Philosopher Calls for End to Animal Experimentation (and more): Is there a “reasonable” conception of animal rights?


Jennifer Blumenthal-Barby

Publish date

Tag(s): Legacy post

by J.S. Blumenthal-Barby, MA, PhD

According to Christine Korsgaard, one of the leading moral philosophers in the Western world and Arthur Kingsley Porter Professor of Philosophy at Harvard University, the answer is yes.

But by “reasonable” she means that the view is grounded in sound reasoning–not that it will be easy to accept or uncontroversial. She articulated this conception in a recent lecture at Rice University as part of the Lecture Series on Ethics, Politics and Society.

Her argument (in a nutshell) was this: We often think that we have duties of beneficence to animals–to be kind to them, to not cause them undue suffering, etc. But this is not the correct way to think about our moral relationship to [the other] animals, Korsgaard argues. In fact, the correct way to conceptualize it is that we have certain duties to [the other] animals because they have certain rights claims against us.

Three questions arise (1) who exactly is the “us” that animals have rights claims against, (2) what do these rights claims involve or entail, and (3) from where do these rights claims arise?

Answers: The “us” is all of humanity (not one person in particular–thus the rights of animals are “imperfect rights”), what the rights claims entail is that we humans should come to the aid of animals by forming groups (political, regulatory, social etc.) to set rules and practices that protect them from harm and suffering, and these rights arise from the fact that both humans and animals find ourselves existing in a natural world that (according to a secular conception) was not “given” to either species (i.e., animals were not “given” to us as property or objects).

Let me fill in the details a bit. On what these rights claims involve or entail: According to Korsgaard (following Kant) a right is a moral claim that may and ought to be coercively enforced (by the holder, by the state on the holder’s behalf, etc.). If I have a right to something then that is a decisive consideration against someone depriving me of it, regardless of any good reasons they may have to do so. The rights claims that animals have against us, according to Korsgaard, involve claims to aid in order to survive in reasonable conditions, to care when sick or injured, and to be treated in ways consistent with their good or interests. Korsgaard did not go into detail about the extent of the impact of acknowledging these rights on human interests (so the title of this blog post is a bit hyperbolic!), but she suggested that some of our practices including factory farming and most animal experimentation would have to be given up (hence her admission that this position is not uncontroversial!).

On where these rights claims come from: According to Korsgaard, the rights claims of animals come from the same place that the rights claims of the needy come from (yes, she believes that the needy have imperfect rights to aid as well). Namely, the fact that the world is the collective possession of all of its inhabitants who all have a right to share it and its goods and to determine legislative practices with how to deal with it and each other. More specifically, she relied on Kant’s view of common ownership and property rights according to which, originally, we are all common owners of the world and as such are legislators of it and have the right to be in it. To deny someone the things that they need to live reasonably on this planet is akin to kicking them off; to saying that they have no right to be here. This is not to say that we do not have a right to individual property. We do, according to Kant. Dividing things up and ensuring individual property is important for allowing and protecting individual freedom (as Korsgaard remarked, we could hardly be free if every time I stepped away from my property someone could simply come and tear all of my vegetables out of my garden). Yet, importantly, according to Korsgaard, animals are NOT among the objects or property to be divided up as they were or are traditionally conceived to be. That view is a view derived from Genesis where the world and animals were a gift given to humans. A non-revelation view of the situation, Korsgaard argues, is that animals are, like us, beings who find ourselves on the earth and as such among its common possessors. Thus, when we make laws about, say, how to divide up property, or how to treat each other, we should not view animals as property nor should we view ourselves as making laws merely about them, but instead as making laws on their behalf. Insomuch as these rule-making activities are not governed by revelation, or mere power, but by morality.

On the “us” that animals have these rights claims against: The aid rights of animals are not perfect rights against particular individuals like, say, the right of my husband to lay claim to certain promises that I made to him. Rather, they are imperfect rights in that they are rights to be claimed against humanity as a whole and not particular individuals. Humanity organizes itself, makes laws, legislates our common ownership of the earth, according to Korsgaard, and we have an obligation to try to organize our group in a way in which those (other humans, other animals) who have unmet needs that they have rights claims to will have those needs met. Put more concretely, as members of humanity, we are obligated in a strong way (not just by duties of beneficence) to come to the aid of animals by forming groups (political, regulatory, social etc.) to set rules and practices that protect them from harm and suffering and to survival on this earth in reasonable conditions.

Implications for bioethics?
As Korsgaard hints, if we find this argument persuasive it has significant implications for the ethics of animal research. But it also has implications for the ethics of patient care (arguably all people have a prima facie right–an enforceable claim–to care when sick or injured and to health goods that allow them reasonable conditions of survival), and the ethics of global health (arguably we need to think much broader about what we owe other humans that we co-own and govern this world with). Korsgaard is a first rate philosopher and an extremely analytical thinker. Her arguments are worth serious consideration (about their validity/soundless, and also about their implications).

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