Animal Protection > AR FAQs
AR Philosophy > Morality Index
#19 Animals don't care about us; why should we care about them?

#20 A house is on fire and a dog and a baby are inside. Which do you save first?

#21 What if I made use of an animal that was already dead?

#22 Where should one draw the line: animals, insects, bacteria?

#23 If the killing is wrong, shouldn't you stop predators from killing other animals?

#24 Is the AR movement against abortion? If not, isn't that hypocritical?

#25 Doesn't the ethical theory of contractarianism show that animals have no rights?

#19 Animals don't care about us; why should we care about them?

The questioner's position--that, in essence, we should give rights only to those able to respect ours--is known as the reciprocity argument. It is unconvincing both as an account of the way our society works and as a prescription for the way it should work.

Its descriptive power is undermined by the simple observation that we give rights to a large number of individuals who cannot respect ours. These include some elderly people, some people suffering from degenerative diseases, some people suffering from irreversible brain damage, the severely retarded, infants, and young children. An institution that, for example, routinely sacrificed such individuals to test a new fertilizer would certainly be considered to be grievously violating their rights.

The original statement fares no better as an ethical prescription. Future generations are unable to reciprocate our concern, for example, so there would be no ethical harm done, under such a view, in dismissing concerns for environmental damage that adversely impacts future generations.

The key failing of the questioner's position lies in the failure to properly distinguish between the following capacities:

The capacity to understand and respect others' rights (moral agency).

The capacity to benefit from rights (moral patienthood).

An individual can be a beneficiary of rights without being a moral agent. Under this view, one justifies a difference of treatments of two individuals (human or nonhuman) with an objective difference that is RELEVANT to the difference of treatment. For example, if we wished to exclude a person from an academic course of study, we could not cite the fact that they have freckles. We could cite the fact that they lack certain academic prerequisites. The former is irrelevant; the latter is relevant. Similarly, when considering the right to be free of pain and suffering, moral agency is irrelevant; moral patienthood IS relevant. --AECW

The assumption that animals don't care about us can also be questioned. Companion animals have been known to summon aid when their owners are in trouble. They have been known to offer comfort when their owners are distressed. They show grief when their human companions die. --DG

#17, #23, #36

#20 A house is on fire and a dog and a baby are inside. Which do you save first?
   I would save my child, but that is only instinct. A dog would save her pup. Whomever I save, however, it proves nothing about the moral legitimacy of experimenting on animals. I might save my own child instead of my neighbor's, but that hardly proves that experimentation on my neighbor's child is acceptable.

The one I choose to save first tells us nothing about the ethical decisions we face. I might decide to save my child before I saved yours, but this certainly does not mean that I should be able to experiment on your child, or exploit your child in some other way. We are not in an emergency situation like a fire anyway. In everyday life, we can choose to act in ways that protect the rights of both dogs and babies. --LK

Like anyone else in this situation, I would probably save the one to which I am emotionally more attached. Most likely it would be the child. Someone might prefer to save his own beloved dog before saving the baby of a stranger. However, as LK states above, this tells us nothing about any ethical principles. --DVH

#21 What if I made use of an animal that was already dead?

There are two ways to interpret this question. First, the questioner might really be making the excuse "but I didn't kill the animal", or second, he could be asking about the morality of using an animal that has died naturally (or due to a cause unassociated with the demand for animal products, such as a road kill). For the first interpretation, we must reject the excuse. The killing of animals for meat, for example, is done at the request (through market demand), and with the financial support (through payment), of the end consumers. Their complicity is inescapable. Society does not excuse the receiver of stolen goods because he "didn't do the burglary".

For the second interpretation, the use of naturally killed animals, there seems to be no moral difficulty involved. Many would, for esthetic reasons, still not use animal products thus obtained. (Would you use the bodies of departed humans?) Certainly, natural kills cannot satisfy the great demand for animal products that exists today; non-animal and synthetic sources are required.

Other people may avoid use of naturally killed animal products because they feel that it might encourage a demand in others for animal products, a demand that might not be so innocently satisfied. --DG

This can be viewed as a question of respect for the dead. We feel innate revulsion at the idea of grave desecration for this reason. Naturally killed animals should, at the very least, be left alone rather than recycled as part of an industrial process. This was commonly practiced in the past, e.g., Egyptians used to mummify their cats. --AECW

"You have just dined, and however scrupulously the slaughterhouse is concealed in the graceful distance of miles, there is complicity."
--Ralph Waldo Emerson (author)

#22 Where should one draw the line: animals, insects, bacteria?

AR philosophy asserts that rights are to be accorded to creatures that have the capacity to experience pain, to suffer, and to be a "subject of a life". Such a capacity is definitely not found in bacteria. It is definitely found in mammals. There is debate about such animals as molluscs and arthropods (including insects). One should decide, based upon available evidence and one's own conscience, where the line should be drawn to adhere to the principle of AR described in the first sentence.

Questions #39 and #43 discuss some of the evidence relevant to drawing the line. --DG

SEE ALSO: #39, #43

#23 If the killing is wrong, shouldn't you stop predators from killing other animals?

This is one of the more interesting arguments against animal rights. We prevent human moral patients from harming others, e.g., we prevent children from hitting each other, so why shouldn't we do the same for nonhuman moral patients (refer to question #17 for a definition of moral patienthood)? If anything, the duty to do so might be considered more serious because predation results in a serious harm--death.

A first answer entails pointing out that predators must kill to survive; to stop them from killing is, in effect, to kill them.

Of course, we could argue that intervening on a massive scale to prevent predation is totally impractical or impossible, but that is not morally persuasive.

Suppose we accept that we should stop a cat from killing a bird. Then we realize that the bird is the killer of many snakes. Should we now reason that, in fact, we shouldn't stop the cat? The point is that humans lack the broad vision to make all these calculations and determinations.

The real answer is that intervening to stop predation would destroy the ecosystems upon which the biosphere depends, harming all of life on earth. Over millions of years, the biosphere has evolved complex ecosystems that depend upon predation for their continued functioning and stability. Massive intervention by humans to stop predation would inflict serious and incalculable harm on these ecosystems, with devastating results for all life.

Even if we accept that we should prevent predation (and we don't accept that), it does not follow that, because we do not, we are therefore justified in exploiting moral patients ourselves. When we fail to stop widespread slaughter of human beings in foreign countries, it does not follow that we, ourselves, believe it appropriate to participate in such slaughter. Similarly, our failure to prevent predation cannot be taken as justification of our exploitation of animals. --DG

#17, #19, #36, #64

#24 Is the AR movement against abortion? If not, isn't that hypocritical?

Attempts are frequently made to tie Animal Rights exponents to one side or the other of the abortion debate. Such attempts are misguided. Claims that adherence to the ethics of AR determine one's position on embryo rights are plainly counter-intuitive, unless one is also prepared to argue that being a defender of human rights compels one to a particular position on abortion. Is it the case that one cannot consistently despise torture, serfdom, and other barbaric practices without coming to a particular conclusion on abortion?

AR defenders demand that the rights currently held by humans be extended to all creatures similar in morally relevant ways. For example, since society does not accept that mature, sentient human moral patients (refer to question #17 for a brief description of the distinction between patients and agents) may be routinely annihilated in the name of science, it logically follows that comparable nonhuman animals should be given the same protection. On the other hand, abortion is still a moot point. It is plainly illogical to expect the AR movement to reflect anything other than the full spectrum of opinion found in society at large on the abortion issue.

Fundamentally, AR philosophers are content with submitting sufficient conditions for the attribution of rights to individuals, conditions that explain the noncontroversial protections afforded today to humans. They neither encourage nor discourage attempts to widen the circle of protection to fetuses. --AECW

There is a range of views among AR supporters on the issue of abortion versus animal rights. Many people believe, as does AECW, that the issues of abortion and AR are unrelated, and that the question is irrelevant to the validity of AR. Others, such as myself, feel that abortion certainly is relevant to AR. After all, the granting of rights to animals (and humans) is based on their capacity to suffer and to be a subject-of-a-life. It seems clear that late-term fetuses can suffer from the abortion procedure. Certain physiological responses, such as elevated heart rates, and the existence of a functioning nervous system support this view.

It also can be argued that the fetus is on a course to become a subject-of-a-life, and that by aborting the fetus we therefore harm it. Some counter this latter argument by claiming that the "potential" to become subject-of-a-life is an invalid grounds for assigning rights, but this is a fine philosophical point that is itself subject to attack. For example, suppose a person is in a coma that, given enough time, will dissipate--the person has the potential to be sentient again. Does the person lose his rights while in the coma?

While the arguments adduced may show that abortion is not irrelevant to AR, they do not show that abortion is necessarily wrong. The reason is that it is possible to argue that the rights of the fetus are in conflict with the rights of the woman, and that the rights of the woman dominate. All may not agree with this trade-off, but it is a consistent, non-hypocritical stance that is not in conflict with AR philosophy.

other opinions:

If any being hasn't attained sentience (or has lost it permanently), then it is ours to do with as we please, be it vegetable, mineral or animal (even human). Since sentience is a difficult quality to measure, some prefer to err on the side of caution, and refrain from permitting abortion once the fetus's nervous system has reached a stage of development where sentience might exist. Nonetheless it is clear that a human blastocyst has about as much sentience as a slime mould, and may be disposed of with an equal number of moral qualms.

Some think sentience shouldn't be the basis for the distinction, but rather the presence of certain brainwaves. The following articles give some explanations that could be used in support of a position that restricts abortions only during the third trimester: or Brain Waves When? or Carl Sagan on Abortion 

See question #4 for an analysis of hypocrisy arguments in general. --DG


#25 Doesn't the ethical theory of contractarianism show that animals have no rights?

Contractarianism is an ethical theory that attempts to account for our morality by appealing to implicit mutually beneficial agreements, or contracts. For example, it would explain our refusal to strike each other by asserting that we have an implied contract: "You don't hit me and I won't hit you." The relevance of contractarianism to AR stems from the supposition that nonhuman animals are incapable of entering into such contracts, coupled with the assertion that rights can be attributed only to those individuals that can enter into such contracts. Roughly, animals can't have rights because they lack the rational capacity to assent to a contract requiring them to respect our rights.

Contractarianism is perhaps the most impressive attempt to refute the AR position; therefore, it is important to consider it in some detail. It is easily possible to write a large volume on the subject. We must limit ourselves to considering the basic arguments and problems with them. Those readers finding this incomplete or nonrigorous are advised to consult the primary literature.

We begin by observing that contractarianism fails to offer a compelling account of our moral behavior and motives. If the average person is asked why they think it wrong to steal from their neighbor, they do not answer that by refraining from it they ensure that their neighbor will not steal from them. Nor do they answer that they have an implicit mutual contract with their neighbor. Instead of invoking contracts, people typically assert some variant of the harm principle; e.g., they don't steal because it would harm the neighbor. Similarly, we do not teach children that the reason why they should not steal is because then people will not steal from them.

Another way to point up the mismatch between the theory of contractarianism and our actual moral behavior is to ask if, upon risking your own life to save my child from drowning, you have done this as a result of a contractual obligation. Certainly, one performs such acts as a response to the distress of another being, not as a result of contractual obligations.

Contractarianism can thus be seen as a theory that fails to account for our moral behavior. At best, it is a theory that its proponents would recommend to us as preferable. (Is it seen as preferable because it denies rights to animals, and because it seems to justify continued exploitation of animals?)

Arguably the most serious objection to contractarianism is that it can be used to sanction arrangements that would be almost universally condemned. Consider a group of very rich people that assemble and create a contract among themselves the effect of which is to ensure that wealth remains in their control. They agree by contract that even repressive tactics can be used to ensure that the masses remain in poverty. They argue that, by virtue of the existence of their contract, that they do no wrong. Similar contracts could be drawn up to exclude other races, sexes, etc.

John Rawls attempts to overcome this problem by supposing that the contractors must begin from an "initial position" in which they are not yet incarnated as beings and must form the contract in ignorance of their final incarnation. Thus, it is argued, since a given individual in the starting position does not know whether, for example, she will be incarnated as a rich woman or a poor woman, that individual will not form contracts that are based on such criteria. In response, one can begin to wonder at the lengths to which some will go in creating ad hoc adjustments to a deficient theory. But more to the point, one can turn around this ad hoc defense to support the AR position. For surely, if individuals in the initial position are to be truly ignorant of their destiny, they must assume that they may be incarnated as animals. Given that, the contract that is reached is likely to include strong protections for animals!

Another problem with Rawls' device is that probabilities can be such that, even given ignorance, contracts can result that most people would see as unjust. If the chance of being incarnated as a slave holder is 90 percent, a contract allowing slavery could well result because most individuals would feel they had a better chance of being incarnated as a slave holder. Thus, Rawls' device fails even to achieve its purpose.

It is hard to see how contractarianism can permit movement from the status quo. How did alleged contracts that denied liberty to slaves and excluded women from voting come to be renegotiated?

Contractarianism also is unable to adequately account for the rights we give to those unable to form contracts, i.e., infants, children, senile people, mental deficients, and even animals to some extent. Various means have been advanced to try to account for the attribution of rights to such individuals. We have no space to deal with all of them. Instead, we briefly address a few.

One attempt involves appealing to the interests of true rights holders. For example, I don't eat your baby because you have an interest in it and I wouldn't want you violating such an interest of mine. But what if no-one cared about a given infant? Would that make it fair game for any use or abuse? Certainly not. Another problem here is that many people express an interest in the protection of all animals. That would seem to require others to refrain from using or abusing animals. While this result is attractive to the AR community, it certainly weakens the argument that contractarianism justifies our use of animals.

Others want to let individuals "ride" until they are capable of respecting the contract. But what of those that will never be capable of doing so, e.g., senile people? And why can we not let animals ride?

Some argue a "reduced-rights" case. Children get a reduced rights set designed to protect them from themselves, etc. The problem here is that with animals the rights reduction is way out of proportion. We accept that we cannot experiment on infants or kill and eat them due to their reduced rights set. Why then are such extreme uses acceptable for nonhumans?

Some argue that it is irrelevant whether a given individual can enter into a contract; what is important is their theoretical capacity to do so. But, future generations have the capacity but clearly cannot interact reciprocally with us, so the basis of contractarianism is gutted (unless we assert that we have no moral obligations to leave a habitable world for future generations). Peter Singer asks "Why limit morality to those who have the capacity to enter into agreements, if in fact there is no possibility of their ever doing so?"

There are practical problems with contractarianism as well. For example, what can be our response if an individual renounces participation in any implied moral contracts, and states that he is therefore justified in engaging in what others would call immoral acts? Is there any way for us to reproach him? And what are we to do about violations of the contract? If an individual steals from us, he has broken the contract and we should therefore be released from it. Are we then morally justified in stealing from him? Or worse?

In summary, contractarianism fails because a) it fails to accurately account for our actual, real-world moral acts and motives, b) it sanctions contractual arrangements that most people would see as unjust, c) it fails to account for the considerations we accord to individuals unable to enter into contracts, and d) it has some impractical consequences. Finally, there is a better foundation for ethics--the harm principle. It is simple, universalizable, devoid of ad hoc devices, and matches our real moral thinking. --TA/DG

#11, #17, #19, #96


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