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).
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