The things you can do and learn online for General Paper (and Project Work).

Do animals have rights?

Is it a trick question? (Saw some kittens at the lobby of my apartment block. If animals have rights, is domestication unethical?)

We must first realise that this may not be a question that can be answered by empirical inquiry(as a main thrust?). Googling I go for the products of other peoples’ introspection and discussion.

This pretty page, Animal Freedom, looks promising. (Animal Freedom is the Web portal of a Dutch foundation under the same name and has as its objectives stopping animal abuse and championing animal rights.) It makes clear that animal rights is a theoretical concept with its basis in certain values. (A value is something, such as a principle or a quality, that is intrinsically desirable; it is assumed to be good.)

The purpose of the concept is to determine the limits to human behaviour with regards to interactions with animals. The one value singled out on the page is compassion. A related value, which is relevant here as well, is empathy. I do not seek to tease out the difference between the two ideas, but juxtaposing their dictionary definitions may help us in our understanding:

  • compassion: sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it
  • empathy: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner

Animal rights are thus shown to be based on values to do with kindness. It is these values that drive us to set limits to the cruelty of people against animals.

How do we go about answering such a question in a GP essay then? The general advice given for GP essays is to have concrete examples. For this question, relevant examples come from observations of the various acts of unkind treatment of animals and the controversy over laws already in place to limit cruelty against animals.

Empathy and compassion thus come to blows, so to speak, with other values in our belief system. For example, how do we rank the following in our value system?

  • the discomfort felt by farm animals in husbandry and the pain experienced by them in the act of slaughter
  • the nutritional value of their meat (often compared with that of non-animal sources in discussions of this nature)
  • the taste of the meat (especially when it’s the result of great culinary skill; may be compared with that of non-animal sources as well)

Another point of conflict that can be studied in a similar fashion is in the area of animal testing. See:

There can also be mention of animal ‘abuse’ – people deriving pleasure from causing pain to animals.

Not easy. But there can be no objection that the question is purely theoretical. The response to the question has practical implications. Still there is plenty to be said for the motivation of the question and its theoretical  basis. It would therefore be justified to give more attention, as indicated by the number of paragraphs allocated, than the usual prescription to these parts of the discussion, wouldn’t it?

After further thought, I realised that there can be 2 interpretations, or maybe 2 approaches, for the question:

  1. Is there such a thing as animal rights? Is it a valid concept, a well formed idea? What motivates the concept? And what are animal rights exactly? How do they work in practice?
  2. What phenomena are observed such that we find ‘animal rights’ a useful explanatory concept? What problems do we encounter when working ‘backwards’ like so? Do we end up with the same concept of animal rights with all the instances?

The first approach is more deductive; the second inductive:

  • deduction: the deriving of a conclusion by reasoning; specifically : inference in which the conclusion about particulars follows necessarily from general or universal premises
  • induction: inference of a generalized conclusion from particular instances

If we take the position that animal do have rights, we will have to rebut the attack from the following perspectives

  • religious beliefs – it is a god-given right to treat animals as we please
  • animal intelligence – a very tricky area, helps us discriminate between different species, but intelligence levels of individuals within a species vary and may overlap with those of other species

A related question: Where do values come from? Two candidates for explanation come to mind – divine inspiration and evolutionary psychology.


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