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Conservatives & animal rights

Over at In Hoc Signo Vinces, Max Goss comments on Anal/Conservative Philosopher Keith Burgess-Jackson's view that conservatism and a commitment to animal rights are not incompatible. A couple of points that Max makes, though, seem to be either wrong or unclear.

For instance, Max says:

I have been reflecting a bit myself on man's responsibility to animals and the broader natural world. (This latter locution already tips my hand by suggesting that I consider animals to belong wholly to the natural world, whereas I consider humans to belong to it only in part.)


I don’t see any logical incompatibility between the claim that animals have rights and the claim that conservatism is true. But there might at least be a tension there, at least insofar as conservatism involves a commitment to what I call "minimal humanism," i.e. the belief that human beings are importantly distinguished from the rest of the natural world.

I don't quite understand exactly what it means to say that animals are wholly natural, but humans are only partly so. What, exactly, is the distinction being made here? How is "natural" defined in such a way as to exclude (or even more bizarrely, partly exclude) human beings? What is it about humans that make them separate from nature? Of course, it's obvious enough that humans are a very different type of animal, in that they exhibit a number of unique characteristics -- language, abstract reasoning, etc. But on the standard view, this is simply a result of the human species having taken a different evolutionary path than other species have. It's not clear that there's a need to suppose a separate ontological category to account for the differences between humans and other animals.

Max goes on to question KBJ's "harm principle" with respect to animal rights:

The central claim of your argument for animal rights, as sketched here, is that “it’s wrong to harm others.” But surely you don’t believe this, else you’d wear a screen over your face and continually sweep the ground in front of you like a Jainist.

This follows only if KBJ were claiming that the harm principle were absolute, which I assume that he is not. A more charitable reading would suggest that the principle really means, "it's prima facie wrong to harm others". This principle, like all moral principles, is defeasible; the steps that would need to be taken to avoid harming ants and the like might themselves produce undesirable enough consequences (e.g., you become a Jainist) to override the prima facie obligation to do no harm.

This same failure to recognize the defeasibility of moral principles underlies another one of Max's objections:

I’m also not sure why you think that the reason killing people (and hence animals) is wrong is that it deprives them of a future. You claim support from our ordinary intuitions. However, while you’re no doubt right that most people would say it is in some sense bad or unfortunate to deprive someone of his future, I don’t think it is generally accepted that it is always wrong to do so. After all, this would be inconsistent with the widely accepted claim that it is morally acceptable to kill someone in self-defense.

Again, the common-sense idea here is that, all things being equal, it is wrong to deprive someone of their future. In certain situations however --like killing someone in self-defense-- this principle is overriden by, perhaps, your right to defend your own life. The point is that, in considering whether the act was moral or immoral, we are obligated to include the loss of the would-be killer's future in the moral calculation, even if it is heavily outweighed by the fact that he was attacking you. We come to the conclusion that your act was morally justified, but that doesn't mean that we reject the principle that it is prima facie a bad thing to deprive someone of their future.

Max does make a good point, though:

I guess my main beef with your post is that, while you give reasons to accord animals worth or even moral status, I don’t see any good reason, given what you said, to accord them rights. You seem to jump from the claim that animals have moral status to the claim that they have rights.

It doesn't follow from the fact that animals count morally that animals have rights. However, it doesn't follow from the moral value of humans that humans have rights either. It's all going to depend on what you think is the grounding of rights generally. For example, if you believe rights are solely a product of a social contract, you will likely resist the idea that animals have rights.

If, however, you accept the view that humans have rights in virtue of their being creatures with interests (e.g., in not suffering, in continuing to live), it's harder to see how you could deny the same rights to other animals who have the exact same interests.

In any event, one thing is clear: the way humans treat other animals is absolutely shameful, a disgrace to our entire species. Anyone unconvinced of the cruelty of the human being would do well to look at what goes on in a factory farm. Truly, truly sad.

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