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What Are the Best Arguments in Favor of Animal Rights?

Philosopher Dale Jamieson poses fundamental questions about human and animal rights.

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



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

The “new normal” paradox: What COVID-19 has revealed about higher education

Higher education faces challenges that are unlike any other industry. What path will ASU, and universities like ASU, take in a post-COVID world?

Photo: Luis Robayo/AFP via Getty Images
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
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A massive star has mysteriously vanished, confusing astronomers

A gigantic star makes off during an eight-year gap in observations.

Image source: ESO/L. Calçada
Surprising Science
  • The massive star in the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy seems to have disappeared between 2011 and 2019.
  • It's likely that it erupted, but could it have collapsed into a black hole without a supernova?
  • Maybe it's still there, but much less luminous and/or covered by dust.

A "very massive star" in the Kinman Dwarf galaxy caught the attention of astronomers in the early years of the 2000s: It seemed to be reaching a late-ish chapter in its life story and offered a rare chance to observe the death of a large star in a region low in metallicity. However, by the time scientists had the chance to turn the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Paranal, Chile back around to it in 2019 — it's not a slow-turner, just an in-demand device — it was utterly gone without a trace. But how?

The two leading theories about what happened are that either it's still there, still erupting its way through its death throes, with less luminosity and perhaps obscured by dust, or it just up and collapsed into a black hole without going through a supernova stage. "If true, this would be the first direct detection of such a monster star ending its life in this manner," says Andrew Allan of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, leader of the observation team whose study is published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

So, em...

Between astronomers' last look in 2011 and 2019 is a large enough interval of time for something to happen. Not that 2001 (when it was first observed) or 2019 have much meaning, since we're always watching the past out there and the Kinman Dwarf Galaxy is 75 million light years away. We often think of cosmic events as slow-moving phenomena because so often their follow-on effects are massive and unfold to us over time. But things happen just as fast big as small. The number of things that happened in the first 10 millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, for example, is insane.

In any event, the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is far way, too far for astronomers to directly observe its stars. Their presence can be inferred from spectroscopic signatures — specifically, PHL 293B between 2001 and 2011 consistently featured strong signatures of hydrogen that indicated the presence of a massive "luminous blue variable" (LBV) star about 2.5 times more brilliant than our Sun. Astronomers suspect that some very large stars may spend their final years as LBVs.

Though LBVs are known to experience radical shifts in spectra and brightness, they reliably leave specific traces that help confirm their ongoing presence. In 2019 the hydrogen signatures, and such traces, were gone. Allan says, "It would be highly unusual for such a massive star to disappear without producing a bright supernova explosion."

The Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is one of the most metal-poor galaxies known. Explosive, massive, Wolf-Rayet stars are seldom seen in such environments — NASA refers to such stars as those that "live fast, die hard." Red supergiants are also rare to low Z environments. The now-missing star was looked to as a rare opportunity to observe a massive star's late stages in such an environment.

Celestial sleuthing

In August 2019, the team pointed the four eight-meter telescopes of ESO's ESPRESSO array simultaneously toward the LBV's former location: nothing. They also gave the VLT's X-shooter instrument a shot a few months later: also nothing.

Still pursuing the missing star, the scientists acquired access to older data for comparison to what they already felt they knew. "The ESO Science Archive Facility enabled us to find and use data of the same object obtained in 2002 and 2009," says Andrea Mehner, an ESO staff member who worked on the study. "The comparison of the 2002 high-resolution UVES spectra with our observations obtained in 2019 with ESO's newest high-resolution spectrograph ESPRESSO was especially revealing, from both an astronomical and an instrumentation point of view."

Examination of this data suggested that the LBV may have indeed been winding up to a grand final sometime after 2011.

Team member Jose Groh, also of Trinity College, says "We may have detected one of the most massive stars of the local Universe going gently into the night. Our discovery would not have been made without using the powerful ESO 8-meter telescopes, their unique instrumentation, and the prompt access to those capabilities following the recent agreement of Ireland to join ESO."

Combining the 2019 data with contemporaneous Hubble Space Telescope (HST) imagery leaves the authors of the reports with the sense that "the LBV was in an eruptive state at least between 2001 and 2011, which then ended, and may have been followed by a collapse into a massive BH without the production of an SN. This scenario is consistent with the available HST and ground-based photometry."


A star collapsing into a black hole without a supernova would be a rare event, and that argues against the idea. The paper also notes that we may simply have missed the star's supernova during the eight-year observation gap.

LBVs are known to be highly unstable, so the star dropping to a state of less luminosity or producing a dust cover would be much more in the realm of expected behavior.

Says the paper: "A combination of a slightly reduced luminosity and a thick dusty shell could result in the star being obscured. While the lack of variability between the 2009 and 2019 near-infrared continuum from our X-shooter spectra eliminates the possibility of formation of hot dust (⪆1500 K), mid-infrared observations are necessary to rule out a slowly expanding cooler dust shell."

The authors of the report are pretty confident the star experienced a dramatic eruption after 2011. Beyond that, though:

"Based on our observations and models, we suggest that PHL 293B hosted an LBV with an eruption that ended sometime after 2011. This could have been followed by
(1) a surviving star or
(2) a collapse of the LBV to a BH [black hole] without the production of a bright SN, but possibly with a weak transient."