The Rights View

Kant, it will be recalled, recognizes only indirect duties to nonhuman animals; we humans are not to be cruel to animals, for example, not because we treat them wrongly by our cruel treatment but because cruelty to animals can lead people to be cruel to one another. By contrast, utilitarians from Bentham to Singer recognize direct duties to nonhuman animals; they believe that there are certain things we owe to these animals, apart from how humans will be effected. On this divisive issue the rights view sides with utilitarians against Kantians: Nonhuman animals are of direct moral significance; we have direct duties in their case.

In a second respect, however, the rights view sides with Kantians against utilitarians. Utilitarians believe that duty is determined by the comparative value of consequences; the right thing to do is what causes the best results. Kant and his followers take a decidedly different view: What is right does not depend on the value of consequences, it depends on the appropriate, respectful treatment of the individual—in particular, whether humans are treated as ends, not merely as means. In this regard, the rights view is cut from Kantian, not utilitarian, cloth. What is right depends not on the value of consequences but on the appropriate, respectful treatment of the individual, including individual nonhuman animals. Thus, the fundamental principle of the rights view (the respect principle) is Kantian in spirit: We are always to treat individuals who exist as ends in themselves (those who have "inherent value") with respect, which means, in part, that we are never to treat them merely as means.

One problem the rights view faces concerns which nonhuman animals possess value of this kind. Like other line-drawing issues ("Exactly how tall do you have to be to be tall?" "Exactly how old do you have to be to be old?"), this one has no precise resolution, in part because the criterion for drawing the line is imprecise. The criterion the rights view proposes is that of being the subject of a life, a criterion that specifies a set of psychological capacities (the capacities to desire, remember, act intentionally, and feel emotions, for example) as jointly sufficient. At least some nonhuman animals (e.g., mammals and birds) arguably possess these capacities, thus are subjects of a life, and thus, given the rights view, are to be treated as ends in themselves. (For criticism, see Frey, 1980).

Such a view, for obvious reasons, has massive political, social, and moral implications concerning how these animals ought to be treated. From an animal rights perspective of this kind, the abolition of human exploitation of these animals, whether on the farm, at the lab, or in the wild—not merely the reform of these practices, and certainly not approval of the status quo—is what duty requires.

Line-drawing issues aside, the rights view faces daunting challenges from other quarters. One concerns the idea of inherent value. Some critics (e.g., Sapontzis) allege that the idea is "mystifying," meaning that it lacks any clear meaning. Advocates of animal rights reply that the notion of inherent value is no less "mystifying" than Kant's idea of end in itself. As applied to human beings, Kant's idea of end in itself attempts to articulate the cherished belief that the value or worth of a human being is not reducible to instrumental value—not reducible, that is, to how useful a human being happens to be in forwarding the interests or purposes of other human beings. Neither John Doe nor Jane Doe, in Kant's view, exists as a mere resource relative to what other people want for themselves, and to treat the Does as if their value—their worth or dignity—consists merely in their resource or instrumental value for others is morally wrong. All that the rights view alleges, then, is that to be consistent, the same moral judgment must be made in those cases where nonhuman animals that are subjects of a life are treated in a similar fashion.

Another set of challenges alleges that the philosophy of animal rights, if acted upon, would lead to catastrophic consequences, either to human interests in particular or to the community of life in general. Concerning the former challenge, some critics argue that human health and longevity would be seriously harmed if, as the philosophy of animal rights requires, nonhuman animals ceased to be used as models of human disease (see C. R. Gallistel, "The Case for Unrestricted Research Using Animals," in Regan and Singer, 1989; and Cohen). Several responses seem apposite.

First, given the massive allocation of public monies that fund such research, it needs to be asked whether abandoning reliance on the whole-animal model really is contrary to what is in the collective best interests of human beings. Some (e.g., Sharpe) argue that customary reliance on this well-entrenched scientific methodology retards the development of alternative methodologies that would be more useful in understanding and curing major human diseases; in addition, these critics insist that humans would benefit more if the dominant focus of biomedical research were shifted away from curing disease to preventing it, a goal that is more efficiently advanced, these critics allege, by methodologies other than the use of the whole-animal model.

Second, recall one of the fundamental objections raised against utilitarianism: Just as one does not justify the violation of a human being's rights because doing so will benefit others, so one does not justify the violation of the rights of nonhuman animals on similar grounds. More generally, some gains others might obtain may be ill-gotten, and they are ill-gotten if the price of obtaining them involves the violation of another's rights. Thus, even if it is true that humans stand to lose some benefits if animal model research is abandoned, this by itself does not constitute a telling moral objection to the abolitionist implications of the philosophy of animal rights, assuming that these animals, like humans, have the right to be treated as ends in themselves.

Concerning the second line of criticism—the one alleging that acting on the philosophy of animal rights would have catastrophic implications for the community of life in general—the principal objection may be summarized as follows. Predatory animals obviously live off the death and flesh of their prey. Because prey animals have the right to be treated with respect, according to the rights view, critics (e.g., Callicott, 1980; Sagoff) allege that it follows that we should intervene to stop predatory animals in their natural depredations. However, if we were to do this, there would be no check on the balance that exists in nature between predators and preys; instead, the population of prey animals would explode, and this would have the effect of irreparably damaging the balance and sustainability of life forms within the larger life community.

Advocates of the philosophy of animal rights have a number of possible replies to the predation problem, the principal one of which is the following. Situations can and do arise where the right thing to do is to come to the assistance of another, whether the potential victim is a human or a nonhuman animal. However, in these situations the potential victim not only is at risk of serious injury but also is less than capable of mounting a defense. Thus, an elderly woman who is attacked by a psychotic killer, or a puppy who is being tormented by children, merits our intervention. But the predator—prey relationship seems to bear little resemblance to such cases. Most prey animals, most of the time, are perfectly capable of eluding their predators without anyone's assistance. Thus it would seem to be human arrogance, not informed responsibility, that would lead humans to believe that because animals in the wild have rights, we are duty bound to "police" nature. From an animal rights perspective, we have no general duty to intervene in predator—prey relations; that being so, the catastrophic environmental costs alleged to be implied by acting on the rights view seem to be more in the nature of fiction than of fact. (For a different response to the predation problem, see Sapontzis.)

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