Animal Rights: Justice or Kindness

Posted on Posted in Animal Rights, Kantian Ethics, Normative Ethics

Tom Regan defiantly proclaims in his book The Case for Animal Rights, “Thus the case for animals rights has been offered. If it is sound, then, like us, animals have certain basic moral rights, including in particular the fundamental right to be treated with the respect that, as possessors of inherent value, they are due as a matter of strict justice.”

And at various points he criticizes what he calls “the kindness view”, which is the view that treating animals well is a matter of kindness i.e. it is not wrong, strictly speaking, to harm animals but it is unkind to cause them unnecessary suffering. The kindness view is probably the standard view that most people intuitively hold and has been defended by various philosophers including Carl Cohen in his essay “Do Animals have Rights?”

So who is right? If my take on normative ethics is right the answer is “Both.”

My take on normative ethics in a nutshell is that there are two basic, philosophically legitimate, approaches to ethics, contractarianism and contractualism.

From the contractarian perspective treating animals with kindness and respect is a matter of kindness and not justice. Interestingly Cohen, although not using the term “contractarian”  essentially says that morality is a human phenomena and moral rules therefore apply only to humans. As a side note his argument would have been a heck of a lot more clear if he would have started by framing his argument as a contractarian argument.

And although Regan doesn’t explicitly use the term “contractualist”, at least that I’m aware of, he does invoke Kant, who is sometimes considered a contractualist. (Part of my take on normative ethics is that to think of Kant as anything other than a contractualist is mistaken and adds much confusion to debates in normative ethics). Regan also invokes Rawls who is generally considered a contractualist.

So, from a contractarian perspective our treatment of animals is a matter of kindness and from a contractualist perspective our treatment of animals is a matter of justice.

Think about it this way, contractarianism is about human justice. From the point of view of human justice our treatment of animals is irrelevant. Contractarianism is after all is the claim that moral laws are those that self-interested contractors would agree to in the state of nature. It is a naturalistic, and sociological, description of how societies come to adhere to moral laws. Contractualism is about universal justice. It is based on rational, universal, unbiased principles. And from the perspective of the universe, a perspective that doesn’t privilege humans above animals, our treatment of animals is a matter of justice. From the perspective of the universe, if you will, we do not  act merely unkindly in the way we currently treat animals but we act unjustly.

Now, you might think the above analysis does nothing to shed light on original question. Au contrair, I think that pushing the discussion back from the applied to the normative level adds clarity to the discussion and actually opens of the possibility to make some headway on the issue, rather than merely butting heads. It actually makes the issue quite simple because contractarianism is obviously false. 🙂 Just kidding. Sort of.

At the very least it can help to clarify how one’s commitments might be in conflict with each other.


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