Monday, March 14, 2005


Some thoughts on animal rights

Not too long ago, Harbinger posted a famous quote concerning animal rights from Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia. A longer excerpt of the quote and its context can be found here, at the Animal Rights Library.

Nozick asks, in essence, whether animals can be sacrificed for the sake of human pleasure. If snapping your fingers to your favorite jazz tune maximized your happiness, but you also knew that the snap of your fingers instantly killed 10,000 animals, would it be morally wrong to snap? Or suppose that you gained pleasure from swinging a baseball bat, but it so happened that a cow's head was in the path of your bat. Would it be morally wrong to swing?

Some people have trouble with the plausibility of both examples, but Nozick points out that arguments for hunting as pleasurable exercise are not much different from the bat-swinging example. And we could also modify the example so that it put pressure on the moral intuitions of people who do not hunt but who do wear leather or eat meat: Suppose "the animal is killed to get a bone out of which to make the best sort of bat to use; bats made out of other material don't give quite the same pleasure. Is it all right to kill the animal to obstain the extra pleasure that using a bat made out of its bone would bring? Would it be morally permissible if you could hire someone to do the killing for you?"

The direction in which these examples point should be clear: If eating meat is not necessary for health, and only gives "gustatory" pleasure, then are we justified in killing animals in order to maximize that pleasure? And is there any significant moral difference between killing a cow to eat it (for pleasure) and killing a cow to swing a baseball bat (for pleasure)?

I am not a vegetarian. But there was a time in my life when I would have viewed Nozick's arguments more dismissively than I do now.

For one thing, I once thought that these examples were needlessly sensationalistic and maudlin. I basically held, at least subconsciously, that the processes that put meat on my plate were nothing like swinging a baseball bat at a cow's head. That view has changed over the years, especially with my reading of books like Fast Food Nation, a modern-day Jungle which reveals that the treatment of animals in modern slaughterhouses is often not far from the bat-swining example. In terms of sheer emotional pull, the idea of cattle being force-fed grain and excrement, pumped full of antiobiotics, and then killed without being properly anesthetized is as horrific to me as the idea of braining cattle with baseball bats.

So I no longer view Nozick's examples as misleadingly emotional. As for whether eating meat is necessary for health, I also think the evidence supports Nozick's claim that for me, at least, it is possible to obtain all the nutritive value of meat from non-meat sources. (Whether this is true of all people everywhere is another question, which has been recently discussed at Locus Solus.)

Perhaps these changes in my views should have pushed me completely to vegetarianism. I suppose I'm still open to being pushed in that direction. As for now, though, I've adopted what might be called (to borrow from liberation theology) a "preferential option" for plants. I avoid eating meat of uncertain origin, and when buying meat for cooking at home, my wife and I now go to lengths (I won't call them "great lengths") to select organic products that have been produced with attention to animal care. In general, we simply eat less meat than we used to. I suppose that I am the kind of person whom thoroughgoing vegetarians cannot stand, because I perpetuate "the system" while agreeing in principle with many of their claims. I beg their patience and forgiveness, at least for the remainder of this post.

Nozick's discussion of animal rights comes in the context of a larger argument about individual rights. Although the passages I've mentioned above are often quoted as proof that Nozick holds animals to have the same moral status as persons, this is not in fact his intent in Chapter 3 of ASU. There is evidence between the lines of the chapter that Nozick would not adopt such a stringent position (see p. 38 if you have a copy handy). Instead, Nozick's reason for raising questions about animal rights is to put pressure on utilitarian or end-goal arguments for the liberal state.

Before the passage on animals, Nozick has been arguing that utilitarianism -- roughly, the idea that one ought to do what is productive of the greatest possible good, even if that means violating individual rights in the short-run -- is hopelessly confused. And he is equally opposed to a kind of "rights utilitarianism," which holds that the goal of states is to minimize the number of rights violations, even if that means violating some rights. Whether one takes the goal of the state to be the maximization of happiness or the minimization of rights-violations, both of these views allow the violation of individual rights for the sake of some end goal. As such, both views are contrary to Kant's claim that individuals are ends in themselves, and can never be used as means to even the most worthwhile of ends.

Nozick agrees here with Kant: "Individuals are inviolable." Consequently, Nozick insists that we not view individual rights as parts of some end goal, where their maximization in the end excuses their violation in the present. Rather, we should view rights in their classic negative sense as "side-constraints" on action. My rights constrain your action, says Nozick. Rights, viewed as "side-constraints," say "Don't use people in specified ways." On the other hand, viewing rights as parts of an end goal entails the imperative to "Minimize the use in specified ways of persons as means" (p. 32). So in the passages leading up to his discussion of animals, Nozick has been arguing in favor of the first injunction against the latter. He adopts a "side-constraint" view of rights on the grounds that individuals are inviolable, and he imagines an "ultraminimalist" state whose job would be to enforce those side-constraints.

Nozick offers his examples about animals to put further pressure on "end-goal" or utilitarian arguments. His point is that, if we don't accept the idea that animals can be used in any imaginable way in order to maximize our pleasure, how much more should we reject the idea that individuals can be used to obtain end-goals! By and large, Nozick says, most people accept a position that might be characterized as "utilitarianism for animals, Kantianism for humans" -- animals can be used as means to ends, but human persons cannot. Through a variety of intricate arguments, Nozick even calls this position into question, showing that it rests on a questionable hierarchy of beings, in which animals lack certain characteristics that qualify them for the full rights of humans. Nozick asks what would happen if human beings came into contact with higher life forms somewhere in the universe who argued that because they were more developed than we, they were justified in having us for lunch. We would not accept their reasoning in our case, presumably, so why do our moral views accept a similar argument about animals?

Because his primary concerns are elsewhere, Nozick does not pursue this argument to the conclusion that animals, like human individuals, are inviolable. But he has at least raised the question of whether arguments against that claim can be based on "hierarchical" distinctions between animals and humans.

It strikes me, however, that there is a potentially deep inconsistency in the views of even the most comprehensive and Nozickian animal rights activists. For throughout the chapter, Nozick deals only with the question of how human beings treat animals. He never deals with the implications of his arguments for the treatment of animals by animals. He does deal briefly with the argument made by hierarchical thinkers that side-constraints apply only to the treatment of beings within one's own category, but he raises this argument for the sake of rejecting it.

My question, though, is this: If someone follows Nozick's arguments and examples to the conclusion that Kantianism should apply equally to human beings and animals, would one then need to accept that Nozick's ultraminimalist state should protect animals from animals? If a pack of wolves kills a cow, aren't they using that cow as a means? And, on the putative view that "utilitarianism for animals" is wrong, wouldn't that mean that the wolves are violating the cow's rights?

Perhaps that seems like a laughable question, but it is worth raising because it asks animal rights activists to push their arguments to their most logical conclusion. If animals have rights which should act as side-constraints on humans, why should they also not act as side-constraints on animals?

I can imagine, off the cuff, two responses: One, someone could argue that carnivorous animals cannot get the nutritive values of meat from other sources. But if that argument does not relax the side-constraints for human carnivores, why should it for animals?

Second, perhaps one could argue that animals do not possess the sentience or intelligence necessary to understand or accept ethical side-constraints on their action. It seems to me, though, that this (natural) move merely resurrects hierarchical distinctions between animals and human beings, which would undermine Nozick's original arguments against "utilitarianism for animals, Kantianism for humans."

Are there animal rights theorists who have dealt with the question of side-constraints on animal action, as opposed to merely side-constraints on human action? And if not, why not?

(Incidentally, I find Nozick's argumentative use of animals -- is that using them as a means?! -- to probe our moral intuitions about rights to be a brilliant move, and I think it could be equally illuminating in probing the strengths and weaknesses of other political and moral philosophies. Take Rawls' theory of the original position, for instance. Do moral agents behind the veil of ignorance know that they are human? Do they know their species in the original position? If not, why not? On p. 441ff in A Theory of Justice, Rawls essentially argues that moral personhood is a prerequisite for equal treatment, which presumably is the tack that a Nozickian animal rights theorist would also take. As I've said before, though, why does this distinction between animals and humans on the basis of their capacity for moral reasoning not fall prey to Nozick's critique of hierarchical exceptions? Remember the aliens: if they told us that we were not as capable of moral reasoning as they were, would our moral views require us to bare our necks voluntarily for their gustatory delight?)

Collective Improvisation:
I added some comments here . 

Posted by paul

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 3/14/2005 10:48:00 PM : Permalink  

You're a smart man. It's nice to see people open to the facts and to philosphical arguments regarding improving the lives of others and of your self. Don't forget Peter Singer, and of course, Tom Regan. Both have laid a concrete philosophical basis for animal rights. Since you are a man of philosophy, you will LOVE these books. Regan's The Case for Animal Rights, is more hard philosophy, so definitely pick up that one. He also has a great site at And, both are currently professors of Philosophy. Keep up the thinking. The facts - as always - will win out in the end (for thiking people like you and I).


Posted by Justin Sivey

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 3/30/2005 09:47:00 AM : Permalink  

I just came upon this page by googling some stuff about Peter Singer. I just wanted to respond to: "I suppose that I am the kind of person whom thoroughgoing vegetarians cannot stand, because I perpetuate 'the system' while agreeing in principle with many of their claims." As a thoroughgoing vegetarian, I just wanted to say, to the contrary, that one of the biggest problems with the way people view the moral issue of vegetarianism is that it is an all-or-nothing thing. People see the weight of vegetarian arguments but then, deciding that they can't go all the way, decide that they it's not worth it to make any  effort to change their diet to alleviate animal suffering. This has always baffled me! It's as though someone decided that they couldn't give all their money to charity, and that therefore there's no reason to give anything at all. Too many people avoid the Good because they see the Better and cannot reach it. Kudos for applying your beliefs to your diet! 

Posted by Carl Ehrett

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 4/09/2005 03:45:00 PM : Permalink  

I truly enjoyed your text. I would like to comment a few things.

- From my point of view, vegetarinism or to put it in another way, the ideas and foundations underlying vegetarinism do not force anyone that agrees with them to puritanism. I guess that is a matter of consistency, try to act in accordance to what you think is right to the extent that you are capable of. To eat meat does not mean that you have failed. In my case, I try to reduce my meat consumption, also, I try to be careful with dairy products and eggs.

- Regarding animal rights as side-constraints on animals. I can tell that I see your point. However, I do not share it. Simply, it is not our call. We do not hold any right to judge whether the wolfs action in your example is right or not. Regardless of the "justification" of the killing made by the wolf, it is the wolf itself the one that should make the decision. As far as I know, wolfs do not have that level of cognitive skills. Thefore, those actions do not carry any moral consideration. We, as humans, have superior cognitive capibalities (even sometimes we are utterly senseless) than most or even all living creatures out there. Those superiors skills carry at the same time a huge responsability and that, for me, it is the reason why animal rights act as a side-constraint to our actions. Our "special standing" does not mean that we should judge as some kind of God, the actions of the rest of the animals.

Posted by Blogger Water on 2/24/2016 04:04:00 AM : Permalink  

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