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Animal Rights Should Trump Human Interests – What's the Debate About?

by The Ethics Centre
22 March 2016
On 3 May The Ethics Centre will host the second IQ2 debate of 2016, ‘Animal rights should trump human interests’.  What’s at stake?

Are the ways we subject animals to our own needs and wants justified? Whether it’s eating meat, scientific testing, keeping pets, sport, entertainment or protecting ourselves, humans regularly impose their own demands on the animal world. Is it reasonable or ethical to do so?

Humans and animals

We often talk about humans and animals as though they are two separate categories of being – but aren’t humans just another kind of animal?

Many would say no, claiming humans have greater moral value than other animals. Even if biologically speaking we are animals, from an ethical perspective we deserve to be treated differently (which is the whole reason we’re interested in moral value at all). So on what basis are humans different?

The most common answer to this question is humans possess the ability to use reason whilst animals act only on instinct. This ability to think is held up as the key characteristic making humans uniquely worthy of protection and possessing greater moral value than animals.

“Animals are not self-conscious and are there merely as means to an end. That end is man.”
Immanuel Kant

Others will argue the moral value afforded to humans is “speciesism” because it demonstrates an unjustifiable bias for human beings. To prove this, they might point to cases where a particular animal shows more reason than a particular human being (for example, a chimpanzee might show more rationality than a person in a coma). If we don’t grant greater moral value to the animal in these cases, they claim our beliefs are prejudicial.

Some will go further and suggest that reason is not relevant to questions of moral value because it measures the value of animals against human standards. In determining how a creature should be treated, philosopher Jeremy Bentham wrote, “... the question is not ‘Can they reason?’, nor ‘Can they talk?’, but ‘Can they suffer?’”

So, in determining whether animal rights should trump human interests, we first need to figure out how we measure the value of animals and humans.

Rights and interests

What are rights and how do they correspond to interests?

Generally speaking, you have a right when you are entitled – usually by virtue of some characteristic – to do something or prevent someone else from doing something to you. So, if humans have the right to free speech, this is because they are entitled to speak freely without anyone stopping them. The right protects an activity or status you are entitled to. Rights come in a range of forms – natural, moral, legal and so on – but violating someone’s right is always a serious ethical matter.

“Animals are my friends. I don’t eat my friends.”
George Bernard Shaw

Interests are broader than rights and less serious from an ethical perspective. We have an interest in something when we have a stake (something to gain or lose) by that thing’s success or failure. Humans have interests in a range of different projects because our lives are diverse. We have interests in art, medical research, education, leisure, health…

So when we ask whether animal rights should trump human interests we are asking a few questions. Do animals have rights? What are they? And, if they do, are the rights of animals more or less important than the interests of humans? We know human rights will always trump human interests, but what about animal rights?

Animal rights vs. animal welfare

A crucial point to understand in this debate is the difference between believing in animal rights and animal welfare. Animal rights advocates believe at least some animals are of sufficient ethical importance to deserve rights preventing them from being treated in certain ways. The exploitation of animals who have rights is, according to animal rights advocates, always morally wrong – just like it would be for a human.

The trouble with human beings is not really that they love themselves too much; they ought to love themselves more. The trouble is simply that they don’t love others enough.
Mary Midgley 

Animal welfare advocates, on the other hand, believe either using animals can be ethical or that it is practically unavoidable. For either reason, these people aim to reduce the amount of suffering inflicted on the animals, but do not seek to end what others regard as exploitative practices altogether. As one widely used quote puts it, “Animal rights advocates are campaigning for no cages, while animal welfarists are campaigning for bigger cages”.

Are they mutually exclusive? What does taking a welfarist approach say about the moral value of animals?

Animal rights should trump human interests’ will take place on 3 May 2016 at the City Recital Hall in Sydney. We’ll be publishing a series of pieces focussing on the ethics of animal/human relationships.

Follow us on Twitter @ethics_centre.


Hi great debate tonite tx to all.
Personally I would have liked more nuance and less of an emotive approach from the for side, I was one of many that ended up changing my vote from for to against, I really wanted to go with the for but felt that against argued more effectively and bought a little more light at least to the thorny grey issues involved with welfare vs rights.

I would have liked to see the for take a more nuanced approach over why rights are more important than welfare, what are the realistic goals? how will that improve things for animals? They seemed to take a more emotive approach, wanting to evoke our "human" compassion and while that can be effective I think it's preaching to the converted for this crowd, considering the visual and audio horror you can access at a click, I'm pretty sure most have seen plenty of examples of the unnecessary, extreme and heartless suffering members of our species visit on all other species, evoking a few more examples here wasn't winning any extra votes when it comes to an ethics debate. You have a bunch of lefties in the city on a Tuesday night, not many of us would think the human - animal relationship doesn't need some drastic analysis and change, that's a given here.
If I was on the for side tonite I wouldn't have let the against side characterise my position as animals need rights, so if they get em, they have the right to life that trumps everything so instantly no animal can ever be used for the advantage of people ever (which they did and it wasn't challenged). Why is this a given? so animals shouldn't have any rights? So animal rights should never trump human interest? I'd argue that they can and should be given some rights, let the against argue that they shouldn't have any rights, just because giving them unqualified right to life would be impractical.
I think the for lost votes when they made over arching statements about big pharma / baddie corporations not letting us get away from animal exploitation profit models and that researchers ensnared don't have the ability to consider the welfare of animals. It's too general, lets hear about the competing interests, obviously the profit motive drives the commodification of animals but there are more issues to consider. Why not have rights for animals that try to restore some level of sanity, especially in the food industry?
Take the against' practical argument that only 1-2% of people in the first world are vegan and that most don't respond to calls of veganism, but many more are concerned with animal welfare and treatment and are willing to pay more for animal products more ethically sourced. I'd agree and see certain animal rights as a far more concrete way (than industry standards, self regulation, labelling etc) of promoting their humane treatment in first world and ensuring that their inherent value "in itself" is recognised in law so when dealing with them profit isn't the driving legal consideration.

Finally I think the best argument of the for was the environmental considerations in that its unsustainable to exploit animals on the huge scale that we do. It's a great point that if we used all the land we use to grow food for agricultural animals to grow food for people we would have lots more food to go round. (Not that world shortage of food is the main cause of famines in the first place but more food availability can't hurt right?)
I doubt the against would take issue with this so I'd challenge them to argue why some animal rights in this area wouldn't be a good way to try and shift the balance. In short, we have had the idea of animal welfare for a long time and it hasn't stopped animal exploitation in any area where we can profit from it, and it's getting worse all the time as the scale increases. The against agreed that they would be happy to see the end of animals used it sport, so using that example, where welfare hasn't really achieved a lot, shouldn't animals have the right not to be used in sport?
sorry it's all so scattered I'm on drugs right now, you can edit it down or cull it haha since I wrote all this I might as well hit enter, thanks again for putting on the debate and keep them coming :)
4/05/2016 3:38:58 AM

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