Each one of us encounters animals every day, if only as a piece of meat on a plate, and yet most of us hardly spare a thought for them. SN Rasul must hence be commended for his Tuesday op-ed, in which he drew our attention to the complicated relationship between humans and other animals, and started a conversation that I think is very important. In the course of doing so, he mentioned a number of common objections to the idea that non-human animals are our moral equals and have rights.
It is unfortunate, however, that these objections remained unanswered, as readers might have gotten the impression that animal rights advocates “spew an extreme,” as the author rather uncharitably stated, and do not have good arguments. By responding to some of the objections, I want to show that the philosophy of animal rights is, in fact, a well-thought-out moral theory worthy of our serious attention.
‘It is possible to believe in animal rights and nevertheless consume meat, without being a hypocrite.’
Sometimes, when people say that animals “have rights,” all they mean to say is that animals have some moral standing, which amounts to no more than the denial of the claim that the interests of animals don’t matter. Virtually everybody believes that animals have rights in that sense. After all, who believes, for example, that it is okay to kick a cat just for fun?
But rights also have a more narrow meaning, which is the one that animal rights advocates typically have in mind. When they say that animals have rights, they mean to say that animals have a right to respectful treatment, just like you and I do, including a right to life. Given this meaning, one cannot consistently believe in animal rights, and believe that it is morally permissible to kill animals for food, just like one cannot consistently believe in human rights, and believe that it is morally permissible to kill humans for some similarly trivial purpose.
‘Where do we draw the line? If animals have rights, is it wrong to kill mosquitoes and cockroaches?’
There is a near-consensus in philosophy today that species membership as such, being a merely biological category, has no moral importance. Drawing the line between those who have rights and those who don’t have rights along species boundaries would be no less arbitrary than drawing it along gender or racial boundaries. If so, where should we draw the line instead?
Tom Regan, the father of modern animal rights philosophy, argues that we should draw the line between those who have a life that can go better or worse, from their point of view, and those who do not have such a life. He calls those who fall into the former category experiencing subjects-of-life: They have beliefs, desires, feelings, memory, and a rich emotional life, and what happens to them matters to them.
According to Regan, all subjects-of-a-life have equal inherent value, and have a right to be treated in a way that respects their inherent value. There are no good reasons to believe, and plenty of good reasons to deny, that mosquitoes and cockroaches meet Regan’s criterion. For all we know, only mammals, birds and amphibians, and maybe a few other animals such as reptiles and fish, are subjects-of-a-life. Hence, while it is wrong to kill cows, goats, sheep, pigs and chickens for food because their inherent value imposes an obligation upon us not to use them as mere means for our ends, mosquitoes and cockroaches are very unlikely to have a right not to be killed.
‘What about plants? Doesn’t research show that they can feel, at least, something? If so, what are we left with to eat?’
It is a common myth that plants can feel, which is kept alive by misleading media reports about responses to stimuli in plants. For example, last year, when a team of researchers at the University of Missouri found that some particular plant responds to auditory stimuli, newspapers wrote that “research has shown that plants can hear.” This is misleading as there is an important difference between hearing and responding to auditory stimuli.
The former requires consciousness, the latter doesn’t. Consciousness, according to our best scientific knowledge, occurs only when a nervous system is present. Plants do not have a nervous system. Therefore, plants aren’t conscious, and cannot hear, or see, or feel pain, or have any other kind of experience. There is nobody “at home” in a plant, so to say. Stepping on a plant does not involve harm in any morally significant sense of the word “harm.” In contrast, the harm a dog experiences when he or she is beaten is very real, and morally important.
‘Animals eat other animals, too.’
There are at least two important differences between humans and non-human predators: We can think about our actions in terms of morality and make moral choices, they can’t. We can easily survive without eating meat, they can’t. In fact, a well-balanced vegan diet is healthy, and decreases the chances of suffering from diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and some cancers.
‘Animals don’t understand rights and don’t respect ours. Therefore, they have no rights.’
Children don’t understand what rights are and don’t always respect the rights of others. Yet, we don't deny rights in their case, for that reason. Hence, if we want to be consistent, we cannot deny rights for animals, for that reason.