1. Regan on the moral status of animals
It’s an obvious fact that most of us treat animals (nonhuman animals, that is) in ways we wouldn’t dream of treating other human beings. We use them for food, clothing, experimentation (scientific and otherwise), sport, and so on. In short, we engage in massive, routine discrimination against them, but few of us give this a second thought, apparently thinking (if thinking at all) that such discrimination can easily be justified. But what, precisely, does justify it?
Regan gives a simple answer to this question: nothing! He claims that we are morally obligated not to treat animals in the way we usually do. (Or, to put his point more carefully: he claims that we are morally obligated not to treat many animals in the way we usually do. I’ll explain this qualification shortly.) His reason for saying this is that he believes that the animals in question have a right not to be treated as we treat them, and he bases this claim on the following considerations (see p. 149, left column – p. 150, left column).
Regan recognizes that there are of course very many differences, both mental and physical, between us and other animals. But he also recognizes that not all differences make a moral difference; that is, not all differences provide a morally relevant basis for discrimination. And so he asks the obvious question: what difference or differences between us and other animals might reasonably be thought to make a moral difference? Perhaps the most obvious candidate is: intelligence. But Regan quickly points out that, if difference in intellectual capacity were itself sufficient to justify discrimination between us and other animals, then it would also be sufficient to justify discrimination between us and other humans, such as the mentally retarded or deranged, who lack the same capacity to the same degree. But no one does (or, at least, no one should) think that such a difference is relevant to how other humans may be treated, and so no one should think that it is relevant to how other animals may be treated. (This should sound familiar from our discussion of abortion, when we were trying to figure out whether fetuses have a right to life. The challenge to those who claim that we have such a right but fetuses do not was to find the relevant difference between us and fetuses that could explain this fact − a challenge that proved to be surprisingly difficult to meet. Many responses to this challenge were problematic for the same kind of reason as the one that Regan gives for the present suggestion: they turned out to be apparently too restrictive, excluding not only fetuses but also many postnatal humans from the circle of those who possess the right to life.)
What about certain physical skills, such as the ability to build a bookcase? But of course this is problematic, too, since not just animals but also many humans lack this ability.
What about the possession of a soul? Regan dismisses this criterion, not on the grounds that we don’t have souls, but on the grounds that no one is in the kind of privileged position to be able to say with any authority that we do have souls and yet other animals do not.
Regan’s point can be put this way. Just as those who engage in unjust discrimination on the basis of sex are sexists and those who engage in unjust discrimination on the basis of race are racists, so too those who engage in unjust discrimination on the basis of species may be said to be “speciesists.” The challenge that Regan is making to those who discriminate against animals is this. Show that your discrimination is just; that is, show that you are not simply being a speciesist.
Instead of the differences between us and other animals, Regan latches onto what he thinks is a crucial similarity between us and many (but not all) other animals, animals such as dogs, cats, cows, monkeys, etc.: we are all “experiencing subjects of a life” whose lives can go better or worse depending on what happens to us. It is in virtue of this fundamental similarity, Regan contends, that such animals, like us, have “inherent value” and have it in equal measure.
Regan is in effect proposing yet another argument of Type III, one that appeals to the following principle:
|M1:||Anything that is the experiencing subject of a life has a moral right not to be harmed.|
The argument may be put as follows:
|Arg. 1:||(1)||Human beings have a moral right not to be harmed.|
|(2)||The best explanation of premise (1) is moral principle M1.|
|(3)||If premise (2) is true, then M1 is true.|
|∴||(4)||M1 is true.|
|(5)||If M1 is true, then any animal that is the experiencing subject of a life has a moral right not to be harmed.|
|∴||(6)||Any such animal has a moral right not to be harmed.|
On the basis of this argument, Regan goes on to call for (a) the total abolition of the use of animals in science, (b) the total dissolution of commercial animal agriculture, and (c) the total elimination of commercial and sport hunting and trapping. I won’t try to reconstruct his argument for these positions, although I think it’s pretty easy to see how the conclusion of Arg. 1 could be used for this purpose.
***Here is a good place to stop and consider Question 5 on the Practice Questions for Module 6.***
2. Critical evaluation of Regan’s article
Regan’s article has been criticized by both Frey and White. Frey in fact presents two very different objections.
Frey’s first critique:
In his first contribution, Frey appeals to a rather lengthy “chain” of conditions involving interests, desires, beliefs, and linguistic ability, which he uses to argue that animals such as cats and dogs do not have moral rights and on the basis of which he proposes an alternative principle to Regan’s. This alternative principle may be put as follows:
|M2:||Anything that has an interest in not being harmed has a moral right not to be harmed.|
In advocating M2 rather than M1, Frey is of course rejecting premise (2) of Regan’s argument. And his own counter-argument may be rendered thus:
|Arg. 2:||(1)||Something (or someone, whether human or nonhuman) has moral rights only if it has interests.|
|(2)||Something has interests only if it can have desires.|
|(3)||Something can have desires only if it can have beliefs.|
|(4)||Something can have beliefs only if it has linguistic ability.|
|(5)||Animals such as cats and dogs do not have linguistic ability.|
|∴||(6)||Animals such as cats and dogs do not have moral rights.|
It’s important to recognize that when Frey says that something, A, “has interests,” what he means is not that A takes an interest or is interested in something, but rather that it makes sense to say that some things can be in, or against, A’s interest in the sense that they can contribute, positively or negatively, to A’s level of welfare, that is, to how well A’s life goes. On such an understanding, premise (1), though not uncontroversial, surely has some degree of plausibility. It might be said that it is precisely because plants, for example, have no interests in this sense that they have no moral rights. Moreover, premises (2) and (3), though again not uncontroversial, seem quite plausible. How can your life go better or worse if not in virtue of your desires being satisfied or frustrated? And how can you have any desires unless you have beliefs about the sort of things that you desire? These questions are not intended as rhetorical. Perhaps after all a wedge can be driven between interests and desires or between desires and beliefs, but it’s not at all obvious just how this might be done.
Even if premises (1)-(3) of Arg. 2 are plausible, however, premise (4) is another matter. Frey seeks to bolster this premise by giving an account of belief according to which, if anyone believes that such-and-such is the case, what that person believes is that the sentence “Such-and-such is the case” is true. For example, if you believe that snow is white, what you believe is that the sentence “Snow is white” is true. But believing that a sentence is true requires linguistic ability. Thus any animal, like a cat or a dog, that lacks such ability must also lack beliefs.
This is a pretty bizarre argument. You might reject it on the basis of the claim that dogs and cats do have linguistic ability after all, since they can clearly communicate amongst themselves and also with other species (such as us). But I think that would probably be a mistake. Not all communication involves language and, although it is no doubt difficult to spell out precisely what language consists in, it seems very plausible to say that very few nonhuman animals (the exception being certain apes, perhaps) have the ability to communicate via language. No, the bizarre part is Frey’s insistence that to believe something involves believing that a sentence is true. Why on earth think this? There would seem to be very good reason to ascribe all sorts of beliefs to cats, dogs, and other such creatures, even though they have no linguistic ability. Doesn’t your dog or cat know (and hence believe) that there’s food in his bowl or that there’s a stranger in the house? Still, Frey doesn’t just insist on his account of belief. He tries to defend it on the basis of the claim that to have a belief one must be able to distinguish what’s true from what’s false. I leave it to you to judge whether he is successful.
It’s interesting to note that if we hold, contrary to Frey, that cats, dogs, and other such animals do have an interest in not being harmed, then his principle, M2, far from serving to exclude such animals from the circle of rights-holders, includes them. Regan might therefore welcome this principle instead of, or as a supplement to, his own principle, M1.
***Here is a good place to stop and consider Question 6 on the Practice Questions for Module 6.***
Frey’ second critique:
In his second contribution, Frey takes issue with premise (1) of Arg. 1, claiming that the lives of “deficient humans” do not after all have the same value as those of normal people (see p. 160, right column – p. 161, left column). He says that it’s clear that human lives vary considerably in quality; sometimes a life is of such a low quality that we wouldn’t wish it on even our worst enemies. That being the case, Regan’s claim that all human (let alone also many nonhuman) lives have equal inherent value is obviously false, and so his case for equal rights among humans and many animals collapses. This argument may be summarized as follows:
|Arg. 3:||(1)||Not all human lives are of equal value.|
|(2)||If premise (1) is true, then not all human beings have an equally strong moral right not to be harmed (and maybe some have no such right at all).|
|∴||(3)||Not all human beings have an equally strong moral right not to be harmed (and maybe some have no such right at all).|
I find this very disturbing indeed. Frey appears not to have understood what Regan means by “inherent value.” Let me explain.
We can surely agree that some human lives are better, and hence in some sense have more value, than others. What sense is this? The very sense that Frey identifies: quality. Some lives are of a higher quality than others; they “go better.” This is something we all accept. It explains many of the choices we make. If we didn’t expect, or at least hope, that our lives would go better if we chose to do this rather than that, there would be no reason for us to worry about what to choose in the first place and no reason to make one choice rather than another. But it seems clear that this is not the kind of value that Regan has in mind. On the contrary, he wants to insist that, no matter how well or poorly a person is faring, his life has the same value in some other sense as anybody else’s. (In saying this, Regan is calling on an idea that is central to the moral theory of Kant, a very influential German philosopher introduced earlier in our discussion of prostitution. In fact, Regan is going even further than Kant wanted to go, extending the idea of equal inherent value from humans to a wide variety of nonhuman animals.) The sense of “value” here is: dignity or worth (that is, more particularly, worthiness of respect). What makes Frey’s position so disturbing is that, whereas it seems that the weaker among us are especially vulnerable to exploitation and other forms of mistreatment, and hence especially in need of the respect that is their due, Frey’s view would apparently imply that the less well your life is going, the less serious or weighty is your right not to be harmed. This is surely pernicious.
***Here is a good place to stop and consider Question 7 on the Practice Questions for Module 6.***
In his discussion of whether animals have rights, White in effect denies premise (2) of Arg. 1. He claims that no individual, whether human or nonhuman, could have a right unless he (or she, or it) could “fulfill the role of a right-holder” by performing such functions as exercising the right, asserting it, demanding it, waiving it, and so on. He then claims that nonhuman animals fail to meet this condition and that that is why they in fact have no rights. (See p. 162, right column – p. 163, left column.) At first sight, what White seems to be suggesting is that Regan’s principle, M1, should be replaced with the following principle:
|M3:||Anything that can fulfill the role of a right-holder has a moral right not to be harmed.|
And the argument he seems to be proposing is this:
|Arg. 4:||(1)||Something has moral rights only if it can fulfill the role of a right-holder by exercising, or asserting, or demanding, or waiving, etc. its rights.|
|(2)||Nonhuman animals cannot fulfill this role.|
|∴||(3)||Nonhuman animals do not have moral rights.|
Here, “can” may be understood to express a sort of personal capacity.
There is an immediate problem, though, one with which we are by now very familiar, and that is that the first premise of this argument seems much too restrictive, since it excludes not only nonhuman animals but also many humans from the circle of rights-holders. After all, small children and some mentally deficient adults, for example, are just as incapable as animals of performing the functions that White enumerates.
White is perfectly aware of this problem, however, which is why I said only that he seems at first sight to be advocating M3 and Arg. 4. For he immediately goes on to claim that his position does not exclude any humans (such as small children and so on) from the circle of rights-holders. He says this because, even if such humans happen for some reason to be unable to perform the various functions he mentions, nonetheless, being persons, they are “logical possible subjects of rights” regarding whom “the full language of rights” can be meaningfully used (see p. 163, left column). What he means by this, I think, is that, even if some human being (such as a small child) is in fact incapable of, for example, demanding his rights, still there is nothing inconsistent in the idea of his doing so. One measure of this (admittedly not an infallible one, but good enough for present purposes) is that we can easily imagine a small child’s standing up in his crib and, for example, demanding to be fed. Thus, instead of M3 and Arg. 4, what I take White to be proposing is in fact the following:
|M4:||Anything that is a person has a moral right not to be harmed.|
|Arg. 5:||(1)||Something has moral rights only if it is logically possible that it fulfill the role of a right-holder.|
|(2)||It is logically possible that something fulfill the role of a right-holder only if it is a person.|
|(3)||Nonhuman animals are not persons.|
|∴||(4)||Nonhuman animals do not have moral rights.|
By this means, White seeks to draw the circle of rights-holders in such a way that no humans are excluded and no nonhuman animals are included.
But there is surely still a problem. By weakening the criterion for possession of a right from that of having the capacity to perform the various functions he mentions to that of its simply being logically possible to perform these functions, White has certainly managed to include the human beings whom at first sight he seemed to exclude, but it’s not at all clear how it is that nonhuman animals are supposed still to be excluded. White says that such animals are not persons (premise (3)) and that only persons can logically fulfill the role of a right-holder (premise (2)), but, although each of these premises might seem plausible on its own, together they are quite dubious. The problem is that there is a strong suspicion of equivocation on the term “person.” (Remember the example of Brad Pitt from our discussion of philosophical argumentation?) It is certainly plausible to say that, in some common even if rather obscure sense of “person,” no nonhuman animal is a person. It also seems reasonable to say that, in some perhaps semi-stipulative sense of “person,” only persons can, logically, possess rights. But what is not all clear is why we should think that it is the same sense of “person” in both cases.
On the contrary, it seems clear that, even if nonhuman animals are not persons in any conventional sense of the term, still there is nothing inconsistent in ascribing rights to them. Just as we can imagine a small child demanding to be fed, so too can we imagine a dog or a cat or a pig doing so. (If you’re having a hard time doing this, let Warner Bros. help. Imagine Porky Pig demanding his dinner.) The fact is, the sort of possibility − merely logical possibility − that White invokes is so weak that it is unclear how it could succeed in excluding any individual object from possibly having rights.
So the question remains: how (if at all) is the conclusion of Regan’s argument to be resisted?
***Here is a good place to stop and consider Question 8 on the Practice Questions for Module 6.***