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14.4 Animal Rights

Learning Objectives

  1. Elaborate arguments in favor of and against the proposition that animals have ethical rights.
  2. Distinguish questions about animal rights from ones about animal suffering.

Do Animals Have Rights?

Were this a textbook in environmental ethics, two further questions would be added to this subsection’s title: which rights, which animals? It’s clear that chimps and dolphins are different from worms and, even lower, single-cell organisms. The former give coherent evidence of having some level of conscious understanding of their worlds; the latter seem to be little more than reactionary vessels: they get a stimulus, they react, and that’s it. Questions about where the line should be drawn between these two extremes, and by what criteria, fit within a more specialized study of the environment. In business ethics, attention fixes on the larger question of whether animals can be understood as possessing ethical rights as we customarily understand the term.

There are two principal arguments in favor of understanding at least higher-order nonhuman animals as endowed with rights:

  1. The cognitive awareness and interest argument
  2. The suffering argument

And there are three arguments against:

  1. The lack of expression argument
  2. The absence of duties argument
  3. The anthropomorphism suspicion argument

The cognitive awareness and interest argument in favor of concluding that animals do have ethical rights begins by accumulating evidence that nonhuman animals are aware of what’s going on around them and do in fact have an interest in how things go. As for showing that animals are aware and interested, in higher species evidence comes from what animals do. Most dogs learn in some sense the rules of the house; they squeal when kicked and (after a few occurrences) tend to avoid doing whatever it was that got them the boot. Analogously, anyone who’s visited Sea World has seen dolphins respond to orders, and seemingly understand that responding well is in their interest because they get a fish to eat afterward.

If these deductions of animal awareness and interest are on target, the way opens to granting the animals an autonomous moral value and standing. Maybe their ethical value should be inferior to humans who demonstrate sophisticated understanding of their environment, themselves, and their interests, but any understanding at all does bring animals into the realm of ethics because determinations about whose interests should be served in any particular situation are what ethical discussions concern. The reason we have ethics is to help those who have specific interests have them satisfied in ways that don’t interfere with others and their attempts to satisfy their distinct interests. So if we’re going to have ethical principles at all, then they should apply to dogs and dolphins because they’re involved in the messy conflicts about who gets what in the world.

Putting the same argument slightly differently, when the owner of a company decides how much of the year-end profits should go to employees as bonuses, that’s ethics because the interests of the owner and the employees are being weighed. So too when decisions are made at Sea World about how often and how intensely animals should be put to work in entertainment programs: the interests of profits (and human welfare) are being weighed against the interests of individual dolphins. As soon as that happens, the dolphins are granted an ethical standing.

The suffering argument in favor of concluding that animals do have ethical rights fits neatly inside utilitarian theory. Within this ethical universe, the reason we have ethical rules is to maximize happiness and minimize suffering. So the first step to take here is to determine whether dogs and similar animals do, in fact, suffer. Of course no dog complains with words, but no baby does either, and no one doubts that babies suffer when, for example, they’re hungry (and whining). When dogs would be expected to suffer, when they get slapped in the snout, they too exhibit clear signs of distress. Further, biological studies have shown that pain-associated elements of some animal nervous systems resemble the human version. Of course dogs may not suffer on the emotional level (if you separate a male and female pair, there may not be any heartbreak), and it’s true that absolute proof remains elusive, but for many observers there’s good evidence that some animals do, in fact, feel pain. If, then, it’s accepted that animals suffer, they ought to be included in our utilitarian considerations by definition because the theory directs us to act in ways that maximize happiness and minimize suffering. It should be noted that the theory can be adjusted to include only human happiness and suffering, but there’s no necessary reason for that, and as long as there’s not, the establishment of animal suffering is enough to make a reasonable case that they are entities within the ethical world, and ones that require respect.

On the other side, the arguments against granting animals a moral standing in the world begin with the lack of expression argument. Animals, the reasoning goes, may display behaviors indicating an awareness of the world and the ability to suffer, but that’s not enough to merit autonomous moral standing. To truly have rights, they must be claimed. An explicit and demonstrated awareness must exist of what ethics are, and why rules for action are attached to them. Without that, what separates animals from a sunflower? Like dogs, sunflowers react to their environment; they bend and twist to face the sun. Further, like dogs, sunflowers betray signs of suffering: when they don’t get enough water they shrivel. Granting, finally, animals rights based on their displaying some reactions to their world isn’t enough to earn a moral identity. Or if it is, then we end up in a silly situation where we have to grant sunflowers moral autonomy. Finally, because animals can’t truly explain morality and demand rights, they have none.

Another way to deny animal rights runs through the absence of duties argument. Since animals don’t have duties, they can’t have rights. All ethics, the argument goes, is a two-way street. To have rights you must also have responsibilities; to claim protection against injury from others, you must also display consideration before injuring others. The first question to ask, consequently, in trying to determine whether animals should have rights is whether they have or could have responsibilities. For the most part, the answer seems to lean toward no. Were a bear to escape its enclosure in the zoo and attack a harmless child, few would blame the bear in any moral sense; almost no one would believe the animal was guilty of anything other than following its instincts. People don’t expect wild animals to distinguish between their own interest and instinct on one side, and doing what’s right on the other. We don’t even expect that they can do that, and if they can’t, then they can’t participate in an ethical world any more than trees and other natural creatures that go through every day pursuing their own survival and little more.

The last argument against granting moral autonomy or value to animals is a suspicion of anthropomorphism. AnthropomorphismThe attribution of human qualities to nonhuman things. is the attribution of human qualities to nonhuman things. When we look at dogs and cats at home, or chimpanzees on TV, it’s difficult to miss the human resemblance, the blinking, alert eyes, the legs stretching after a nap, the howls when you accidentally step on a tail, the hunger for food, the thirst and need to drink. In all these ways, common animals are very similar to humans. Given these indisputable similarities, it’s easy to imagine that others must exist also. If animals look like we do (eyes, mouth, and nose), and if they eat and drink as we do, it’s natural to assume they feel as we do: they suffer sadness and boredom; they need affection and are happy being cuddled. And from there it’s natural to imagine that they think as we do, too. Not on the same level of sophistication, but, yes, they feel loyalty and experience similar inclinations. All this is false reasoning, however. Just because something looks human on the outside doesn’t mean it experiences some kind of human sentiments on the inside. Dolls, for example, look human but feel nothing.

Transferring this possibility of drawing false conclusions from superficial resemblances over to the question about animal rights, the suspicion is that people are getting fooled. Animals may react in ways that look like pain to us but aren’t pain to them. Animals may appear to need affection and construct relationships tinted with loyalty and some rudimentary morality, but all that may be just us imposing our reality where it doesn’t actually exist. If that’s what’s happening, then animals shouldn’t have rights because all the qualities those rights are based on—having interests, feeling pain and affection—are invented for them by us.

Corresponding with this argument, it’s hard not to notice how quickly we rush to the defense of animals that look cute and vaguely human, but few seem very enthusiastic about helping moles and catfish.

Dividing Questions about Animal Rights from Ones about Animal Suffering

The debate about whether animals should be understood as possessing rights within the ethical universe is distinct from the one about whether they should be subjected to suffering. If animals do have rights, then it quickly follows that their suffering should be objectionable. Even if animals aren’t granted any kind of autonomous ethical existence, however, there remains a debate about the extent to which their suffering should be considered acceptable.

Assuming some nonhuman animals do, in fact, suffer, there are two major business-related areas where the suffering is especially notable:

  • Research
  • Consumer goods

The case of research—especially medical and drug development—provides some obvious justification for making animals suffer. One example involves a jaw implant brought to market by the firm Vitek. After implantation in human patients, the device fragmented, causing extensive and painful problems. Later studies indicated that had the implant been tested in animals first, the defect would’ve been discovered and the human costs and pain avoided.Lauren Myers, “Animal Testing Necessary in Medical Research,” Daily Wildcat, November 6, 2007, accessed June 8, 2011, From here, it’s easy to form an argument that if significant human suffering can be avoided by imposing on animals, then the route should be followed. Certainly many would be persuaded if it could be proven that the net animal suffering would be inferior to that caused in humans. (As an amplifying note, some make the case that testing on humans can be justified using the same reasoning: if imposing significant suffering on a few subjects will later help many cure a serious disease, then the action should be taken.)

The case of animal testing in the name of perfecting consumer goods is less easily defended. A New York Times story chronicles a dispute between the Perdue chicken company and a group of animal rights activists. The activists got enough money together to purchase a newspaper ad decrying poultry farm conditions. It portrayed chickens as crowded together so tightly that they end up fiercely attacking and eating each other. Even when not fighting, they wallow in disease and convulse in mass hysteria.Barnaby Feder, “Pressuring Perdue,” New York Times, November 26, 1989, accessed June 8, 2011, perdue.html. Though Perdue denied the ad’s claims, many believe that animals of all kinds are subjected to extreme pain in the name of producing everything from cosmetics, to dinner, to Spanish bullfights. When animals are made to suffer for human comfort or pleasure—whether the result is nice makeup, or a tasty veal dish, or an enthralling bullfight—two arguments quickly arise against subjecting animals to the painful treatment. The utilitarian principle that pain in the world should be minimized may be applied. Also, a duty to refrain from cruelty may be cited and found persuasive.

Key Takeaways

  • Cognitive awareness and directed interest by animals may be sufficient to grant them autonomous ethical rights.
  • Accepting that animals suffer may be sufficient to grant them autonomous ethical rights.
  • The fact that animals do not explicitly claim ethical rights may be sufficient to deny them those rights.
  • The fact that animals don’t have duties may be sufficient to deny them ethical rights.
  • Anthropomorphism may lead to erroneously seeing animals as possessing autonomous ethical value.
  • The question about whether animal treatment causing suffering is ethically acceptable may be managed independently of the question about whether animals possess rights.

Review Questions

  1. What are the basic steps of the cognitive awareness and interest argument?
  2. What are the basic steps of the suffering argument?
  3. What are the basic steps of the lack of expression argument?
  4. What are the basic steps of the absence of duties argument?
  5. What are the basic steps of the anthropomorphism suspicion argument?
  6. In ethical terms, how is animal suffering for research reasons distinct from the suffering of a Spanish bullfight?