A Curious Miscellany of Items Philosophical, Historical, and Literary

Manus haec inimica tyrannis.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Animal Rights and Animal Virtues

For reasons too complicated to do full justice to here, I do not believe in animal rights. In part, this is because I don’t even believe in human rights, as I explained in a previous posting (“Why I Am Not a Libertarian”, April 17, 2009). It is also because I don’t believe that animals have the same moral status as human beings: to have a right is also to be able to recognize the similar rights of others. Animals are incapable of respecting the rights of others, whether animal or human. (Of course, small children and the mentally incompetent are similarly incapable of recognizing rights, but these are complications we don’t have space to explain away here).

Some have made the case that animals have moral rights, and that for this reason it is wrong to kill and eat them. But when you stop to think about it, this line of argument is a bit strange, for animals can kill and eat other animals without having violated their rights. How can this be? It seems that unlike human rights, animal rights do not have corresponding duties. If I have a right not to be killed and eaten by you, then you have a corresponding duty not to kill and eat me. But this scheme breaks down in the case of animals, for animals cannot be said to owe duties to anything or anyone. This is why I claim that animals have a different moral status from human beings. If we wish to speak of animals as having “rights”, we must mean something different by this term than we mean when we apply it to ourselves.

Perfect and Imperfect Duties

There is a traditional distinction in moral philosophy between what are called perfect and imperfect duties. I have a perfect duty not to murder and eat you. It is perfect in the sense that it is not up to my individual conscience whether or not to do it. Refraining from murdering you is not merely something it would be nice if I did. Morally speaking, I can be compelled to live up to my perfect duties. For the most part, duties of justice are perfect duties.

On the other hand, giving to charity is an imperfect duty, a duty of benevolence. It would be nice if I gave to charity, but I cannot be compelled to do so. (Of course, some cynics and libertarians would say that in the case of government social welfare schemes, this is precisely what is being done: citizens are in effect being compelled to contribute to a government-administered charity.)

I would contend that if it is at all proper to speak of animals as having rights, this is only because the corresponding duties are imperfect duties. When I cause unnecessary suffering or death to animals, I do not do them an injustice (which would be the case if I did it to a human). But it does represent a failure of benevolence on my part: I cannot claim for myself the virtue of kindness if I cause unnecessary suffering to animals. Where animal rights talk goes wrong is in trying to attribute perfect rights to animals, when at most they can only be assigned imperfect rights.

As a matter of virtue (rather than of justice), the historically-recent concern for the welfare of animals is a good thing, because it manifests an increasing concern with virtuous conduct. Put another way, it is an example of that rare thing: actual moral progress. Thus, although I don’t believe we can be, say, legally compelled to become vegetarians, to be concerned about the welfare of beings capable of suffering manifests some degree of moral virtue. This is, however, not to claim that animal suffering is the same as human suffering. It is not. But it is still suffering worthy of moral consideration.

In a way, cruelty to animals says more about humans as moral beings than it does about animals as moral beings, which is why the term “animal rights” is rather a misnomer. What is important is not so much what happens to the animals; rather it’s what our conduct towards animals does to us. Perhaps this is why Thomas More, in his Utopia (1516), assigned the butchering of animals to public slaves: “From thence the beastes be brought in kylled, and cleane washed by the hands of their bondemen. For they [the Utopians] permytte not their frie citizens to accustome there selfes to the killing of beastes; through the use whereof they thinke that clemencie, the genteleste affection of our nature, doth by little and little decaye and peryshe.”

Now, More’s is rather an implausible position, as it would mean that butchers are somehow less human than the rest of us (and we do not escape moral blame by assigning our dirty work to others, be they slaves or free men). But it should give us some pause. It is not so much the bare killing of animals for use that lessens us. Rather, it is the way it is carried out. We may kill, but we should not do so without a due sense of awe and reverence. Following the philosopher Roger Scruton, and if I may be excused the use of an outmoded word, we ought to have a sense of piety towards the killing of animals, which is missing in phenomena like modern factory farming.

Unanswered Questions

If my duties towards animals are only imperfect, then why is it that I can be fined or jailed for mistreating pets (but not wild animals?). All I can really say here is that the distinction between perfect and imperfect duties is not exact in all cases. Perhaps a pet is reasonably considered to be a member of one’s family, and so beating your pet is akin to beating a child or spouse. Or perhaps in the case of a pet, you have voluntarily taken up certain duties by the very act of adopting a pet, thereby converting imperfect into perfect duties. (But then, to whom is the duty owed? For I have claimed that we cannot owe perfect duties to animals.)

Or perhaps some forms of cruelty — cruelty being a form of vice rather than of injustice proper — are so disgusting and heinous that they seem to demand societal intervention. The idea here is that although one normally has the right to engage in vice, there are depths of viciousness to which one might sink that demand some kind of compulsion on the part of society. But I don’t yet have a full explanation for this phenomenon.

Some time ago I heard on the radio about a US Army program in which pigs were shot, blown up, bayoneted, or what have you. The idea was that such simulated wounds could be used to train medics to treat human combat wounds. But maybe we should ask what is meant by “simulated” wounding in this context? Maybe there is so little difference in viciousness between this and doing the same to other humans, that we can only call this gratuitous cruelty. Of course, that same army also trains its personnel to shoot, blow up, and bayonet other human beings, and perhaps that is the real travesty.

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