Different bloggers will be posting some musings, questions we're pondering, and maybe some announcements related to the philosophical community at Bethel University. Responses are encouraged, whether you're directly connected to Bethel or not. And be sure to like our facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/bethelphilosophy
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
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
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
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