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Do animals need rights?

on December 11. 2014

Prof. William A. Edmundson recently added valuable input to the animal rights debate with his paper “Do animals need rights?”, presented at the conference “The animal turn and the law”, held in Basel, Switzerland, on April 4-5, 2014. Combining philosophy and law, Edmundson has authored the book “An Introduction to Rights” (CUP, 2012), where he developed a conceptual framework he now applies to the question of animal rights. When he speaks about “rights of (non-human) animals”, he thus refers to moral rights that are sufficiently material to entail effective legal protection and enforcement.

Edmundson elegantly side-steps the most controversial front-lines of the animal rights debate by tackling the ever-recurring issues of the discourse from an economic perspective. Rather than approaching the debate by looking at whether animals “have” rights, he examines whether they need them, thereby opening up promising perspectives.

It’s not hard to guess that the outcome of the animal rights debate might entail fundamental practical consequences, ranging from our diets to our political priorities. The widespread reticence in this regard allegedly is so weighty that the “Oxford Handbook of Animal Ethics” (!) deliberately avoids using the term “animal rights”. But the consequences of such a discussion should not foreclose an unbiased analysis of the need for rights accorded to animals.

Edmundson holds that rights are not, or should not be, absolute concepts. It’s important to note that every right is 1) subject to adjustments to existing rights of others, and is 2) contingent on a balance of existing interests, which is exemplified e.g. by the way the right to free speech is dealt with in practice. Believing otherwise would be hard to reconcile with current fundamental practice, and would require rights to be independent of (balances of) our interests, in which case it would be unclear why we should give assent to a scheme of rights.

What, then, does the special nature of a right consist in? And is such a special attribute pivotal to the judgment on the animals’ need for rights? Primarily – this is probably the quintessence of the debate –, the violation of a right requires a special justification. A special kind of moral wrong, as Edmundson puts it, has been done resulting in a violation of a right and not merely in its infringement. Practically, the actual value of having a right does not become tangible before carving out its contrasts: Only the enforced duty of others to respect the right in question renders its worthiness palpable – the “reaction-constraining” function of rights. It can be argued that animals need rights since the “rights device” is the only means capable of expressing respect for animals through our actions in a meaningful and robust way.

That said, does having rights not presuppose the right holder’s autonomy in order to cede or waive such a right? On this basis, it is also demurred that animals are bereft of the ability to incur duties themselves. The ensuing lack of reciprocity prevents the emergence of a legal relationship.

Edmundson counters these objections: Autonomous assent is not a requirement for having rights since there are numerous inalienable rights that can neither be transferred, nor waived, e.g. the right not to be enslaved. Moreover, the argument from “marginal cases” or “species overlap” plays an important role here: Since non-autonomous humans (such as infants or cognitively severely disabled individuals), despite their lack of possessing reciprocal duties, evidently possess legal rights, too, animals may not reasonably be excluded from possessing rights. This argument may well be the strongest existing moral attack on speciesism.

But (how) can animal rights empirically arise in a world where large economic profit is being made with innumerable animal lives and where speciesist attitudes have dominated people’s thinking for millennia? In any case: The philosophical-cum-legal discussion of animal rights is an important engine of progress, which conclusion is suggested by Steven Pinker’s argument in the following talk: Academic debates do trigger moral and political progress.

The concrete, practical implementation of animal rights is the necessary subject of further discussions. It is clear, however, that merely individual respect for animals does not suffice, because – unlike animal rights – it does not provide a fall-back function in cases where personal motivation to treat non-human animals well fails.