Fundamental rights

Animal and human rights boil down to one fundamental right: the right to be treated with respect as an individual with inherent value.

Particular species only get relevant and useful rights – so animals don’t get all the rights that human beings get. For example: animals don’t want or get the right to vote.

When rights conflict

Sometimes a particular situation results in a conflict of rights.

Two methods can be used to determine the best course of action when there is no alternative to violating the rights of some individual or group:

  • The Miniride Principle: Where similar harms are involved, override the fewest individuals’ rights.
  • The Worse-off Principle: Where dissimilar harms are involved, avoid harming the worse-off individual.

Harm is defined as the reduction of the capacity to have and fulfil desires.

This definition of harm benefits people over animals because human beings have far more desires that they want to satisfy than do non-human animals.

This resolves many of the traditional problems of humans versus animals in favour of humanity, because the human being under consideration would suffer far more harm than the non-human animal.

But be careful: this method of choosing alternative courses of action is not utilitarian, it doesn’t necessarily lead to choosing the course of action that produces the greatest overall happiness.

The problem of ‘marginal people’

The phrase ‘marginal people’ or ‘marginal human beings’ is unpleasant. We use it here only because if you read the literature of animal rights you will encounter it often, and it’s important to know what it means. We do not intend to denigrate the status or worth of any human being by using it here…

The problem with the line of thought in the section above that it takes rights away from many human beings as well as from non-human animals.

This is because some human beings (babies, senile people, people with some severe mental defects and people in a coma) don’t have the capacity for free moral judgement either, and by this argument they wouldn’t have any rights.

Some philosophers are prepared to argue that in fact such ‘marginal human beings’ don’t have rights, but most people find that conclusion repellent.

The argument can be rescued by rewriting it like this:

  • If an individual is a member of a species that lacks the capacity for free moral judgment, then he or she does not have moral rights.
  • All non-human animal species lack the capacity for free moral judgment.
  • Therefore, non-human animals do not have moral rights.

But this is not an argument; it’s a statement that human beings have rights and non-human animals don’t, which is pure speciesism, and hardly persuasive.

It’s also vulnerable to the (probably unlikely) arrival of a species of extra-terrestrial creatures who demonstrate the capacity for free moral judgement.