Philosophical Multicore

Sometimes controversial, sometimes fallacious, sometimes thought-provoking, and always fun.

Animal Rights

Posted by Michael Dickens on August 5, 2009

Interestingly enough, one of my first serious blog entries was related to animal rights. So here are my thoughts.

Some animals deserve more rights than others. This comes down to the basis of rights. The basic idea is that we should not harm other beings. If a being cannot feel pain, it cannot be harmed. If a being is not self-aware, there is a limit to how much it can be harmed. Some animals such as beetles cannot feel pain, and therefore we can feel free to harm them.

But when we speak about animal rights, we are really speaking about the rights of mammals (and sometimes birds). Chickens, for example. They have a sense of pain, but their brains are far less developed than those of mammals so they are less capable of comprehending suffering. Chickens should not be overly abused, but there is nothing wrong with eating them.

Cows have a sense of pain and emotion. I support free-range cattle, but at the same time I am completely willing to eat meat.

This brings up another interesting point. A lion, for instance, would not care in the least that a human is self-aware and capable of proportionately immense suffering. From a lion’s perspective, humans do not deserve rights. Is this a proper perspective?

The answer is, I don’t know. It is up to the lion to try to find food, whatever it be. Humans obviously do not like being eaten, but does that make it morally wrong for a lion to eat a person? Does that make the lion a moral criminal? Clearly not. But the question is, why?

These questions cannot be adequately answered in a single hastily-written blog post. Comments with any insights are welcomed. I am going to attempt to explain this stance.

This is where rationality comes in. Only rational beings have a conscious sense of right and wrong. All beings have a sort of genetic ethics: for example, don’t eat your children because then you can’t pass on your genes. But only rational beings have a true sense of morality. Therefore only a rational being can be held morally responsible. It doesn’t matter that free will doesn’t exist; rationality, not free will, is the basis of responsibility. Therefore, a lion cannot be held morally responsible, but a human can. Arguably, so can a dolphin.

These are the fundamental bases for rights. I think that they make sense. But what really matters is, what do YOU think?

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3 Responses to “Animal Rights”

  1. phynnboi said

    Some animals such as beetles cannot feel pain, and therefore we can feel free to harm them.

    Beetles are complex organisms that come complete with a central nervous system, so it’s quite likely that they do feel pain, and, thus, that we should not go out of our way to cause them suffering. There are unicellular organisms that would be a better example. 🙂

    The answer is, I don’t know. It is up to the lion to try to find food, whatever it be. Humans obviously do not like being eaten, but does that make it morally wrong for a lion to eat a person? Does that make the lion a moral criminal? Clearly not. But the question is, why?

    Because lion morals are not human morals. Put more simply, morals are largely based on our genes. When asked to decide moral dilemmas, most of us turn first to our “gut feelings,” and second to our “rationality” (i.e., we rationalize what we feel is right or wrong). I imagine other complex animals, like lions and dolphins, have their own things they feel are right and wrong, although needn’t be too bothered with rationalizing their decisions.

    Several years ago, I visited a very interesting web site about morals and logic. They had a couple of tests there that people could take. Both tests had the same set of logical problems. In one test, though, those problems were framed as moral dilemmas; in the other test, the problems were framed as abstract puzzles. Turns out, people did really well on the moral versions, getting, on average, over half the questions right. On the puzzle versions, though, people did abysmally, getting far less than half right. (I want to say 80% and 20%, but it’s been a while; I think both percentages may have been lower.) The conclusion drawn, IIRC, was that people are generally quite good at moral reasoning. In particular, we tend to be very good at spotting logical inconsistencies in other people’s behavior.

  2. phynnboi said

    On the subject, here’s one:

    Say we come by the power to completely destroy every species of mosquito that feeds off humans. Assume that the process of destroying the mosquitoes has no harmful side effects (e.g., we’re not “nuking them from orbit just to be sure”). Would it be ethical to use this power?

    (Personally, I’d use it immediately.)

    • I would say yes. Mosquitos have a very minimal sense of pain (if any), we kill them very quickly so they wouldn’t even have time to feel pain. Anyway, the suffering that mosquitos inflict on sentient beings is much greater than the suffering that would be inflicted on them if they were wiped out.

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