What Are the Best Arguments in Favor of Animal Rights?

Philosopher Dale Jamieson poses fundamental questions about human and animal rights, find that our moral circle is wider than we first think it is.
  • Transcript


Question: Why should we care about animals?

Dale Jamieson:  I think in a way, the main argument for why we should have moral concern for animals really comes from the failure of other arguments that are supposed to show that we should only be concerned about human beings.  And the problem is that for almost any feature of humanity that you can name, whether it's the ability to suffer, whether it's the capacity to reason, whether it's having lives that can go better or worse, there are at least some other non-human animals that have all of these features as well.  So to exclude non-human animals from the range of moral concern but to include all humans, just seems morally arbitrary.  And it was really that recognition that started to come to prominence with the publication of Peter Singer's book, "Animal Liberation" but in fact had been in the literature really for centuries before that in the works of fairly obscure philosophers and people who are advocating social change but when the insight became prominent then really the field of animal ethics began to take off.

Question: What are some arguments against animal rights?

Dale Jamieson:  You know, that's a really difficult question because an enormous body of literature has been produced since the publication of Singer's book, "Animal Liberation" back in 1975 and most of the responses to this literature have been remarkably weak-kneed I must say.  For example, people talk about the idea of special relationships, that is, the morality only really binds people who stand in some kind of contractual relationship with each other but in fact if you take that seriously as a criteria of when we have a moral relationship then it's hard to see why we would have moral obligations to strangers for example or people who live across the sea from us but yet, every decent person believes that we do.  And in fact most of us do have special relationships with non-human animals.  New Yorkers love their dogs and people who live in other places tend to have relationships with other kinds of animals as well.  I mean, that's just one example but I have to say that it's really been a great failure that more compelling counter-arguments have been raised to the animal liberationist views.  In fact, most of the interesting arguments that go on philosophically go on among people, all of whom believe that animals have a kind of moral standing and that we have moral obligations to animals but disagree about what exactly the philosophical basis is of that moral standing and exactly what our duties come to.  That's a much more lively discussion than from people who are just, in a broadsided way, critical of the whole concern with non-human animals.

Question: How are animal rights related to environmentalism?

Dale Jamieson: Well, one of the concerns, I think, about the animal rights movement from the beginning was this idea that people who cared about animals didn't care about humans, didn't care about nature, didn't care about anything else.  So there's a kind of mindset that some people seemed to walk around with which seems to suppose that, you know, we can only be concerned about one thing at a time.  It's almost as if, if I care about my mother then I'm going to be mean to my father but of course, that isn't really how things work psychologically.  It's possible for us to care multiply about different things and different social issues and different social problems.  And not only that, in some cases, some kinds of concern can lead us very naturally to be concerned with other things and so one of the things that I try to argue is that a concern for animals, for example, can really be an opening up and opening out into a broader concern for the environment because if you're concerned with animals then surely you're going to be concerned about where they live, about what the possibilities of their life prospects are in nature, about the integrity of natural systems and so on.  So I think there's a great deal of complementarity between being someone who's concerned about animals and being an environmentalist. 

Now, having said that, I also think people somehow have the idea that being an environmentalist or believing animals have rights is a little like some form of religion where there's some creed that one subscribes to.  It's very simple, it's just a matter of commitment and then one goes out and acts accordingly but in fact, there are many conflicts among environmentalists about what the best policy is about a whole range of different issues.  And of course, there are many divisions among people who consider themselves animal activists so it's not surprising that there are differences between environmentalists and animal rights' people in some issues.  But they're really all on the same side of the broader issue which is about the redefinition of the human relationship to the rest of the natural world.

Question: How are animal rights derived from human rights?

Dale Jamieson: I think the first thing we all have to recognize is that we see the world with our own eyes and we hear it through our own ears and the world we live in is always going to be the world we experience and the world that we interpret.  Now, that isn't a problem, that's a fact.  A problem can enter when we figure out how to act on that so if you have someone who simply treats other people as if they're only real in so far as they impinge on his senses, well, we have a name for that person, we call him a narcissist and we think that that's a disorder.  And so even though we experience the world as individuals through our senses and our own consciousness, we still have this idea that there are independent other people out there who experience the world through their own senses and their own consciousness who are also worthy of respect.  And once we can make that extension for other people, once we can get out of our narcissism and solipsism and see that there are other people who are as objectively real as we are, then I think it's possible for us to make the same leap with respect to other animals, it's not such a big leap for me to imagine that someone as unsympathetic to me as Dick Cheney is an independent center of consciousness who experiences the world in his own way and is worthy of moral respect, to imagine the same is true of grizzly bears, or of whales, or of other non-human forms of life. 

Recorded on: April 15, 2009