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Classical liberalism and animal rights

October 8th, 2011 Posted in Uncategorized by

Like most people, I went through most of my life without giving much consideration to animal rights. I never reflected on whether classical liberals ought to take the issue more seriously, I really never gave it much attention at all. Sure, when shopping in the supermarket I used to choose free-range eggs over battery produced eggs, but I was still content to eat meat. In fact my diet was the typical British diet of today, meat with a side of meat, skip the fruit and vegetables.

But then I was tricked into actually looking into the issue. Somebody posted a video of Richard Dawkins talking to Peter Singer. I had no idea who Peter Singer was, but as an atheist, I’m always interested in seeing what Dawkins has to say, so I sat down with a tasty chicken leg and watched. To my surprise it was actually Dawkins asking Singer the questions and it wasn’t about religion, but animal rights.

The arguments made sense and whilst I wasn’t instantly converted, they touched a nerve. My interest was stirred enough for me to delve deeper into the subject and eventually I found my way to an article that made the case for animal rights from a libertarian point of view. The argument was so stunningly logical and in my eyes, indisputable, that I decided then to eliminate meat from my diet.

Every year in the UK alone, more than a billion animals are killed so they can end up on our plates. In most cases they lead a miserable existence, living in cramped conditions, being manipulated in any way possible as long as it suits our ends. I can’t stress enough how crucial it is that those who eat meat take the time to conduct some research into what actually happens to these animals.

Why should classical liberals in particular be concerned? Because it’s a clear breach of the non-aggression principle. Nobody is asking for ‘free’ education for pigs, or an NHS for our pets (well ok, maybe Animals Count are, but we can ignore them.) These are basic negative rights. Freedom from torture, freedom from murder – what liberal could possibly disagree with that?

Ah, you say. Of course we care about negative rights, for humans, but animals are different. We might have a duty to refrain from wanton cruelty, but generally their interests are not as important as ours.

What convinced me that the above view was wrong was the argument from marginal cases. So what does this mean? Well, think of all the reasons people give to justify humans being treated differently to other animals. We’re vastly more intelligent, we can reason, we have a greater capacity to mourn the death of our loved ones, we’re capable of higher levels of empathy – and so on. Whilst this is all true in most cases, it is not true in all cases. Marginal cases are humans who are no more capable of meeting the aforementioned criteria than animals. For example, the severely mentally disabled are no more able to mourn the death of loved one than a duck. Newborn babies are no more intelligent than a cow. Yet these human beings still enjoy the same rights as all human beings.

In the case of newborn babies, some may argue that it’s their future potential that gives them their rights. That argument neither grants rights to the permanently mentally disabled, nor to babies with a terminal illness. The reality is that it’s surprisingly difficult to think of any criteria for granting rights to marginal cases, but not to animals. If we really think about why it is wrong to torture a baby, surely it is because they are capable of feeling pain, not because they have the potential to be highly intelligent later in their life. Sentience is what grants humans their negative rights and therefore it should also give animals the same basic rights.

The way we currently treat animals is a great ethical blind spot in our society. I’m not suggesting that vegans are morally superior to meat eaters. There are millions of well-meaning, good people in this country who eat meat simply because it’s a cultural norm and they have never thought about the issue in any depth. To see how great evil can go unnoticed in this way, one has only to remember that when the Founding Fathers stated that all men were entitled to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, millions of human beings were still being kept as slaves in America.

Classical liberals have a long and proud history of challenging the status quo when evil persists, this is what separates us from conservatives. It’s crucial that we take up this fight and become passionate defenders of animal rights, because animals cannot speak for themselves. No chicken is going to stand in front of a podium and tell us that they had a dream. I believe that this is the great liberation movement of the 21st century and I implore all classical liberals to support it.

Ben Lodge is a recent graduate from the University of Exeter.

9 Responses to “Classical liberalism and animal rights”

  1. Kyle Walker Says:

    Hi Ben, nice job. I take it that the argument about the difference between our cognitive capacities and the capacities of animals is one that is based in virtue ethics. The difference in cognitive capacities is supposed to show that humans and animals have different functions, and part of an animals function is supposed to be providing humans with nutrients so that they can fulfill their highest function (often this is thought to be reasoning).

    Of course, there are humans who aren’t capable of fulfilling the highest function of human beings. The standard response here is that it is only accidental that these humans cannot fulfill that function, not essential. Since it is an accident of nature, it cannot show anything about nature’s essence.

    That is one way to respond to your article, but I think there is a more important point to be made. In modern ethics (utilitarian and deontological), the goal is to find a general principle for deciding the difference between right and wrong action. This is not the goal in the virtue tradition as I understand it. Rather, the goal is to utilize reason to aim at virtues, and this has to be done on a case by case basis.

    For a virtue theorist, the goal should not be to discern what set of organisms have what rights. Rights, I think, are a concept of modern ethics. Rather, actions and policies should aim at the cultivation of virtuous human character traits. It might be true that much of current practice in factory farming fails to meet this standard, but you could not derive a principle that dictates the immorality of all animal consumption.

  2. Toby MacDonnell Says:

    Kyle’s covered everything worth saying on the matter, but I’m sure the following programme will be of interest to meat-eaters:

  3. Chris Says:

    I am really struggling to understand this post. Are you trying to say that all liberals should be vegan?

    “I’m not suggesting that vegans are morally superior to meat eaters. There are millions of well-meaning, good people in this country who eat meat simply because it’s a cultural norm and they have never thought about the issue in any depth.”

    Just how patronising do you want to be? So meat eaters are not morally inferior to vegans simply because they haven’t thought about it? I assure you that I have, in some depth and do not believe that liberalism has anything to do with being vegan.

  4. Simon Rigelsford Says:

    Hi Ben,

    Just to be clear… are you saying that all animals with a capacity to feel pain have a right not to be killed, to the same extent that a human has a right not to be killed?

    If so, you probably can’t eat fruit either. Insects are killed picking it, small animals run over transporting it, etc. At least Singer can say ‘yes, this is unfortunate, but utility is maximised so it is acceptable.’ By adding the non-aggression principle into it, you take a far more extreme position.

  5. Chris Says:

    If we all become vegan then we can be pretty sure that “No chicken is going to stand in front of a podium and tell us that they had a dream”.

    Whilst that is a spectacularly unlikely event today, in an all vegan world it would be even more so.

    There wouldn’t be any chickens.

  6. Ben Lodge Says:

    Simon: Singer often places more emphasis on how animals are treated whilst alive rather than focusing on their death. The example he used to show why they’re different is a mentally disabled person next to a normal healthy person. When judging which should be allowed to live, most people would say the healthy person should because he has more self awareness etc and more ability to appreciate life. However when asked which person should be made to feel extreme pain for a long period of time, it’s a harder decision, as both have a capacity to feel pain and suffer. So I’d agree with that kind of thinking, I don’t think killing animals is as bad as killing people. But I don’t think you should torture and kill animals for trivial reasons such as entertainment, enjoying the taste of their flesh or for clothing.

    Chris: I think people should try veganism unless they have special health considerations. But libertarians should especially be so because they place so much emphasis on avoiding coercion and some counter-arguments e.g. species normality are very collectivist and wouldn’t be used by libertarians. Also, the argument that we’re doing animals a favour by eating them because they otherwise wouldn’t exist is no stronger or weaker than arguing that farming humans to eat them is justified because some existence for them is better than no existence. I also know lots of vegans who keep chickens, so they would still exist. Also no offense intended in my post, sorry if I sounded patronising!

    Kyle: We might as well just talk about that on facebook since you posted it there as well and I already replied to it there.

  7. Simon Rigelsford Says:

    I’ve read Singer’s Practical Ethics, which includes a chapter on animal rights. Though that was a while ago now, but it’s a good argument. My take is that free range animals probably experience at least as much pleasure as pain throughout their lives, so eating them is ok, so I’m not a vegan.

    I wouldn’t abolish laws preventing cruelty to animals, and I’d probably favour extending them. I do think the suffering of animals has to be taken into account, and evidence suggests that such laws are actually effective.

  8. Joe Otten Says:

    I don’t think the marginal cases in this article are the interesting ones. If we are in the business of drawing ethical lines between organisms, then between humans and non humans is a good place and if you start quibbling about individual humans, you have at best a great deal of extra work to do to justify yourself. At worst you become some sort of Nazi.

    It is much less clear why it is appropriate to draw an ethical line between, say, animals and plants. Or between particular animal taxa.

    No, the interesting marginal cases are animal human hybrids. It is a reasonable working assumption that other people have the same appreciation as you or I of being treated according to some common ethical standards. Because other people are build on much the same model as you or I – that is not to say human-likeness is the vital ingredient, rather to say that human-likeness is how we know that other humans are like ourselves.

    It is an unreasonable assumption in the case of other animals. But hybrids? Well we don’t understand how the human or the animal functions well enough to be able to tell whether any particular hybrid has what it takes. And it is possible in principle to create almost a continuum between the human and the shrew.

    So even if no hybrids are created (and incidentally I don’t see why they shouldn’t be, beyond the ethical problem of knowing how they ought to be treated) the thought experiment poses a problem for the clear demarcation between humans and non-humans.

    Nonetheless, I must say I am quite happy to eat animals.

    I do think we suffer a somewhat glorified view of nature. Most animals in nature die in infancy from predation, starvation or disease. The life of a farm animal by contrast is (often) one of relative luxury and comfort. Better food, treatment of disease, protection from predators, and a longer life on average even if you get eaten at the end of it.

    Now if some advanced alien were to visit earth tomorrow and offer to give me enough high tech food and medicine to keep me alive to the age of, say, 200, in good health and vitality, in exchange for being allowed to eat my flesh when I reach 200, I think I would probably take that offer. Would you?

  9. Richard Ormerod Says:

    Excellent, thought-provoking article.