Semantron 23 Summer 2023

Animal rights

Alex Gerasimchuk

Justifications for prescribing moral rights to animals range from Regan’s deontological arguments based on absolute moral harm, 1 to Ryder’s painism conferring rights on the basis of feeling pain 2 to Singer’s preferential utilitarianism. The current lack of explicit legal rights for animals has been coined by Singer, on inspiration from Ryder, as ‘speciesism’ 3 , which is morally illegitimate as it illogically discriminates against members of a group based on membership of a species (as racism does with race, for example). However, even if various animal welfare provisions can be justified on moral grounds – and based on evidence I think that they can – this does not by implication justify animals having legal rights. This is due to nature of the social as well as private contracts which underpin the legal system and its functions: animals cannot partake in this contractual system. Therefore, this essay will provide an account of the principles which permit us to have a functioning legal system arising out of the ‘natural state’, and then move to contend why animals cannot structurally access the criteria required to obtain legal rights but instead can only feature as a product of human consideration in animal welfare legislation. Jon Nuttall gives a very intuitive account of rights as something which is ‘owed’. This can be something like a direct positive right arising out of a particular kind of relationship, e.g. a doctor owing treatment to a patient under a right to medical care, or a negative social contract right, e.g. freedom of speech provided by the non-interference of other members of society. While these rights can be justified morally on the basis of value of human life etc., they exist in the legal system as a contract between two consenting parties in terms of mutual obligations. This contract both looks like an active private contract, e.g. a doctor-patient relationship where the doctor is indirectly employed or a social contract where the whole society benefits by each member tacitly agreeing to an obligation of non-interference. 4 This understanding of legal rights and, as a result, of obligations, arose out of realpolitik, with the creation of the notion of society out of the natural state due to an understanding that everyone will be afforded these now legally basic rights to ensure that people’s lives are no longer ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’. 5 Legal rights in this instance are notably different to moral rights, as whilst human beings could still claim natural moral rights in the state of nature, they could not claim contractual obligation to one another because they presuppose an agreed authority to enforce and regulate contracts (i.e. the state).

1 Regan 1983. 2 Sapontzis 2014. 3 Singer 1990. 4 Nuttall 2013. 5 Hobbes 1651.


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