No rights without duties?

A surprisingly common argument against animal rights goes like this: only beings capable of exercising moral choice and reasoning have rights. Animals don’t exercise moral choice and reasoning (i.e. they aren’t “moral agents”). Therefore animals don’t have rights.

I say that the frequency with which this argument is made is surprising because it implicitly denies something that most of us, I think, believe, namely that there are certain human beings who have moral rights who aren’t necessarily moral agents. Infants, children, the severely mentally handicapped, the brain damaged and comatose, and people with severe Alzheimer’s are, almost certainly in some cases and quite probably in others, incapable of moral reasoning and choice, and yet no one (or hardly anyone) is willing to bite the bullet and say that these classes of human beings have no moral rights. In fact, I suspect that most of us would find the denial of moral rights to any or all of these classes of people to be morally monstrous.

So, it’s hard to see why being a moral agent should be taken to be a necessary condition for being a moral patient, or an object of moral concern. No one proposes that we can treat, say, an infant any way we wish simply because he or she isn’t capable of moral reasoning and choice. It may be that being a moral agent is a sufficient condition for being a moral patient, but I’m hard pressed to see any reason why it should be necessary.

I wonder if the roots of this argument lie in a kind of “contractualist” way of thinking about morality. That is, morality is seen as a kind of contract or bargain into which people enter in order to establish mutually beneficial rules of conduct. If that’s what morality was, then you could see the plausibility of holding that only moral agents had moral rights, since they’d be the only ones capable of entering into such a contract.

But it’s pretty clear that’s not what morality is like, at least if we don’t want to abandon deeply held beliefs about the duties owed to infants, children, the mentally handicapped, etc. Contractualism has a very hard time making sense of moral duties that go beyond what self-interested rational agents have, or would agree to.

A better criterion of who counts morally, far more plausible than the capacity for moral agency, is the capacity for experience. That is, the possibility that one’s life can go better or worse for oneself. Rocks don’t count morally because things can’t go better or worse for a rock. But things can certainly go better or worse for a chimpanzee, a pig, a chicken, a trout, and quite possibly a grasshopper. There’s no particular reason why the pain of an adult human being considered simply in itself should count for more than the the pain of an infant, or an animal, other things being equal. And there’s certainly no good reason why the fact that a being lacks the capacity for moral reasoning should entail that we can treat it in any way whatsoever, that anything goes.

It doesn’t follow from this that animals would have all the same rights as human beings (a right to education, say, or health care, or subsidized museums). This is because, as philosopher Mark Rowlands has pointed out, they have no interests in such things. But they do have interests in things like not suffering, not being killed, and so on, and it’s not at all clear why those interests should be utterly disregarded for the mere convenience of human beings, as they often are.

8 thoughts on “No rights without duties?

  1. namely that there are certain human beings who have moral rights who aren’t necessarily moral agents.

    I think people would agree that the ability to make moral choices does not guarantee that certain human beings don’t have rights. In fact, that is often cited by people as a justification for banning, say, bestiality, although I never understood why it doesn’t justify banning sexual intercourse by intoxicated college students.

    In any case, I do not think that these people would agree that this argument is thus an invalid argument against animal rights, because infants, invalids, and the rest can have rights for other reasons altogether, which still do not apply to animals, and in fact you cite one of them.

    All humans have a natural capacity of human life, which we consider it more sacred than animal life because it is of a vastly different quality than animal life. Thus, even the infant, the handicapped, and the mentally retarded, though impeded in some way from the fulness of human life, nevertheless can participate in it to an extent that exceeds anything any animal can hope for, and infants at least, if unimpeded, will even achieve that fulness.

    I’m stretching the logic here, aren’t I…

  2. Quoting me this time:
    I think people would agree that the ability to make moral choices does not guarantee that certain human beings don’t have rights.

    Erk. Too many negatives. I meant,

    I think people would agree that the ability to make moral choices does not guarantee that certain human beings have rights.

  3. Agreed.

    Why is it, John, that human life is more valuable? This is completely arbitrary. Human life is not of a different quality if the human in question is severely disabled, for example. It will be a fine day in history when speciesism goes out the window with other arbitrary classification systems such as racism and sexism.

  4. I think the question of comparative value between human and animal life is actually a bit of a red herring. I’m perfectly willing to grant that, other things being equal, a human life has more value than an animal life, but I don’t think that the animal rights proponent needs to claim that they’re of equal value in order to make his case. All he has to claim is that animals have some degree of moral worth, enough, say, that their vital interests (in staying alive, not being subjected to prolonged suffering, not being confined) outweigh non-vital or even trivial human interests. If you allow that, pretty much the entire animal rights agenda follows, I think.

  5. If you allow that, pretty much the entire animal rights agenda follows, I think.

    I have trouble with this, insofar as “the entire animal rights agenda” is a vague matter that depends on whom one talks to. I don’t accept, for example, that acknowledging that animals have some rights means that we cannot husband and harvest some animals for food, but I have the impression that an increasing number of animal rights activists do believe this.

    Why is it, John, that human life is more valuable?

    Speaking of speciesism, I’ve never understood why should furry animals alone be acknowledged as having rights, and not cockroaches, mosquitoes, or for that matter deadly viruses and bacteria? Those creatures kept the human population in check for centuries, but I doubt you’d laid out the welcome mat for them.

    To answer your question, human life is intrinsically more valuable for several reasons. If nothing else, it’s the only kind of life we know of that can organize itself in such a way that it can study, protect, and cultivate all other forms of life, benefiting them all—including human lives that suffer from some physical defect that impedes their fulness. No other creature has the ability to recognize this.

  6. I am loathe to get involved in these debates, since I feel out of my element with this kinda stuff, but here goes.

    What I come back to is, regardless of what other questions there may be, when it comes to the question of whether, according to the scriptures and the rest of the Christian Tradition, it is permissable to eat meat, the answer is “yes”. I don’t think any other answer is really plausible.

    That established, the question of humane treatment of animals raised for food and what degree of meat consumption is good stewardship of our bodies are the ones that come to the fore. These are the real points of debate for Christians. The scriptures make it clear that animals, while not created in the image of God, should be treated humanely (like the ox treading out the grain, or Balaam’s ass protesting being beaten). It is also clear from medical science that the satuarated fat and cholesterol red meat contains is not good for us, and should be consumed only in moderation, if at all.

    What sorts of farming or slaughtering or domestic practices are humane and how much meat is beneficial to our bodies to take in seem like the places where the debate should be, not whether animals or bacteria are morally equivilent to humans or whether Jesus was a vegetarian.

  7. JP – you’re right; I spoke too categorically. What I should’ve said is that I think if you allow that animals have claims on us, then it’s very difficult to see how it’s ok for us to do things we do to them for the sake of what are very often, if not usually, trivial interests of ours.

    Joshie – I agree with you that those kinds of arguments are largely counterproductive. And I for one would be overjoyed if we ever got to the point that animals were actually raised and slaughtered humanely.

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