07 June 2007

from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Animal Rights

Dear friends,

This Sunday we are talking about animal rights which is always an
emotional subject. Of course, for us it should be a challenging topic
more than anything else.

In the meantime Mark posted the following link on the yahoo group on the
subject of beliefs. I hope you have time to listen to this podcast.

Following on from the last pub discussion... you might be interested
in this audio podcast, re: why do people believe anything....
..and it's from down under.

Why do you believe what you do? Is the human mind an organ designed
for belief? Why are we so convinced of the existence of things we
can't prove or see? Are some beliefs healthy and others pathological?
Margaret Wertheim, author of Pythagoras' Trousers, and The Pearly
Gates of Cyberspace; cognitive scientist Professor Max Coltheart,
co-editor of Pathologies of Belief , and theologian, film-maker and
cult-buster, Reverend Dr David Millikan, join Natasha Mitchell to
unravel the perplexing power of belief. Note: The audio is for the
entire event! (size: 38MB - 1 hour 20 mins) from the Australian
Science Festival.

Right click on this link and select "Save Target As" or paste into
address bar:


take care and see you Sunday


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Animal rights

For millions of years animals lived amongst themselves in jungles and
open pastures. They lived off each other, sometimes eating someone, and
sometimes being eaten by someone else. Constantly testing and refining
game theory and decision theory. Sometimes winning and probably losing
more times. Then humans had a winning break and things have not been the
same for all animals ever since.

Throughout the ages humans have had a close relationship with animals.
And since the time of Greek philosophers there has always been a debate
about how we treat animals. (See Wikipedia: animal rights). Early
arguments focused on the possibility that an animal might be a
reincarnated relative or simply that animals are a low form of life not
worth our respect. Others argued that animals were put on this earth for
our benefit, while others suggested that if we mistreat animals it would
just be one step away for us to mistreat humans. Some point out that
animals feel pain just like us, while others conclude that since animals
do not have duties we cannot speak of animals having rights.

I don't want to consider these debates since others have already said
what needs to be said, and I don't think I can add much. In any case I
don't think that most of these arguments go to the heart of the matter.

In effect, I want to consider the following questions:

What do we mean by animal rights?

Why should we want to give rights to animals?

What is our track record when it comes to bestowing rights?

What are the consequences of animal rights?

Who will actually benefit from animal rights?

A factor in a debate on animal rights that is ether forgotten or
dismissed outright is that we do not have a perspective about rights
from the animals' point of view. I mean, what animals think about
rights. I agree with you that at face value this sounds a bit silly, but
its implication is not that silly. One reason it is not that silly is
that we might be endeavouring upon something which might well be
inapplicable, inappropriate, or out of context. Let's consider the
following case and analogy.

Someone travelling from one's own country to another might be interested
to know what rights they have in the new country. One way of finding out
is to read any constitutional document that had been written, any
legislation about rights, and for the really curious, look at court
judgements and procedures. Not necessarily the most efficient way to
find out about rights, but certainly a reasonable way. And after such an
exercise, we can go a step further and check if we are better or worse
off in one country or another; always making an allowance that theory
and practice might not coincide.

We cannot do this with animals. We just cannot find out what animals
''think'' about rights. Furthermore, this is not even a legitimate
investigation to being with. It is irrational to ask what a fox thinks
about its rights when being chased by pack of hounds. However, being
chased by a pack of hounds is something a fox is fully aware of and
equally aware of the consequences and the fear involved. But this is
different from the fox being aware of its rights. We can safely assume
that foxes do not have a system or structure in place to deal about
rights. The same goes for the antelope being chased by lions*, field
mice being caught by hawks and so on.

What this means is that any talk about animals having rights, is nothing
but a projection of our psychological and mental dispositions onto other
things. Mice are no more opera singers or comedians then they are beings
without rights. At the very least, therefore, it is not clear what we
mean by animals having rights.

What this also means is that if we are to talk about animal rights, we
are going to use our definition and our perception of what animal rights
ought to be. Hence, we might think that we are oppressing foxes by
chasing them with packs of hounds, but for all we know, foxes might
think that this is fair play but what really aggrieves them is that
their favourite cops has been bulldozed down for new residential houses.
Of course, we cannot ask the foxes and they certainly are not telling us
what they are thinking are we justified in doing their thinking for them?

There are two important theories that try to define what rights mean for
humans. These are the will theory and the interest theory (see for
example Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy: rights). The will theory
more or less says that rights give us sovereignty over what is ours and
we can tell others what to do or not do with our possessions. Our right
over our computer means that we can say who can use it and moreover we
can pass on that right to others.

The interest theory says that we have a right over something because it
makes the right holder better off. Thus my right over my computer
furthers my interests and advantages by having that computer.

It goes without saying that this debate is complex, and not only because
it's been going on for many centuries. One relevant issue is how do we
get to own something in the first place?

Animals do seem to practise some sort of will theory behaviour. For
example, the protection of territory, or who they share their prey with.
They also seem to have the concept that something they have domain over
also furthers their interest or gives them an advantage. Again, animals
seem to understand that territory gives them an advantage, for example,
in food supply. However, what is relevant for us is whether this
behaviour arises from a conception of a right or from natural selection?

I mean, do animals protect their territory because they believe it is
their right to do so, or because those animals have been selected to
behave aggressively towards other creatures that approach their
territory? So when a tomcat marks his territory with his smell, is he
saying this is my private domain keep out, or is this a signal to other
tomcats that if they venture into this territory they might be
challenged by another tomcat?

I would be inclined to think that it is the latter situation. First of
all, there is a difference between the idea of private property, which
is protected by property rights and recognised by some form of legal
system, and "domain use" which is held by force and protected by
aggression. Generally speaking, although we have property rights this
does not mean that we can use maximum aggression to protect our
property. On the contrary, we are only allowed to use reasonable force
to protect our property, anything else requires the intervention of some
legitimate authority. Furthermore, what is "reasonable force" is not
intuitively clear anyway which makes that authority indispensible. So
the smell of a tomcat cannot mean "keep out" or "keep away" because
"keep out" does not mean using maximum prejudicial force and aggression;
however, the tomcat does use maximum prejudicial force to keep intruders

Secondly, and this follows from the preceding argument, there is no
authority to protect the tomcat's "territory." However, our property
rights, at least in advanced societies, are underwritten by some sort of
legal system or authority. We also have more elaborate systems to
indicate that we have some rights over something; from keep off signs or
to maybe property deeds or a license. Animals tend to have fewer systems
to show possession and they also have to underwrite their own protection
on a case by case basis.

I therefore find it unclear what sort of rights are we talking about in
animal rights. I also assume that when we talk about animal rights we
are talking about something substantial and not just some fancy catch

A powerful argument against animals having rights is the argument from
duty or obligation; (put forward by Cohen and Scruton, see wikipepdia:
animal rights). Basically this argument says that to have rights one
must also have obligations and that we understand these ideas of rights
and duties. Moreover, rights are applied to humans and that the only
qualifying criteria to enjoy such rights are that of being human. Later
on I shall argue that the concepts of property rights and duty are
central to the debate on animal rights.

There are two very compelling arguments that justify giving rights to
animals. I have already pointed out that rights give us protection
either to our property or by implication to ourselves. In the same way
that others cannot damage or abuse our property they also cannot hurt or
abuse us.

Secondly, rights are things we recognise and have an established
structure and system to up-hold them, establish them, and administer them.

Animals need protection, from us, for two main reasons. Animals are live
beings and we cannot do what we want with them and secondly, we cannot
inflict wonton pain on creatures that feel pain. Whilst we all agree
with the second premise, the first premise is not necessarily intuitive.

Whether it is fox hunting, big game hunting, bull fighting or factory
farming there are those who object that we cannot inflict such pain on
these animals. Whilst we may quibble on whether animals have rights, we
all agree that animals feel pain. Indeed, pain is a powerful argument
because it is a survival instrument for life. And being alive is the
raison d'être for living creation.

What might seem a compelling argument, the pain argument might turn out
not to be the main issue. First of all, even if we did stop all these
cruel activities, it does not mean that we would stop animals from
feeling pain. Furthermore, animals won't stop inflicting pain on each
other, even if done out of necessity.

Secondly, humans can be accused of a lot of dastardly things, but the
creation of pain is not one of them. Pain will always be used to
manipulate and control others. What has happened in certain societies is
that we have developed very subtle and sophisticated means to inflict
pain on others. However, I wonder how many people wince when they see a
fox or a vixen scavenging for food in a city suburb. These foxes are no
less stressed and in pain from having to scavenge in an alien territory,
where their type of food is not necessarily available, then when they
are being chased by a pack of hounds. Of course, hounds are the natural
enemy of the fox, but not electric fences or motorcars.

However, no one is suggesting that humans should evacuate the
countryside or simply give up agriculture altogether. Hence, pain is not
necessarily a reasonable argument to stop an activity.

At the heart of a discussion on animal rights is the following belief.
It is part of our political and philosophical thinking that rights not
only give us ownership to property but more importantly, rights protect
us from being exploited or harmed (at least in theory). We have been
brought up to believe that rights are what keep us safe from the law of
the jungle. Hence, if we do not give rights to animals we can inflict
pain and exploit animals with impunity. If someone does not have rights
we usually assume that that person is being or can be exploited and
harmed. Slaves do not have rights.

This argument is, in my opinion, flawed. It is not rights that give us
protection, but a social structure that favours cooperation to
aggression. You might want to call this "social contract" or a "win-win
strategy" the important thing is that we have adopted a strategy to
respect each other. The incentive to do so is that others respect us in
return and the disincentive not to do so is punishment or social
disapproval. What we call rights might in effect be seen as options or
moves in a complex cooperation strategy matrix. On the practical level
we do need to discover the extent and the nature of this cooperation.
Maybe we might have stronger rights protecting our house, but weaker
rights protecting our health. But that study is best subcontracted to
other disciplines and not philosophy.

It is quite legitimate to talk about rights and giving rights to
animals, but what is our track record when it comes to rights? It is one
thing to talk about animal rights and quite another to uphold those
rights. Personally I do not think that our track record is that great
when it comes to rights. It is not that I am pessimistic, but that I do
not see any evidence of a great track record. I concede that that having
rights on the statute books and recognising that we have these rights is
a big achievement, but that is just a few meters into a thousand
kilometre epic journey.

Nor should we measure rights by the number of statutes, but rather by
more tangible and effective criteria. How many people have a meal this
evening? How many people have access to health care? How many people can
sleep safely tonight? Maybe that tomcat is best advised to keep on
pissing against those rubbish bins and sharpen his claws.

However, if we do want to argue the case for animal rights we stand a
good chance of failing to protect animals in the way we feel animals
ought to be protected. The reason is very simple. If we can demonstrate
that animals do not have rights (and I have tried to do just that) then
there is a good chance of making the reductio ad absurdum mistake of
assuming that "no rights" equal "do what you want." My position is that
"no right" does not mean such a thing, but certainly something else.

When we see a group of lionesses chasing their prey, what we see is a
powerful and strong group of animals bring down a weak animal. We might
therefore wrongly conclude that "might is right" especially in the
animal kingdom. However, in this kingdom might does not mean wasteful,
caprice, cruel nor destructive. In the animal kingdom there is a life
cycle and straightforward cause and effect. When lions catch their prey
they eat it maybe with a few other gate crashers. What they do not do is
to kill a few more beasts and put them in the freezer maybe to
manipulate the market place.

However, as we know, humans do not necessarily operate in this neutral
world of cause and effect. Humans, use their brains to plan strategies,
outwit and plot against other humans. One company tries to do better
than its competitor, one club tries to have more members, one country
tries to monopolise the supply of natural resources. We have moved away
from blood and gore when defeating a competitor, but then animals were
never into blood and gore when it came to competition. What humans have
done with their agile and complex brain is to move away from competing
for resources with other creatures, and actually became the owners of
this planet.

Today we are no longer just beneficiaries of the world we live in. Today
we are the outright owners of the world. Today we own the land, the
seas, the air, the forests, the animals and everything else whether it
is nailed down or not. This ownership gives us the right to say who can
use our property and how we can exploit it or benefit from it.

I have tried to show that talking about animal rights can be an
unreasonable task even if it is well meant and argued in good faith.
However, I also reject the idea that "no rights" equals "do what you
want with animals." So what does "no rights" mean? And how can we
protect animals from senseless exploitation?

To answer these questions we first need to have a look at a very basic
question: who benefits from animal rights? At face value, the answer
ought to be animals. But as I have already pointed out, our track record
for up holding rights is not that great? So there is no reason to assume
that animals will fare better. The ban on fox hunting in England did not
mean that foxes do not get killed and controlled to stop them from
becoming pests. Because of the ban, some politicians might now gain a
few more votes in the next election, we might now feel less queasy, but
what really might bother the fox is the disappearance of its habitat.
And if it is not urban crawl it could be mismanagement of resources.
Hence, seal pups have to be culled in Canada every year. Of course, if
those seals were not culled they would still starve to death. Hence a
right for animals might not automatically mean that it is the animal

The concept of property rights gives us the power or authority to manage
our property and to benefit from it. But property rights do not mean
that we can do what we want with our property. Although some people
might think that they have such a right when they drive their car 120kmp
in a built up area. In fact having certain property rights implies
duties and obligation as Cohen and Scruton argued.

The analogy I want to use is the world/national heritage property model.
Although states and individuals might own an exceptional historical
building or a site of natural beauty, the beneficiary is not necessarily
the country or the individual, but the citizens of the world. The owners
can of course exploit that site or property, maybe to cover costs or
make it economically viable, but the beneficiaries are the citizens.
They can exploit such a property, but they cannot damage it or misuse
it. This is linked to the common law principle of trusts (Wikipedia: law
trust). This principle divides the ownership and the beneficiaries of a
property into two entities. Hence, one person might be the owner
(trustee) and another person the beneficiary. And moreover, the owners
cannot prejudice the property to the detriment of the beneficiary.

How would this benefit animals? First of all we can still exploit
animals, for example for food or other economic benefit, but we won't be
able to abuse or mistreat animals; for example by driving them into
extinction. In the same way that a trustee cannot damage or misuse a
property. A historical property held under trust is unlikely to be
converted into a local car park or supermarket. hence, by the same
argument, it would be unlikely, as we are doing now, that all the sharks
on this planet will be turned into shark fin soup (check Google news or
the WWF website for this one) if they were to be held on trust with all
the citizens of the world as beneficiaries. In fact, we won't be able to
exploit animals without adopting some sort of intuitive principle such
as ensuring a minimum standard of "acceptable life" as Scruton calls it.
I would say that we can reasonably decide what is "acceptable life"
unlike what is an animal right. Could we also interpret this to mean a
"reasonable life"? If we could do this we won't need to enact any bill
of animal rights or something similar. If we can show that "acceptable
life" means "reasonable life" existing courts of law ought to be able to
establish what can be or cannot be done to animals. If rights have to be
enacted the courts will only be able to decide upon what the law says.
But as far as I know (at least in common law jurisdictions) the courts
can decide what is reasonable. Hence we would be protecting animals in
the same way we protect our other rights. Of course it is for lawyers to
find precedents that will help them convert "acceptable life" into
"reasonable life" and then into a "trustee's legal duty."

What I have tried to do, in effect, was to establish that animals are
our property, but that does not mean that we are the all out
beneficiaries of these animals as and when we want. We are in effect
only beneficiaries to the point where we can exploit animals in a
reasonable manner and to meet reasonable needs but no more. Thus an
equitable court should be able to tell us how and when we can exploit
our property (they already do it with cars for example) and they can
tell us how far we can exploit this property (they already do that with
national heritage buildings for example). As trustees of animals the
courts do not have to find whether animals have rights, but whether we
are discharging our duties as trustees of animals properly. This is no
different than a historical property being held under trust. In effect,
it is not the animals that need to have a sense of duty as Scruton and
Cohen argue,** but we have the duty to understand the rights we would
have as trustees.

In the meantime, we can still resort to that infrequently used term to
help us out with our morality and philosophy about animals: humane. The
chambers dictionary (www.chambersharrap.co.uk/) defines humane as: 1
kind and sympathetic. 2 said of a killing: done with as little pain and
suffering as possible; and one of the meanings given by
thefreedictionary.com is: kindness, mercy, or compassion. Once again we
can easily see what these terms mean and imply; the language is simpler
and the philosophy more secure.

Take care


*there is an interesting site prepared by Jo Edkins for a Lions and
antelope simulation at http://gwydir.demon.co.uk/jo/lion/index.htm

** I do not have access to the relevant works by these two philosophers,
so I do not really know how far they take their argument.

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