Animal rights

by Chris Bertram on March 30, 2005

My colleague Alison Hills has “an op-ed piece on animal rights in today’s Guardian”:,3604,1447866,00.html following the recent publication of her book “Do Animals Have Rights?”:



joel turnipseed 03.30.05 at 3:12 am

Excellent piece — Michael Pollan had a richly-textured piece along same lines a couple years ago.


Eve Garrard 03.30.05 at 3:22 am

Terrific piece – nice to see something pro-animal but still balanced on this topic.


des von bladet 03.30.05 at 3:29 am

The more sophisticated an animal’s mind, the more it is deprived by a premature death.

As Montesquieu carelessly neglected to say “If a triangle allocated rights, it would favour entities with corners.”


Webmaster 03.30.05 at 8:23 am

What animal, or even human, has any rights without first declaring them; and then having the will and ability to defend them?


ionfish 03.30.05 at 8:38 am

Certainly the piece made some points that we don’t hear enough; however, I want to follow up des’ point somewhat.

Mental sophistication leads to complex, nuanced conscious experience (or so we assume). However, I worry about whether this leaves out an important question about the intensity of experience. Even if an animal’s experience of pain is less specific than ours, is that experiene any less intense? Does it consist of any less of their own mental universe?

Take experience to be a space (representing the totality of possible experiences available to us), with a specific experience being a position within that space. Then assume that mental sophistication correspondingly increases the size of available “experience space”. Do we compare the experience spaces of different animals based on their “size” (the number of possible experiences available), or do we take them to be essentially equivalent, but with a finer- or coarser-grained structure?

Sorry if this isn’t very clear; it’s not an idea I’ve developed very far yet. Regardless, it would accord with Alison’s conclusion that we need to do more science, not less.


des von bladet 03.30.05 at 10:58 am

Ionfish: Are you seriously disputing that the moral harm of harming an animal is a function of something other than its cuteness, majesty, or resemblence to persons? You are not, we regret to prophecy, going to get many takers, and we foresee, in particular, exactly none with legislative clout.

We merely wished to remark, sarcastically, that this assumption can be openly unquestioned in an article that also uses “This is the crudest kind of anthropomorphism” as a putdown.

We, for one, would wish to read a work entitled What it is or may be Like to be a Lobster in the Throes of the most Hideous Agonies: a Transphenomenological Entertainment after the Manner of Mr Nagel; Rich in Clarity and also Not Lacking in Rigour and Afforded with the Most Implausible Claims of Scientific Merit, though, if you were in the mood for writing it.


ionfish 03.30.05 at 11:14 am

One might certainly wonder whether the comparative sophistication of the mammalian brain does indeed simply afford us an easy way to support some kind of sliding scale of suffering; the scientist (whose name, I regret, I cannot recall) whom I heard on Radio 4 some months ago stating that boiling lobsters was not particularly cruel appeared to possess at least some empirical data on the subject.

I’ll let you know when that paper comes out.


Jeremy Osner 03.30.05 at 3:01 pm

Webmaster’s question answers itself. Well it wouldn’t do so if he hadn’t thrown in the parenthetical or even human. But we humans obviously afford rights to some humans who do not declare them and cannot defend them; e.g. infants.


Thomas 03.30.05 at 3:45 pm

Jeremy, we’re working on that problem next.


Harald Korneliussen 03.31.05 at 4:14 am

Thomas, that problem has been “solved” by Peter Singer. (I’d give a link to wikipedia, but as I see no preview button I don’t dare). But to me, the solution given shows just that this whole train of thought has a big problem with its basic premises.


Juke Moran 03.31.05 at 5:41 am

The frame is individual being. Get outside that and the idea of responsibility to something larger than individuals, even aggregates of individuals, takes center stage.
Does life have rights? Do ecosystems have less claim to rights than the individual creatures in them?
Rule-worship only goes so far. Rights exist within the frame of law. Goal-less morality doesn’t have any substance. But stating the goals of your moral system makes you vulnerable, because the more accurate your statement is the more vague those goals must be. We want a better world for our children, and we’ll fight for that, but the tenth generation down the line can fend for themselves, because we can’t see that far. Animals occupy a very similar place in our moral hierarchies, most of them. The connections are too distant, too indistinct, to be adjudicated.
Relatively decent morally-refined people see the eating of chimpanzees as abhorrent, but celebrate religious holidays with the flesh of swine and cattle, and utilize and subsidize the grotesque inhuman practices of “primate research”.
That’s nothing more than anthropomorphic sentimentality, an infantile disconnect from the real world. So bear-baiting is no longer an evening’s sport for the hard-working yeoman, but the fast-food hamburger’s made of ground-up terror and agony.
Hills is accurate as can be on that point.
Now if we could all get a look at the mostly invisible carnage of the roadway these last 80 years, the life-empty fields that produce our vegetables, the songbirds in the millions killed by domestic cats…
It isn’t the individual lives, or the individual suffering.
Certainly extinct creatures don’t suffer.
But that’s worse isn’t it? Isn’t making a species extinct worse than keeping its individuals in tiny wire cages until they’re fat enough to butcher?
Extinct creatures become abstract symbols, an erased possibility, conjecture – and thus have no legal or moral standing.
The problem is millennia of arrogant dominion, a stewardship of cruelty and malign neglect. Fundamentalists may be more vocal in their rejection of evolution, but rational man, with his instrumentation ungoverned by reverence, is rejecting it just as violently – and in practice, not theory.

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