Most people dismiss the notion that animals have moral rights as absurd. But should we be so quick to ridicule the idea?
In his influential book Introduction to Animal Rights: Your Child or the Dog?, Gary Francione argues convincingly that our moral intuitions about animals logically require that they should have one right: the right not to be property. As a basis for this argument, he presents the following imaginary scenario:
Walking down the street one day, you encounter a man blowtorching the leg of a stray dog. Distressed at the pain being inflicted on the dog, you ask the man why he is torturing the animal. He replies that he enjoys inflicting pain on dogs and derives great pleasure from the experience.
Francione suggests that we would all condemn the actions of the man and already reject the idea that blowtorching dogs merely for pleasure—inflicting unnecessary suffering on animals—is morally justifiable. That is, if ‘unnecessary suffering’ means anything it must mean that it is wrong to inflict harm simply for reasons of pleasure, amusement, or convenience.
However, this creates a problem. Francione argues that if we maintain that inflicting suffering on animals solely for reasons of pleasure, amusement, or convenience is morally unjustifiable then the overwhelming majority of our use of animals—for food, clothing, and entertainment—cannot be justified for any other reason other than that we gain enjoyment from these activities.
Francione suggests that the reason for this ‘moral schizophrenia’ is that animals are property. That is, animals are considered objects with only the extrinsic value that property owners choose to give them. If the interests of animals are considered against the interests of humans, the property status of animals always results in an unfair balance that allows the property owner to disregard the interests of animals when it is economically beneficial.
If we are to take the interest of animals in not suffering seriously, Francione claims that we must apply the principle of equal consideration to animals. That is, we should follow the basic rule of treating likes alike. The principle of equal consideration is central to any moral theory. We regard racism, sexism, and other forms of arbitrary discrimination as indefensible as they select morally irrelevant criteria for treating people differently. No matter the colour of someone’s skin or their sex, we maintain that similar interests necessitate similar treatment. When nonhuman animals, however, we do not treat our common interest in not suffering in a similar fashion.
We maintain that all sentient humans—irrespective of their cognitive capacity, ability to make moral decisions, or any other characteristic—have the right not to suffer at all as the result of being used exclusively as the resource of another. That is, we recognise that all humans have the right not to be property.
Francione contends that if we apply the principle of equal consideration to animals we must address the question of why we bestow on humans the right not to suffer at all as the result of being used exclusively as the resource of another and do not do so for animals. That is, is there any morally justifiable reason as to why we should deny the right not to be property to animals?
Most people present some empirical distinction between humans and animals that justifies our differential treatment. Reason, emotion, language, self-consciousness, the ability to make moral decisions or social contracts are all frequently used as reasons why animals should be denied the right not to be treated as a resource. However, there are always at least some humans—such as infants and those with severe mental disabilities—that lack whatever feature is required to morally distinguish humans from nonhumans.
Francione concludes that the principle of equal consideration requires that animals, like humans, should have the right not to be the property of others. The right not to be property does not require that we treat animals the same as humans in all cases or that we cannot give preference humans in situations of emergency, but that we are committed to abolishing, not merely regulating, the exploitation of animals. In individual and practical terms, this means adopting a vegan lifestyle.
The argument is clear: if you would object to blowtorching the dog, you cannot continue to eat, wear, or use animal products.