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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.

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