One of the things that I wanted to do in my dissertation was take the Most Affected Principle and apply it to animals. My adviser wisely told me I needed to narrow the scope of my discussion or I would never finish. In the back of my mind, and in classes I have both taken and taught, human relations to animals are something I have always wanted to explore in a more in depth manner.
And so, I’m going to start discussing that here. And I want your help thinking through some things.
The first question I want to address is whether or not animals have rights or if there is any philosophical basis for human to have limits on their acceptable interaction with animals. I’m entitling this series of posts “On Bacon” because I want to limit the discussion to those animals with which we have definite relationships of interaction. For that purpose, bacon, because bacon is delicious, and asking people to potentially stop eating bacon is a good way to bring home the impact of what we are exploring. So, for now, let’s limit our conversation to animals that we have domesticated, either for food or for companionship.
Do animals have rights?
Rights have two basic foundations in most political thought. First, is that rights are inherent in humans, typically given by some sort of deity or through Natural Law/Reason. The second is that rights are not inherent, but are politically necessary to keep us from treating each other like animals (hahahhaaaaa, i pun, i pun.) Both of these are problematic when it comes to animals. It is difficult to find a non-metaphysical foundation for inherent rights for humans that anyone can agree on, much less humans. Modern discourse when it comes to human rights in the international arena asserts inherent rights based on dignity of persons as holders of ontological value, though you aren’t going to hear Ban Ki-Moon use that language, but the justifications they give for the necessity of respecting those rights are instrumental.
This is where it gets problematic for animal rights. If human rights are only recognized on an instrumental basis, and just see what we as a society consider acceptable treatment for people we don’t care about, then how do we make an instrumental case for animal rights? Is society better when we consider animals as having some sort of rights to a certain level of treatment? I don’t see much evidence for the instrumental argument on a short-term accounting basis for the instrumental argument. Our food (and bacon!) gets cheaper and more plentiful the worse we treat animals. Humans have a right to 99 cent bacon double cheeseburgers, right?
Backing into an agreement on animal treatment
Most people in industrialized society have a certain emotional reaction to animal abuse. I’m not going to link to any videos, but when you see the denizens of the internet band together to identify animal abusers in anonymously posted videos, you know there is something at the core of that joint project tied to some sort of agreement that treating animals poorly is not socially acceptable. Why is it that we seem to abhor abuse of animals if they don’t have a right to some basic standard of treatment?
Obviously, this applies more to pets than to feed animals. It probably is because we have more immediate contact with pets, and that gives us the ability to sympathize with similar animals in negative situations because watching someone else’s cat triggers memories of your own cat. Is this emotional reaction based on a recognition of something in animals that we usually are able to ignore because of lack of familiarity, or is there something unique to the domestication process that grants special privilege to pets?
Pets are very much dependent on their human companions for survival. Does that grant them the right to certain standard of treatment? If so, what about food animals? Cows and chickens are highly domesticated. Industrially raised chickens are pretty much a genetic extreme with no capability to survive outside their carefully controlled environment. If we created them, do we have a responsibility to take care of them?
I’m interested in your input at this point. Please let me know what you think. Your bacon may be on the line.