Does it Make Sense to Talk About Animal “Rights”?

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Much confusion has been sowed over the concept of affording rights to animals. What exactly does this mean, and why is it confusing to some people?

To answer the latter question first, it’s useful to think of what comes to mind upon hearing the word “rights.” Perhaps the most readily recalled right is the right to free speech or the right to vote. Some probably think of Miranda rights, which are an officer’s duty to remind arrestees that they can remain silent if they wish.

In fact, if you ask someone what the basic rights are, “the right to life” and “the right to be free from unnecessary suffering” are far down on the list — not because they aren’t important, but because the concept of rights is only thought of in relation to humans, and the right to enjoy basic freedom simply goes without saying. We tend to think of rights, such as freedom of speech and freedom of the press, which can still be in jeopardy at times; we don’t think much about the basic freedom to not life a horrible life.

In other words, to talk about animal “rights” is to leave some people wondering if you’re trying to give dogs the right to vote (I suspect we’d have a better president if that were the case, but I digress). Because our concept of rights, as a result of centuries of human progress, focuses on maintaining a democratic society and not tamping down violent oppression, it’s confusing when we talk about giving rights to animals. It might not be very helpful.

On the other hand, in the legal realm, there are very good reasons for agitating for rights for animals. The Nonhuman Rights Project is one group that’s dedicated to fighting to improve the lives of animals by using the courtroom. Objective #1, according to their website, is “[t]o change the common law status of great apes, elephants, dolphins, and whales from mere “things,” which lack the capacity to possess any legal right, to “legal persons,” who possess such fundamental rights as bodily liberty and bodily integrity.” Once courts recognize these species as “legal persons,” the doors are opened to free them from being harmed or killed against their will, for example in animal testing labs or experimental research. (Read more about them here.)

It’s easy to imagine how such legal battles could pave the way for significant reforms that improve the lives of millions of animals. But it would take a somewhat delusional optimist to imagine that this could spell out the demise of animal agriculture.

While advocating for animals in the courtroom requires discussions of “rights,” it makes much less sense to talk about “rights” for animals in the public sphere.

One reason is that people see “rights” and “responsibilities” as two sides of the same coin. Nonhuman animals have no sense of morality that we can discern. A lawyer helping to free a chimpanzee from captivity in a zoo or a lab isn’t going to prompt the chimp to treat her the way we treat our fellow humans. If I recognize your rights, but you don’t recognize mine, you’ve failed to uphold your end of the bargain. The social contract is null and void. This is what Jordan Peterson alludes to in his rejection of animal rights, covered by Mike Favata here.

The hole in this line of thinking, of course, is that there is no reason to believe this doesn’t apply to the disabled. People afflicted with severe developmental or psychiatric disabilities must have their rights respected just as anyone else. Unless and until personal safety is threatened, this is not waived away when they fail to respect our rights. Some people with disabilities are completely unable to conceive of rights; this hardly means that they have none.

The same applies to animals. Their right to enjoy the same freedoms that we do — insofar as they can, in fact, enjoy them — does not end when we decide we want to eat them. It simply does not follow that because they cannot conceive of others having rights, they have none. When is the last time a cow, pig or chicken threatened your life, anyway?

In summary, while talking about rights for animals confuses people, it can be useful — particularly in front of a judge. But it also confuses people who think you’re referring to democratic rights such as freedom of speech and the right to vote rather than something far more basic: the right to life.

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