Rationally Speaking

A monthly e-column by Massimo Pigliucci
Department of Botany, University of Tennessee

N. 35, April 2003

Whence animal rights?


Do animals have rights? Just posing the question is likely to draw reactions ranging from outright scorn for the idea to very passionate appeals in defense of non-human living species. It seems to me that this is a crucial question because of what it says about how we intend to treat the environment in which we live. Yet, it is a question that opens up endless avenues of discussion that may not necessarily lead one towards a simple answer.

To begin with, as I have argued in this column before, 'rights' are not a feature of the natural world, but rather an entirely human construct. That, of course, doesn't mean they are not interesting or important. Democracy is also a human construct, but its existence or lack thereof affects the lives of billions on the planet. The fact that rights are a human construct, however, means that we cannot appeal to the laws of nature to defend any particular viewpoint about them.

One could then construe the idea of animal rights as reflecting our acknowledgment that we live in a complex world that we share we other creatures, and that these other creatures should not be considered as pure means for our ends (in perfectly Kantian fashion, for the philosophically inclined). I am going to assume that all but the most callous individuals will agree to this rather mild statement. But we are just beginning to unravel the complexity: what should the extent of these 'rights' be, to what range of other species should we extend them, and using what criteria?

Clearly, here opinions soon diverge radically. Consider individuals who choose a vegetarian life style in order not to harm other living creatures. There are several styles of vegetarianism, from people who don't want anything to do with any animal product whatsoever (including eggs, cheese, etc.), to people who are comfortable eating some animals, for example invertebrates (shrimp, clams), or even some vertebrates (fish). Furthermore, the motivations for being a vegetarian may also range enormously. Some feel this is a matter of not using other living creatures for our ends (however biologically justified this may appear to be), while others object to human practices of animal husbandry and are content when eating free-range or otherwise 'humanely' raised animals, even chickens.

None of these positions is intrinsically irrational (though some may lead to a few internal contradictions when pushed to the limit), and there doesn't seem to be a way to decide among them according to purely logical criteria. For example, one common thread emerging from the consideration of the range of vegetarianism is that people seem to apply a rough biological criterion to their choices: the spectrum from vegans to people that eat free-ranging chickens could be interpreted as a continuum along evolutionary time (species that diverged early on from us, like plants, are OK to eat, those more closely related to humans, like most vertebrates, are not allowed). Or it could represent an assessment based on the degree of complexity of each species' nervous systems (most invertebrates, except squids and octopuses, are really dumb and it is difficult to think of them as having feelings, but dogs and even cats clearly seem to have them).

I am not saying that people consciously think in terms of evolution (heck, remember that about half of Americans don't actually believe in it!) or neurobiology, but they seem to feel that those are reasonable criteria. The difference between different kinds of vegetarianism, and indeed even the one between vegetarians and meat-eaters (actually, omnivores, since nobody eats only meat) then becomes a question of where one chooses to draw the line in the sand of biological complexity. Few seem to want to draw the line at the boundary between the organic and inorganic worlds (i.e., refusing to eat even plants), but anything beyond that is rather arbitrary.

Arbitrary lines in the sand, of course, are not irrational to draw. We do it all the times in our lives, simply because the world is too complex to attempt to live without holding any belief or engaging in any behavior that is contradictory with others we also espouse. The real questions seem to be: first, what criteria should we agree upon to sensibly talk about animal (or human, or plant) rights? Second, and once we have answered the previous question, how do we negotiate as a society where that line in the sand is best drawn?

The problem that many people are likely to find with this approach is that it doesn't fit simplistic positions: vegetarians, for example, can't simply claim that eating animal flesh is immoral without being willing to do the additional work of answering the two questions posed above. They don't get to hold the high moral ground by default (I am aware, of course, that the question of animal rights is much broader than just vegetarians vs. meat-eaters, but this particular debate well illustrates the broader issues). Omnivores, on the other hand, can't just reject the other side's position as silly, or they will logically be faced with uncomfortable questions of their own (so, if it is OK to eat animals, what about your dog? Chimps?)

I don't pretend to have an answer, but I think it is important to pose the questions more broadly and invite a less emotional discussion to take place. For the record, I do eat meat, but I object to the treatment of animals by the large meat-producing companies that run most of the business in modern Western societies.


Next month: On "being proud of"

by Massimo Pigliucci, 2003