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Animal rights or rights of animals? (Sept/Oct LD)

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Aug. 31st, 2011 | 03:16 am
mood: tiredtired
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Having previously complained about the lack of moral content in past resolutions, I'm pleased to see the upcoming resolution for LD debate -- "Resolved: Justice requires the recognition of animal rights" is so straightforwardly about ethical concerns. For people writing cases, if you haven't yet taken a look at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy's entry on the moral status of animals you're missing out.

The question I want to ask in this short post,1 though, is whether "animal rights" might be a misnomer, and whether justice might have very different things to say about "animal rights" and "rights held by animals"? To be clear about the distinction I'm making I'm using "animal rights" as the set of political goals set by animal rightist advocates (from the OED: "the rights of animals to live free from human exploitation and abuse,") while "rights held by animals" encompasses those rights animals would have if you took your preferred framework for developing rights and ethical duties (contractarianism, Kant's notion of universalizability, etc) and added in a clause about animals having moral standing, too (which wouldn't necessarily end in animals having equal rights with humans, but might possibly cover a lot more -- or maybe less -- than "animal rights").

To illustrate the difference it's worth considering some cases. I've attempted to provide concise, accessible summaries of the general shape of the theories of justice involved so that no prior knowledge is required. Much of the description here duplicates the work found in that big packet of core values and value criteria, but it seemed silly to separate how philosophers (might) answer the question of the rights of animals from the rest of their ethical thought.

  1. Utilitarianism (Bentham)

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    The first formulation of utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham's An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, asserts that the only reliable measure of actions is their tendency to produce happiness or pain. Actions producing happiness are good, actions producing pain bad. It is the job of legislators to figure out what course of action produces the most pleasure in the greatest number of people, and avoids to the greatest extent possible, pains. No distinction is made to suggest one kind of pleasure is better than another, and so it is very difficult to exclude the pleasures and pains of animals. In fact it isn't even clear if there is a way to convincingly argue that an animals pleasure should count less than a humans pleasure. Though Bentham himself did not, to my knowledge, go so far as to say that animals and humans count equally, he undoubtedly did think the treatment of animals in society abominably unjust.

    Taken to its obvious conclusion Benthamite utilitarianism calls for a radical restructuring of human society. Here recognizing the rights of animals (namely the right to have their pains and pleasures counted equally with others, which is the only real right to clearly be found in Bentham's thought) results in far more drastic change than that envisioned by animal rights as a political movement.    

  2. Utilitarianism (Mill)

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    Unlike Bentham, John Stuart Mill's utilitarianism does recognize a difference between higher and lower pleasures. There is, to Mill, no comparison between the pleasure from gorging oneself on food and the pleasure of a good book. "It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party knows both sides." It is not that per unit of consumption the book provides much more pleasure than the food, it's that the the pleasure from gorging oneself on food is inferior to the pleasure of a good book, and no amount of the lower pleasure can hope to equal even the tiniest sliver of higher pleasure. 

    On the one hand, this distinction between pleasures makes it a lot easier to reconcile utilitarianism with our ethical intuitions which are pretty clear -- I'd hope -- on things like "no killing, even if it'd be really really fun." At the same time, since all the evidence says animals don't enjoy higher pleasures, it gets much harder to explain why exploiting animals is wrong. If animal testing provides medical and scientific advances which prolong human life and prevent debilitating diseases it seems hard to say why, under Mill's rules of accounting, the pains of animals should be a concern when it's providing another two decades of life to humans who can can read and write books, watch and direct plays and films, etc. Though this framework might guarantee a minimal standard of care for animals, and might even force us to re-examine, say, eating meat it isn't obvious it covers the full range of claims by prominent animal rights groups.

  3. Contractarianism (Hobbes)

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    Here we come to the first idea of justice that, probably, completely leaves the treatment of animals out. It is also, and perhaps relatedly, the first theory of justice that tries to answer the question "why should I want to be just?" Hobbes' answer is, more or less,  "a world without justice really sucks." Except Hobbes phrases it in such a way that it's several pages long and contains some of the most memorable (and grim!) rhetoric in political theory. The problem, as Hobbes sees it, is that people are perpetually desiring more than what they have, and pursue power over others to obtain what they desire. Then, having obtained it, they find they need more power to hold on to what they have. This, as you can imagine, results in a lot of disputes over who own what and, since there's no clear notion of property beyond "I'm holding it right now, therefore it's mine," most of these disputes are resolved with big sticks and sharp rocks. There, consequently, isn't much agriculture because, were you to try farming your land, once crops were ready to be harvested your neighbor Thog from down the street would come to your house, club you to death, and take the food you grew. Except there aren't streets either because there's no reason to want to visit neighbors who are, invariably, planning how to club you to death and take your land and belongings.   

    Sensing that there might be a better arrangement of things, people agree to put constraints on their behavior ("I promise not to break into your house and steal from you") if their neighbors likewise agree to put constraints on theirs. People further agree to set up an enforcer of this agreement (the state) who comes in and beats you up if you try to go back on your promises. Once enough people have signed on to this agreement -- namely enough people to be able to credibly threaten everyone who hasn't signed on yet -- we have justice. Oh and the enforcer of the agreement winds up with absolute authority over everyone, but it still beats the state of nature so don't complain. Justice is simply those rules constraining behavior that people would agree to (no stealing, no killing, no lying, all the familiar stuff) and the answer to "why should I want to be just?" is "because, though it may not look like it, it's in your rational self-interest to be". The problem for animal rightists with describing justice as this kind of agreement, serving rational interests, is that, for animals, there's no way they could follow the terms of the agreement. Not many animals are capable of saying "I accept this abstract principle as constraining my behavior" so, so far as we can see, they remain in a state of nature where everything is fair game and, being outside the agreement that established justice, they don't have rights (except insofar as they're someone's property, which might constrain other people's treatment of them, but certainly not their owners). 

  4. Contractarianism (Rawls)

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    Rawls doesn't worry so much about explaining why we should accept justice as constraining our behavior, and focuses instead on what principles of justice it is just to follow. This may seem like a circular question, and it certainly comes across as odd to say one system of justice is more just than another one, but Rawls argues that we can share an understanding of what function an idea of justice performs for human society without agreeing on the particulars of the idea. This may come in useful when defining terms since most of the definitions of justice I've found in dictionaries don't meaningfully clarify the resolution, and I'll try to have a separate post on this subject up soon. In the meantime, you can read Chapter 1.1 (pp. 3-7) of Rawls' A Theory of Justice on Google Books.

    Rawls' version of the social contract is not one that sets up a particular state of affairs and definite moral prescriptions, as Hobbes' does for absolute monarchy and practical morals. Instead, Rawls' contract sets up the general principles that determine what is and isn't just. To accomplish this Rawls asks us to assume we had no knowledge of our specific talents, position in society, idea of what a good life would be, etc. He calls this hypothetical environment, in which we are kept behind a veil of ignorance about our preferences, the original position. Rawls does not assume humans are naturally selfish in the way Hobbes does, but he does assume people in the original position are concerned primarily with maximizing their own interests. Talking about maximizing our interests when we don't know anything about our preferences, what we want out of life, or our position in society may sound a bit odd at first -- if we don't know any of that how can we know what's in our interest? -- but that's precisely the point of the exercise: establishing principles of justice behind the veil of ignorance forces us to choose principles of justice that benefit everybody. That is, the original position helps us find a justice that isn't rigged to favor certain people over others, and is beneficial for everybody. 

    Rawls thinks the general strategy people will adopt in picking principles of justice while in the original position is to look at societies modeled on all the different sets of principles that might be adopted, and pick the principles which match the society where the well-being of the worst off is maximized. Essentially people say "well, I don't know who I'll be, but the worst-case scenario is that I'll be the single least-fortunate individual in all of society. But how badly off that least-fortunate individual is depends on the society they're in. Being worst-off in a society with a generous social welfare program and strong notions of human rights is way better than being the worst-off person in a society with slavery. So the question I should be asking is, assuming I get the shortest straw, what principles would I want shaping the society I live in?" To spoil the ending Rawls thinks people would, using that method, pick this idea of justice:

    1. Everybody has an equal claim to basic liberties such as political freedoms, religious freedoms, a right to life, a right to food and shelter (but not unlimited property), etc.
    2. Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both:
      (a)
      to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged, consistent with the just savings principle, and
      (b)
      attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity."
    When these principles come into conflict, 1 trumps 2, and 2b trumps 2a.

    One way to set up animal rights would be to include the possibility of leaving the original position to find you were an animal in the wild, and it certainly seems like this would result in a very expansive definition of animal rights, but then we would also have to pick principles of justice under the assumption that a large number of people will be unable to follow them, which would probably land us with a much less trusting and charitable society. Rawls himself explicitly says he does not argue the contract approach is adequate for determining the moral status of animals. It might be best, then, to read Rawls' idea of justice as silent on the question of animal rights. Rawls is also unambiguous in saying he counts this as a serious omission, but if the moral status of animals comes from some other principle outside this contract, is there any reason to say they have rights? And what, other than rights, constrains how we treat animals? 

All of this is to say that there's something of a puzzle in that many prominent theories of ethics that concern themselves with duty fail to evenly match our moral intuitions about animals, and that it might be more plausible that the idea of animal rights isn't really a rights claim that can be derived from first principles so much as it is that animals have certain sypmathetic qualities that make us care about their well-being. If you're trying to affirm the resolution, then, it might be to your advantage to try to describe justice in more general terms about the morality of actions (and to have a look, say, at Joseph Butler's ethics which is criminally under-used in debate) rather than the familiar mostly-deontological framework discussed above. If you're looking to dispute the resolution, it might be to your benefit to play up the principled nature of rights and the difficulty of finding a clear way of explaining the particular bundle of rights at issue when we commonly say "animal rights."

It's also worth paying attention to the problem of how to define justice so you and your opponent don't talk past eachother, as I've already mentioned in the section on Rawls, but this entry has gone on long enough and that is a very murky discussion.


1. Well, I was planning for it to be short when I wrote that.

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