The Rights of Animals
Uploaded by palma on Oct 05, 2000
Sam Vaknin's Psychology, Philosophy, Economics and Foreign Affairs Web Sites
Animal rights is a catchphrase akin to human rights. It involves, however, a few pitfalls. First, animals exist only as a concept. Otherwise, they are cuddly cats, curly dogs, cute monkeys. A rat and a puppy are both animals but our emotional reaction to them is so different that we cannot really lump them together. Moreover: what rights are we talking about? The right to life? The right to be free of pain? The right to food? Except the right to free speech – all the other rights could be relevant to animals.
But when we say animals, what we really mean is non-human organism. This is such a wide definition that it easily pertains to potential aliens. Will we witness an Alien Rights movement soon? so, we are forced to narrow our field to non-human organisms which remind us of humans and, thus, provoke empathy in us. Yet, this is a dangerous and not very practical test: too many people love snakes, for instance and deeply empathize with them. Will we agree to the assertion (which will, probably, be avidly supported by these people) that snakes have rights – or should we confine our grace to organisms with nervous systems (=which, presumably, can feel pain). Even better is the criterion : whatever we cannot communicate with and is alive is a rights-holder.
Historically, philosophers like Kant (and Descartes, and Malebranche and even Aquinas) did not favour the idea of animal rights. They said that animals are the organic equivalents of machines, moved by coarse instincts, unable to experience pain (though their behaviour sometimes might deceive us into erroneously believing that they do). Thus, any moral obligation that we have towards animals is a derivative of a primary obligation towards our fellow humans (the morally significant ones and only ones). These are the indirect moral obligations theories. For instance: it is wrong to torture animals because it desensitizes us to human suffering and makes us more prone to using violence towards humans. Malebranche augmented this rational line of thinking by proving that animals cannot suffer pain because they do not descend from Adam and all the pain and suffering in the world are the result of his sins.
But how can we say whether another Being is suffering pain or not? The answer is based on empathy. If the other...