I recently finished Beyond Prejudice, a book on “the moral significance of human and nonhuman animals,” by philosopher Evelyn Pluhar. Pluhar is part of a second generation of animal rights/liberation theorists who build on the pioneering work of thinkers like Peter Singer and Tom Regan. Pluhar’s main contention is that attempts to rebut the assertion of moral claims on behalf of animals fail, and that animals (at least of certain kinds) should be regarded as having basic moral rights such as a (prima facie) right to life and a right to the freedom of noninterference.
Pluhar spends the first part of her book refuting the most common views that deny full moral considerability for animals: the full-personhood view (only rational autonomous agents have rights) and the speciesist view (only members of species typified by rational autonomous agents have rights). She also critiques Peter Singer’s version of utilitarianism on the grounds that it entails that it would be morally permissible (indeed, morally obligatory in some cases) to (painlessly) kill a conscious agent so long as she is replaced by another agent who experiences a net balance of good over evil. In other words, Singer’s utilitarianism is unable to show why individual beings (rather than just their experiences) are valuable and deserving of protection.
Having, she believes, refuted the full-personhood view, the speiciesist view, and utilitarianism, Pluhar attempts to offer a compelling positive case for animal rights. After all, proponents of the views she has rejected might be willing to bite the bullets of unpalatable consequences, not to mention that people’s moral intuitions about the acceptability of some of these implications may vary.
So, Pluhar sets out to defend and extend a line of reasoning first elaborated by philosopher Alan Gerwith that, Pluhar believes, shows that animals have basic moral rights. Gerwith’s argument, as Pluhar develops it, goes something like this: any conscious agent with desires and goals who reflects on it must, logically, affirm her right to be allowed to pursue those goals. As freedom and well-being are necessary conditions for pursuing goals, she is committed to affirming her right to freedom and not to have her well-being frustrated, simply in virtue of the fact that she is a purposive, striving (Pluhar uses the term “conative”) agent.
But, to be consistent, this agent must affirm the right of all conative agents to freedom and well-being. This is because her assertion of her own rights depends on her status as a conative being:
Reflective agents (full persons) logically must advocate basic rights for themselves because, without the necessary conditions for acheiving their purposes, they cannot have what they regard as good: they cannot have what they want. Universalizability and consistency require that other beings who also could not have what they regard as good without these preconditions must also be accorded such rights. (p. 262)
It’s because I have desires and purposes that I must press my right to those conditions (freedom, well-being) that I require to pursue them. Not to affirm such rights for myself would imply that others have the moral permission to interfere with my freedom and well-being (since rights are claims against others). But this contradicts my own desires, since I want to be able to pursue my goals (by definition, or else they wouldn’t be my goals!). Reflecting on my own existence as a purposeful agent entails that I lay claim to basic rights to freedom and well-being, since these are preconditions of my pursuing any purposes whatsoever.
And, if having basic rights is a necessary condition for me to achieve my purposes, then consistency demands that I recognize such rights for any being seeking to pursue its own good and get what it wants. This is because I have affirmed my own purposive nature as a sufficient reason for claiming basic rights (e.g., the rights to life and well-being); consistency requires that I affirm those rights for any purposive agent.
The category of purposive, or conative, beings, Pluhar emphatically contends, includes animals, at least animals of a certain level of development and sophistication. Animals have desires and goals, and if–as Pluhar has argued–each of us is committed to affirming basic rights for all purposive agents, then the conclusion is inescapable that some animals (Pluhar thinks it includes at least all mammals and probably birds) have basic rights to life and freedom.
My goal in this post was to summarize Pluhar’s argument, as much for my own benefit as anything; next I’ll offer some thoughts of my own.