Animal rights are rarely out of the news. If it’s not one set of celebrity chefs lecturing us about what kind of chicken to buy, it’s another telling us that it’s snobbish to worry about such things. The streets are filled with protesters marching against animal testing meeting protestors protesting that protest.
Most people are quite happy to accept that humans have rights, and there is a fair amount of agreement about what rights we have. Why should animals be more complicated? Surely they either have rights or they don’t. Unfortunately, things are not quite so straightforward.
What are the reasons for thinking that animals have rights? The best argument is brutally simple: we have rights, and animals are like us, so they have rights too.
This needs a bit more explanation. The trouble is, there are lots of ways that animals are like us, and not all of them are morally important. For example, animals like us have a life to lead. So maybe the very fact that they are alive means that they have rights.
But this cannot be right. Plants are alive too, and it is not very plausible that they have rights: gardening does not involve massive, widespread rights-violation.
Vegetarians sometimes say that they won’t eat anything with a face. Apart from its ability to turn the stomach of a carnivore, why is this slogan effective? The answer, I think, is that it points to the real reason that animals matter.
Anything that has a face has a view on the world, a way of perceiving it for themselves. Our faces are also very expressive of what we do and do not like. In other words, the face is a window into the mind; and it is the mind that matters. Animals are like us in that they have their own perspective or point of view on the world. At the most basic, things can hurt them or give them pleasure. This is what matters morally.
There are, of course objections to according animals rights. Perhaps the most famous is the old saying: no rights without responsibilities. Animals have no obligations – indeed they cannot even understand what it is to have them – so they have no rights. It should take only a moment’s reflection to see that the old saying must be false. Newborn babies arrive in the world without any responsibilities. Like animals, they literally can do no wrong. And yet they have rights.
Another objection is based on old-fashioned chauvinism: animals are not human, we should not be wasting our sympathy and concern on them. This so-called “speciesism” can be simple-minded and easy to refute. Animals are not of our species – so what? What’s so special about our ability to breed successfully with one another (a common definition of species)? The answer is clear: nothing.
But there might still be something special about humans, at which the original objection was gesturing clumsily. Being human is to have the potential to be more than most animals can be. We are capable of choice. We can choose how to act, whether to do right or wrong, what kind of person to be. This is why we have moral obligations and animals do not. It is very plausible that these capacities, distinctive to humans, ground some of our rights.
So it turns out that we cannot answer the question “do animals have rights” with a simple yes or no. Animals are both like us, and not like us. They have some of the rights that we have, but not all of them.
How should we treat animals? Can it ever be acceptable to harm them for our benefit? Unfortunately, the answer can only be: it depends. It depends on what kind of animals they are, what kind of harm, and what we stand to gain. We can draw some broad conclusions. We potentially benefit more from medical and scientific experiments on animals than from eating them (and typically many fewer animals are involved in the former than the latter). So scientific experimentation is more justifiable than eating meat.
Experimentation on animals has led to many scientific advances and the discovery of many medical treatments that most of us would not want to be without. This is not to say that scientists are off the moral hook, however. It has recently been reported that many drugs used to treat depression, including Prozac, do not work – their benefits are negligible, yet the cost to the animals testing them considerable.
Drug companies sponsoring these experiments are motivated by profit, not the benefit of mankind. And even the highest-minded scientist can overestimate the importance of testing her own precious theory. Like all of us, scientists have to assess realistically the good that may come from what they do and the harms that they will impose, and try to make sure that their acts come out on the side of the good.