Animal Rights, Human Wrongs

By Tom Regan

Chapter Three of Animal Rights, Human Wrongs

Nature and Importance of Rights

What makes right acts right? What makes wrong acts wrong? Some moral philosophers believe that the best answers to these questions require the recognition of moral rights. This is the position I favor and the one I will try to defend in subsequent chapters. It will therefore be useful to say something about the nature and importance of rights, the better to frame the discussions of other positions that differ from mine.

The idea of the “rights of the individual” has had a profound and lasting influence, both in and beyond Western civilization. Among philosophers, however, this idea has been the subject of intense debate. Some philosophers deny that we have any rights (moral rights, as they are commonly called) beyond those legal rights established by law; others affirm that, separate from and more basic than our legal rights, are our moral rights, including such rights as the rights to life, liberty, and bodily integrity. The framers of America’s Declaration of Independence certainly believed this; they maintained that the sole reason for having a government in the first place is to protect citizens in the possession of their rights, rights that, because they are independent of, and more basic than, legal rights, have the status of moral rights.

People can agree that humans have moral rights and disagree over what rights are. They can even agree that humans have moral rights, agree about what rights are, and still disagree when it comes to saying what rights humans have. For example, some proponents of moral rights believe humans possess only negative moral rights (rights not to be harmed or interfered with), while others believe we also have positive moral rights (rights to be helped or assisted). The on-going national debate over the right to universal health care illustrates the difference.

We begin with this fact. Naturally occurring diseases or illnesses, such as cancer and diabetes, do not violate anyone’s rights. This makes a difference for proponents of negative rights. Since no one’s rights are violated, those who suffer from these conditions have no right to medical assistance. Proponents of positive rights take a different view. Because these conditions detract from a person’s quality of life, people who need assistance have a right to receive it, even if they cannot afford it.

Which (if either) view is correct? Impressive arguments, often both lengthy and complex, have been presented by both sides. Fortunately for us, these debates, as important as they are, lie outside the scope of our present interest. The questions central to animal rights concern which if any nonhuman animals have negative moral rights (rights not to be harmed or interfered with). For this reason, we can table discussion of whether animals (or humans, for that matter) have any positive rights and concentrate throughout on negative moral rights (henceforth “rights”). My purpose in this chapter is not to argue for our rights, let alone for the rights of animals. Rather, I want to explain why the idea that humans have rights, and why the possibility that animals have them, are the important ideas they are.

“No Trespassing”
Possession of moral rights (by which, again, unless otherwise indicated, I mean negative moral rights) confers a distinctive moral status on those who have them. To possess these rights is to have a kind of protective moral shield, something we might picture as an invisible “No Trespassing” sign. If we assume that all humans have such rights, we can ask what this invisible sign prohibits. Two things, in general. First, others are not morally free to harm us; to say this is to say that, judged from the moral point of view, others are not free to take our life or injure our body as they please. Second, others are not free to interfere with our free choice; to say this is to say that others are not free to limit our choices as they please. In both cases, the “No Trespassing” sign is meant to protect those who have rights by morally limiting the freedom of others.

Does this mean that it is always wrong to take someone’s life, injure them, or restrict their freedom? Not at all. When people exceed their rights by violating ours, we act within our rights if we respond in ways that can harm or limit the freedom of the violators. For example, suppose you are attacked by a thief; then you do nothing wrong in using physical force sufficient to defend yourself, even if this harms your assailant. Thankfully, in the world as we find it, such cases are the exception, not the rule. Most people most of the time act in ways that respect the rights of other human beings. But even if the world happened to be different in this respect, the central point would be the same: what we are free to do when someone violates our rights does not translate into the freedom to violate their rights without justifiable cause.

Moral Weight: Trump
Every serious advocate of human rights believes that our rights have greater moral weight than other important human values. To use an analogy from the card game Bridge, our moral rights are trump. Here is what this analogy means.

A hand is dealt. Hearts are trump. The first three cards played are the queen of spades, the king of spades, and the ace of spades. You (the last player) have no spades. However, you do have the two of hearts. Because hearts are trump, your lowly two of hearts beats the queen of spades, beats the king of spades, even beats the ace of spades. This is how powerful the trump suit is in the game of Bridge.

The analogy between trump in Bridge and individual rights in morality should be reasonably clear. There are many important values to consider when we make a moral decision. For example: How will we be affected personally as a result by deciding one way or another? What about our family, friends, neighbors, fellow Americans? It is not hard to write a long list. When we say, “rights are trump,” we mean that respect for the rights of individuals is the most important consideration in “the game of morality,” so to speak. In particular, we mean that the good others derive from violating someone’s rights (by injuring their body or taking their life, for example) never justifies violating them.

Moral Status: Equality
Moral rights breathe equality. They are the same for all who have them, differ though we do in many ways. This explains why no human being can justifiably be denied rights for arbitrary, prejudicial, or morally irrelevant reasons. Race is such a reason. To attempt to determine which humans have rights on the basis of race is like trying to sweeten something by adding salt. What race we are tells us nothing about what rights we have.

The same is no less true of other differences between us. My wife and I trace our family lineage to different countries; she to Lithuania, I to Ireland. Some of our friends are Christians, some Jews, some Moslems. Others are agnostics or atheists. In the world at large, a few people are very wealthy, many more, very poor. And so it goes. Humans differ in many ways. There is no denying that.

Still, no one who believes in human rights thinks these differences mark fundamental moral divisions. If we mean anything by the idea of human rights, we mean that we have them equally. And we have them equally regardless of our race, gender, religious belief, comparative wealth, intelligence, or date or place of birth, for example.

Moral Claims: Justice
Rights involve justice, not generosity; what we are due, not what we want. Here is an example that helps illustrate the difference. I happen to want a fancy sports car, which I cannot afford. Bill Gates (as everyone knows) has more money than he knows what to do with. I write to him.

Dear Bill:
I want an Audi TT 3.2-litre six-cylinder sports Coupé with a Direct Shift Gearbox. I can’t afford the asking price. I know you can. So I would appreciate it if you would send me a money order (by Express Mail, if you don’t mind) to cover the cost.
Your friend,

One thing is abundantly clear. I am not in a position to demand that Bill Gates buy me an Audi TT. Receiving a car from him — any car — is not something to which I am entitled, not something I am owed or due. If my new found friend Bill bought me the car of my dreams, his gift would distinguish him as uncommonly generous (or uncommonly foolish), not uncommonly fair.

When we invoke our rights, by contrast, we are not asking for anyone’s generosity. We are not saying, “Please, will you kindly give me something I do not deserve?” On the contrary, when we invoke our rights, we are demanding fair treatment, demanding that we receive what is our due. We are not asking for any favors.

Moral Unity: Respect
Trespass. Trump. Equality. Justice. These are among the ideas that come to the surface when we review the meaning and importance of moral rights. While each is important, none succeeds in unifying the core concept. By contrast, the idea of respect succeeds in doing so.

The rights discussed in this chapter (life, liberty, and bodily integrity) are variations on a main theme, that theme being respect. From the perspective of human rights proponents, I show my respect for you by respecting these rights in your life. You show your respect for me by doing the same thing. Respect is the main theme because treating one another with respect just is treating one another in ways that respect our other rights. From this perspective, our most fundamental right — the right that unifies all our other rights — is our right to be treated with respect. When our other rights are violated, individual human beings are treated with a lack of respect.

Animal Rights?
It is when viewed against this larger moral backdrop that the importance of the debate over animal rights comes into sharper focus. If animals have rights of the sort mentioned (the rights to bodily integrity and to life, for example), then the way they are treated on farms and in biomedical research violates their rights, is wrong, and should be stopped, no matter how much humans have benefited from these practices in the past or how much we might benefit from having them continue in the future.

Philosophical opponents of animal rights agree. “[I]f animals have any rights at all,” writes the most well known opponent, the philosopher Carl Cohen, “they have the right to be respected, the right not to be used as a tool to advance human interests . . . no matter how important those human interests are thought to be.” In particular, if nonhuman animals have moral rights, biomedical research that uses them is wrong and should be stopped. Cohen even goes so far as to liken the use of animals, in the development of the polio and other vaccines, to the use Nazi scientists made of Jewish children during the second World War. “[I]f those animals we used and continue to use have rights as human children do, what we did and are doing to them is as profoundly wrong as what the Nazis did to those Jews not long ago.”

Clearly, what is true of the morality of relying on the animal model in scientific research would be no less true when evaluating the morality of commercial animal agriculture and the fur trade. These, too, would be “profoundly wrong”, if animals have rights. On this point, without a doubt, even Cohen would agree.

But do animals have rights? More fundamentally, do human beings have rights? These are the central questions to be addressed in the pages that follow. At this juncture I note only that my argument for animal rights cannot be made in twenty-five words or less. Why animals have rights can be understood only after critically examining moral theories that deny rights to animals and, sometimes, to humans, too. Once we understand the weaknesses of these theories, we can understand why human rights must be acknowledged; and once we adopt this latter position, then–but not before, in my judgment — we can understand why we must acknowledge animal rights as well.

In the nature of the case, therefore, as I indicated earlier, and as I will have occasion to say again, my argument for animal rights is cumulative in nature, arising, as it does, in response to weaknesses in other ways of thinking about morality.