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NATIONAL ANIMAL RIGHTS DAY! BUT ISN’T IT ABSURD?


Most people in today’s society recognize that, due to their sentience, non-human animals (henceforth animals) deserve moral consideration. Many people would, furthermore, agree that the animals’ moral status in intrinsic, rather than merely instrumental: we should be kind to animals not only because they are useful or interesting for us, not only because in being kind to them we foster good moral character, but because they deserve to be treated decently in themselves, simply because of who they are, our fellow citizens on this planet.


But, for many, the move from moral consideration to animal rights is a step too far. The reasons for this seem to fall into two categories. Either people say that the idea of animal rights is just too absurd, and does it mean that a dog should have a right to go to university, and does it mean that we have to feed every pigeon or gull that looks hungry? Or people say, thinking that they have thereby clinched the argument, “Animal have rights? What then are their responsibilities?” These two clusters of objections are worthing looking at in more details.


Saying that the idea of animal rights is absurd rests on two instances of ethical confusion. One is the confusion about meaningful rights. Basically, rights have to be, well, meaningful. It is meaningless to talk about the right of a biological male to abortion, or the right of a visually impaired person to drive a London bus. Equally, it is meaningless to talk about a dog’s right to go to university. But the fact that some rights are meaningless for a particular individual does not negate all their other rights.


The second confusion is about positive moral obligations (what we should do) and negative moral obligations (what we should not do). For example, I have a positive moral obligation to provide my children with food. I also have a negative moral obligation not to hit them. In the case of children I meet in the street, I do not have a positive moral obligation to provide them with food. However. I have exactly the same negative moral obligation not to hit them. Thus also with animals: the fact that we do not, and cannot, have a positive moral obligation to feed every animal we happen to see, does not negate the fact that we do have a negative moral obligation not to harm them.


The objection to the idea of animal rights on the basis of animals’ lack of moral obligations is, actually, a matter of conceptual confusion also. Rights and obligations are connected, but not in the way opponents of animal rights suggest. For example, if I have a right to medical care, it follows that someone is society has a corresponding obligation to provide it. But it does not follow that I have an obligation to provide medical care for others; rights and obligations are not mirror-symmetrical in this way. Furthermore, there are plenty of individuals in society, such as newborn babies, severely mentally handicapped people, the elderly with dementia, whose rights are not questioned, but who are not expected to have any moral obligations towards  others. So why not animals? The argument from marginal human cases may be awkwardly named, but it is valid.


And so, A VERY HAPPY NATIONAL ANIMAL RIGHTS DAY! To everyone on two and four (OK, and on three and none) legs!

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