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Do Animals have Rights?

09/02/10

Permalink 11:09:00 pm, by Brandon Norgaard Email , 1206 words   English (US)
Categories: Morality

Do Animals have Rights?

Three weeks ago, I made a case for the natural rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. What this means is that it is morally right for us all to 1) respect other's choices in what to do in their life 2) treat others as you would want to be treated, which presumably is to not cause suffering and instead to try to make happiness available to others 3) respect the lives of others, which means whether another lives or dies is their own choice and it is morally wrong to think you know better than someone else whether to end their life.

This does leave some unresolved questions. For one thing, it is clear that it is impossible to act this way all of the time because the right to freedom often conflicts with the right to happiness in many situations. So which right is more important? I will address this in a future posting. Today I want to begin to address another important question: what kinds of individuals do these rights apply to? Do they apply only to humans? Do animals also have the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? If so what kinds of animals? Do microbes also have rights? Do nonliving things have rights? You see, we have to draw the line somewhere and this line should be drawn from reasoned principles rather than from immediate appearances.

There is a long history within human ethics of only applying these rights to other humans. This humanist ethical theory is actually a significant step forward from those employed long ago (centuries ago or decades ago or maybe even now in some places in the world) where not all people have rights. It was often the case that most people didn't have rights. We have come a long way to the current day where in the developed world where human rights are near universal. This obviously isn't the case everywhere in the world and this obviously doesn't mean that the more developed parts of the world are free from injustice. Not at all. But I think it is important to recognize the progress that has been made for human rights.

Now, some will recognize this but then argue that there is much more that needs to be done to extend rights to animals. Throughout the world, even in the most advanced societies, animals are bred, owned, raised, and killed for food with little or no regard to their well being. They have no rights at all. They often seem to live in constant suffering. Is this morally wrong? I will say that there is a clear moral wrong in that if we are eating this food, if these animals were raised in squalor for no reason other than to maximize profit, then this is morally wrong. If the squalid conditions of livestock contributes to unhealthy food, then this is morally wrong. If anyone is harming an animal for no good reason, then this is morally wrong. This behavior could lead one to harm humans after all.

Few will argue with what I have said here, but for animal rights activists, this misses the main point. They will not disagree that these acts of animal cruelty or neglect are morally wrong for the reasons that I have stated, but they will say that the gravest moral wrong is what is happening to the animals, not the effect that this has on humans. They will say that animals are ends in themselves. They point to the fact that animals appear to experience pain in a way similar to our own experiences and argue that this means that we should treat them as we wish to be treated. They say it is morally right to respect their rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

I find flaw in this argument because it is too simplistic. If you look at my reasons for natural rights, it all begins with experience, which is a nonphysical concept. I know that I have a physical body, but I also know that my experience of positive feelings and negative feelings and my experience of seeing and hearing and making choices is beyond my physical body. There are physical processes that go on within the body that cause me to experience things, but these processes are not the same thing as my experience. So when my body is cut and my nerves react accordingly, this alone is not the same thing as my experience. My experience of pain is caused by this, but it is altogether nonphysical. It follows from this that it is possible for some bodies out there to not have the corresponding experience of pain when they are hurt. They appear to experience pain, but this is only an appearance.

Take for example a computer program of a cow. I can program this to appear to be in pain, but it is obvious that there is no actual experience of pain that corresponds to this. And if I were to take a hammer to a computer, it makes a sound when it is smashed just as a live cow makes a sound when it is cut or hit, but is there an experience of pain coming from either the computer or the cow? It is quite reasonable to assume that all humans have this experience since I am a soul connected to a human and thus I will conclude that all humans have souls. The question is though, do animals have souls? Do computers have souls?

I will say that a being has a soul if it has certain built-in functional capabilities that allow for body-soul interaction. One important quality is nerve endings that will serve as a way of communicating positive or negative valence to the soul. Both humans and animals have this. A computer could be build that has this as well. Another thing that a body needs is the ability to identify similar beings in order to extend the natural rights to them. Again, humans have this, many animals do, and robots could be built to have this quality as well. Finally, in order for body-soul interaction to truly work such that all beings can know how to extent natural rights to each other, they must all be able to understand future possibilities and also be able to to communicate complex possible future states to other similar beings.

I'm sorry, but without this a being cannot act morally and therefore it is unreasonable to extend morality to these beings. There quite simply is no soul there. There is no experience of pain or happiness or anything else, regardless of appearances. Advanced linguistic research has shown that only humans have the ability to communicate possible future states of affairs in an open ended way. No animals can do this. Therefore I conclude that only humans have souls. I do not see a reason to extend natural rights to animals. Humans have the natural rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but no animals have these rights.

What are your thoughts on this topic? Do animals have rights? Let your voice be heard in the forum. You can also email the me at brandon@enlightenedworldview.com

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