Animal Rights (Tom Regan etc)

5 May 2016

Animal rights is a very controversial issue with many different groups of people with differing opinions that want their voices on this issue heard. Many of these groups believe that animals have inherent value and deserve rights, and the majority of people believe this as well, but exactly which rights do they deserve. It is all well and good to say you are an advocate for animal rights, however the real issue here is exactly what rights are they entitled to?

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I will be evaluating Tom Regan’s view of animal rights that he sets out in “The Case for Animal Rights” (1992), in which he calls for an end to the use of animals in scientific experiments and commercial agriculture, and sets out what he believes animals are entitled to. I will also be examining opposing arguments from Carl Cohen (1986), who is very much on the opposite end of the spectrum, and believes that animals deserve no rights whatsoever.

In “The Case for Animal Rights” (1992) Regan argues that all beings of consciousness have what he calls “inherent value”, which is value to themselves above the value of their usefulness to others. He uses the example of the genius and the retarded child. The value of the usefulness to society differs dramatically in these two individuals, but that does not mean that the life of one is of greater value than the other.

You could not morally kill the retarded child in order to save the genius, as this moral theory does not allow for that to happen. All beings of consciousness possess equal inherent value and all have an equal right to be treated with respect and to not be treated in a way that degrades them to simply a thing – a resource for others to use. This is what Regan calls the “rights view.”

It denies all tolerability of racial, sexual or social discrimination, and opposes the view that the ends justify the means – you cannot justify evil means, that violate an individual’s rights, simply by achieving good results. If this moral theory condemns all use of racism, sexism and any other form of discrimination then, of course, it will also condemn speciesism – discrimination based on species.

Regan does not simply oppose battery hen farming, the conditions of veal
farming, the tiny cages used for animals in medical and cosmetic testing and the conservative use of anaesthetics on animals being used for toxicity tests of cosmetics, he opposes the entire doctrine and way we look at animals as a whole.

The rights view that Regan holds is abolitionist towards animal testing, for “Lab animals are not our tasters; we are not their kings.” (Regan 1992) These animals are constantly reduced to their usefulness to others, as they are seen as a renewable resource for us to have our way with and, without the means to object, there is no reason to stop.

There is no thought whatsoever to their inherent value and the fact that their living conditions and whether they live or die is important to them. The fact it is important to them means something, according to the rights view. This brings us back to the genius and the retarded child example. If we reduced those two down to their usefulness to others we would have no trouble killing off the retarded child in order to retrieve information that could save the genius’ life.

The problem is not many moral beings would be able to do that. The fact that they can do it to animals is blatant speciesism, which really should be as bad as racism and other forms of discrimination. An animal’s inherent value should be important to us because it is important to them. If we don’t respect that then, in the eyes of the rights view, we are as bad as racist mobs lynching an African-American due to the colour of his skin.

Regan suggests that the reason animals are perceived to have less value stems from the fact they lack our level of autonomy, reason or intellect. They can’t have the same level of inherent value as humans do for those are some of the attributes that make us value human life as a whole. This version of the rights view is even more baseless than saying they have no rights at all, because we aren’t prepared to make the same call on humans who also lack normal levels of intellect, reason and autonomy.

The truth is that those deficient humans, that lack those attributes to a degree, do not hold less value than the rest of us. Their life is still as important to them as our life is to us and we cannot justify saying that this is not the case. All beings who have inherent value have it equally and deserve to be treated as though their inherent value means something for, according to the rights view that I am explaining and evaluating, this is indeed the case.

There are, of course, advocates of differing views and philosopher Carl Cohen is one of these advocates. Carl Cohen believes there are two categories that define an organism as a human.

These categories pertain to a being’s cogniscience as a legal person and a moral person. There are two types of legal persons: natural and artificial. Natural legal persons refer to you and me – any human in the world is a natural legal person. An artificial legal person is a body of men/woman who in the eyes of the law are seen as one e.g.

A corporation is seen as one legal entity. Both these types of legal persons have legal responsibilities to uphold the law of the land and are responsible for their own actions. They are also given rights with these responsibilities and come under legal protection. Animals aren’t seen to have any legal responsibilities and, with no responsibilities, there can be no rights. As such, they cannot come under legal protection, effectively barring them from being classified as a legal person, natural or artificial.

A moral person is much the same. They have moral responsibilities to look out for their community, and others around them, and also have the intellect and reason to make autonomous decisions and to object to things they believe are immoral. In agreeing with and putting these responsibilities into practice, they develop moral rights to have their decisions, feelings and value upheld by the communities they are morally responsible for.

Animals lack all of these attributes, such as the ability to see right and wrong in their actions, and to be able to recognise their obligations and make a moral decision based on their responsibilities. Cohen himself explicitly states so when he says “Rights arise, and can be intelligibly defended, only among beings who actually do, or can, make moral claims against one another.” (1986)

Humans may be subject to experimentation with their consent – a choice they freely made and we, as moral persons, must respect, as they made the choice as a moral person. An animal cannot do this. It is impossible for an animal to give consent or withhold consent and equally as impossible for it to make a moral decision based on moral obligation and sense of right and wrong.

It is therefore impossible to call them a moral person. Much like the legal persons classification, they are barred from all moral rights when they cannot comprehend moral obligation, and knowing what is right and wrong.

Regan responds to Cohen’s analysis with an accusation of speciesism. Failing to protect the rights of animals due to their lack of moral attributes is exactly like condemning a retarded child for the absence of this same capacity.

Using Cohen’s logic, because the retarded child lacks empathy and a sense of moral obligation, they deserve no moral rights at all. In the real world, however, this is quite the opposite. They are, in fact, given more protection as a result. Society provides services and facilities for them to live with fully-functional people, so they may live in a fulfilling manner.

It is morally wrong, in modern society’s eyes, to discriminate against them due to their reduced brain function. For this reason, I see Cohen’s arguments to be, not only antiquated, but not in line with commonly held belief of 21st century society. It was published six years prior to Regan’s the Case for Animal Rights and, despite the fact that it doesn’t seem like a long time, society’s views on animal rights have changed drastically since 1986. The animal rights movement is no longer considered as simply the views of “hippies” who should not be taken seriously.

This movement has garnered a lot of support from the mainstream of society, and many scholars and lawyers have gotten behind it. Regan was one of the key factors in bringing the animal rights issue into the academic limelight, and it has subsequently flourished in the curriculum of many academic institutions, and has the support of senior legal scholars of Harvard Law – Alan Dershowitz and Laurence Tribe.

92 out of 180 law schools in the US have now adopted the issue, and even have specific animal rights courses included as compulsory course requirements. The most enthusiastic adopters amongst the academic world are the philosophers, for it brings many deep questions to the surface and causes in us a realization of how cruel society can be, and how hypocritical we can be in our assigning of inherent value.

Society has proven to be prone to prejudice and discrimination. As evidenced by the civil rights movement of 1960s America, it can take hundreds of years to achieve a state of equality. Regan’s rights view of “inherent value”, when viewed in the context of civil rights, has been shown to have immense value to all sectors of society, not only those who are the victims of prejudice.

Society selectively applies this rights view to suit themselves. In contrast, Cohen’s rights view of assigning value based on conforming to preset categories of legal and moral personhood, seems to no longer be relevant to 21st century society’s beliefs. Regan himself addresses this view and draws comparisons to how society treats human beings of reduced mental capacity.

If society is judged on how it defends those who cannot defend themselves, what justification do we have for failing to protect the welfare and rights of animals. In the time since Cohen published “The Case for the Use of Animals in Biomedical Research” in 1986, scholarship and academic attention on the subject of animal rights has grown immensely. No doubt, as more academics and philosophers add their own thoughts and research into the subject, we can expect to see our understanding of animals rights continue to change.

Jonsson, P. 2001. Tracing an animal-rights philosophy. [online] Available at: Encyclopedia Britannica. 2013. animal rights. [online] Available at: Dershowitz, A. 2004. Rights from wrongs. New York: Basic Books Smith, W. 2010. A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy. New York, NY: Encounter Books. Regan, T. 1983. The case for animal rights. Berkeley: University of California Press. Cohen, C. 2012. The case for the use of animals in biomedical research. Arguing About Bioethics, p. 206.

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