life more explicit, or 2) posit a stand-alone or complimentary condition that confers the right to life.

In your essay, you use are in the more general sense of wellbeing. You say, “If I were a dog, being killed and eaten would make my life worse from my perspective; it’s therefore a harm to me, and I can reasonably reject harm.” But here I think you run into Dr. VanArragon’s plant objection. It’s not enough to use “sentience” as a get-out-jail-free card without 1) defining it and, 2) explaining what feature of sentience significantly distinguishes animals (and humans) from plants such they one deserves rights and the other does. Using the general definition of harm as anything detrimental to welfare, we can see how plants can be harmed too: by being stepped on, not watered, etc. But I don’t think we want to call walking on grass genocide and depriving our ficus of water criminal neglect. So what’s the difference?

Only playing devil’s advocate. Really enjoyed the essay. And long live Dr. VanArragon’s thistle bush!4

John Grandits said...

Just a note of clarification. I don't think Rawls excludes non-human animals or severely permanently disabled humans from the original position because we can't imagine being them, but because he limits the OP to those who exemplify what he calls "the two moral powers," i.e. those who are "rational" and "reasonable," i.e. those who have a capacity to form, pursue, and revise a conception of the good, and who have a capacity for a sense of justice (or are capable of cooperating with others). Importantly, Rawls's idea of society is of a system of cooperation between such persons. The idealized conditions of the OP reflect this by restricting the members of the OP to those who are capable of "fully cooperating over a complete life." In the literature, this is sometimes called Rawls's "fully cooperating assumption."

So one objection to Rawls is that his theory of justice excludes those who are incapable of fully cooperating - usually humans that are severely permanently disabled but, I suppose in this case, to animals as well. As I don't know the literature very well, I can't defend Rawls here except to say that Rawls does recognize the problem. But he brackets the problem, arguing that doing so will allow us to achieve a clear view about the fundamental question of political justice, which is:

"What is the most appropriate conception of justice for specifying the terms of social cooperation between citizens regarded as free and equal, and as normal and fully cooperating members of society over a complete life?...Other questions we can discuss later, and how we answer them may require us to revise answers already reached...there is the question of what is owed to those who fail to meet this condition [of being fully cooperating members], either temporarily (from illness or accident) or permanently...Finally there is the problem of what is owed to animals and the rest of nature."

He very briefly returns to this problem later, arguing that these issues are to be addressed, not from within the original position, but at a later stage, what he calls the "legislative stage." I take it that this has been received as a rather incomplete and unsatisfactory response as this topic has received considerable treatment among political philosophers in the last ten or fifteen years.

Blake Hereth said...


I'll first reply to Ray's argument that contractualism doesn't imply veganism.

It should first be noted that contractualism has very few obvious moral implications. In his two-volume work *On What Matters*, Derek Parfit argues that the most plausible version of contractualism implies something like maximizing act-consequentialism -- a sure surprise to many contractualists! Thus, there's room to argue about what could reasonably be accepted behind a veil of ignorance, and it shouldn't be surprising that there are diverse views here.

That being said, I don't think Ray's argument works. First, it doesn't take into account the limits of my argument, which explicitly states that we ought to be vegans "in most cases." That's largely because the dairy industry *doesn't* afford chickens the sort of consideration Ray describes. So we might simply regard Ray's argument as criticizing not my argument, but rather my argument on steroids. However, being the lover of steroids that I am, I'll (briefly) defend the Steroid Vegan View.

Things which are done to one without one's consent are, pro tanto, things which one can reasonably reject. This is because these things affect one's life, and this is particularly true when one's body (or bodily parts) are used or taken without one's consent. But Ray envisions an exception, one grounded in the fact that, because chickens can reasonably reject being left in Hobbes' high-risk "state of nature," they ought to be protected by those who can protect them -- human beings, in short. But it would be unreasonable, we might say, for these chickens to expect a "free ride": unreasonable to expect the farmers to protect the chickens without benefiting from it. The chickens, of course, cannot consent to this treatment, but this doesn't matter because it would be unreasonable for them to expect a free ride.

Let's explore this suggestion in another case, however. Suppose a group of cognitively impaired human beings have a reasonable claim to protection. Like the chickens, they would be very badly off in a state of nature -- and unfairly so, we're supposing. However, the farmers can reasonably reject protecting the human beings while reaping no benefits from it. After all, protecting is a burden, and it comes with various risks and inconveniences, and thus merits compensation. The farmers have a simple request for compensation: one kidney from every human, and one pint of blood every three months. These human beings are cognitively impaired to the extent that they cannot consent to having their kidneys and blood taken, but never mind this. They are, after all, not entitled to a free ride!

I suggest we reject this line of reasoning. We might do so in two ways.

First, we might suppose that the human beings and the chickens -- or just the chickens, but not the human beings -- can reasonably expect to be protected by others. After all, such expectations come with a cost to the protectors, and this can't be reasonably expected without compensation.

Second, we might suppose that the human beings and the chickens can reasonably expect to be protected by others to some extent, but reject the suggestion that they owe something to the protectors which they cannot and therefore do not in fact consent to give.

In either case, veganism appears morally required both in the majority of cases and even in cases where there is otherwise rather fine treatment.

Blake Hereth said...


I'll now reply to a comment by Wheelz.

There really are two distinct objections here, and each carries its own set of worries. The first objection is that if animals have rights, they have the right to defend themselves against unjust aggression; but many animals lack the ability to do so, and thus we ought to intervene on their behalf and kill the unjust aggressors (the carnivores -- although the concern is not restricted to carnivores). The second objection is that some animals are, by nature, carnivores, and thus it can't reasonably be expected that they refrain from eating meat, but then we lack a duty to protect them from carnivores. This latter objection, while not explicitly defended by Wheelz, is a related worry, and I therefore address it.

What can be said in reply to the first objection? Initially, we might suppose that the burden placed on us to protect animals which are routinely hunted or killed by other animals to be at considerable risk to us, and therefore something we could reasonably reject. But suppose it is easy, or easy in some particular case. What, then, is our duty?

One reply is simply to concede that we have a duty to protect the animals facing unjust threats. After all, plenty of us have saved animals from terrible fates: from abusive human aggressors, from other animals, and even from completely non-sentient threats like cancer.

Another reply is to admit that while animals have moral status, they do not have moral agency. Because they are not moral agents, they cannot have moral obligations. But then they have no duties to respect the rights of other animals, and thus violate no duty when they attack other animals. Presumably, what generates an obligation to protect animals under threat by other animals is that the innocent animals will otherwise have their rights violated -- yet this isn't true if animals aren't moral agents.

I'm undecided on this matter. However, whichever view is correct, the matter seems to me to be a decisive reply, just as it is in the case of innocent human aggressors. On, then, to the second objection.

Here, there is perhaps a more direct, decisive reply. Suppose there are human beings which, by nature, need to torture and consume infants to survive. Although it might initially seem that we could not reasonably require them to avoid torturing and consuming infants, we see that this request *is* reasonable on the grounds that their victims could reasonably reject being tortured and consumed.

What goes in this case goes in the case of carnivores: because their victims could reasonably reject being eaten, the carnivore has no reasonable claim to their lives.