Winning the Animal Rights Debate
We need to seek a new ethics of animal rights.
Old-school animal rights arguments rely on intuitionism and the argument from mentally disabled humans, to use only a few examples. The theories of Tom Regan and Gary Francione typify such approaches. And these arguments simply do not work in either justifying animal rights or refuting competing theories such as ethical egoism, moral skepticism, and superiorism. Other common stratagems are also shown to fail. We need to try to win the animal rights debate for the animals' sakes with better justifications and critiques than what we have found hitherto. I am earnestly seeking to develop just such arguments.
2. Intuitionism Versus Science
3. Would-be Short-cuts to Concluding in Favour of Animal Rights
3.1 The argument from mentally disadvantaged humans
3.3 Animals as Persons
3.4 Might Does Not Make Right
3.5 Speciesists Are Selfish
3.6 We Should Not Permit Unnecessary Suffering, Harm, or Violence
3.7 Having Compassion
3.8 We Should Uphold the Equal Consideration of Interests
4. Alternative Comprehensive Animal Rights Theories
4.1 Tom Regan’s Unreliable Argument for Animal Rights
4.2 Gary L. Francione’s Unreliable Arguments for Animal Rights
5. Conclusion: Winning
Animal advocates - activists and academics alike - require reliable research. Nothing else can satisfy honest doubters, including oneself in moments of deepest reflection. Activists in their most serious thinking verge into academics, and academics who take ethics very seriously open themselves to activating commitments. Would you use faulty research in order to plot a trip to the moon? Or to engineer a car? Or to do anything that requires solid information? Then why would you ever settle for less when it comes to arguments for convincing others to join your cause, or to decide, in effect, a whole way of life? Convincing arguments are not just something that activists might idly wish for in moments of fancy, but rather something that the universal rights movement absolutely needs in order to be truly successful. This paper is about the goal of winning the debate in question. Arguments that actually might do so are yet to come in my forthcoming book on animal ethics.
John Stuart Mill wrote: "Every great movement must experience three stages: ridicule, discussion, adoption." Yet one cannot reliably get from mere discussion of animal rights to the adoption of such rights without winning the animal rights debate. Debating is neither a game nor a sport, but in this case carries real-life stakes of unimaginable magnitude. Rational discussion is hardly war-like but rather such a practice promotes peaceful conflict-resolution. I seek not to perpetuate any win-lose mentality since my framework aims to incorporate all of the advantages but none of the disadvantages of all of the major competing theories. One study showed that reading, especially books and articles, was the key factor in vegans' adoption of their diet, so we should take written debates very seriously indeed. The animals themselves, if they were able, would want to send winning arguments for animal rights - whatever those might be - to the ends of the Earth. Abused humans also benefit from winning this debate, and I argue that nothing less than socialism and deep ecology are entailed by fully substantive universal rights.
Intuitionism is the view that ethical theories boil down to basic beliefs - intuitions - that cannot be justified, and furthermore, these opinions require no justification. However, skeptics rightly point out that intuitions are prejudices or dogmas, and do not convince those who disagree with oneself. On the contrary, intuitions merely beg the question, or assume that which needs to be justified. Certainly, we cannot use intuitions in order to decide between conflicting intuitions without viciously circular, illogical reasoning. Intuitions contribute to debates without debating, or discussions that are meant to decide matters even in the absence of decisive reasoning. As I show in my writings, all of the major moral theories - the major rights theories, utilitarianism, the ethic of care, virtue ethics, and so on - rely on intuitionism. Not only do many "short-cut" arguments for animal rights not work, but neither do the comprehensive theories on offer. Intuitionists purport to offer leadership of the rights movement, even though intuitions lead both nowhere, since they are baseless, and everywhere, since the full spectrum of standard theories routinely relies on intuitions. Let us consider failed "short-cuts" to animal rights and also how perhaps two of the most prominent animal rights theories by Tom Regan and Gary Francione fail to work. Advocates of animal rights are generally wonderful people. The animal liberation philosophers do a professional job of defending noble ideas. Unfortunately, good intentions are not enough to make a philosophical project successful.
This argument notes that the main reason why nonhuman animals are given little or no moral status is because they are (allegedly) mentally inferior to normal humans. However, there are humans such as the mentally challenged from birth, those who have had accidents and strokes, and so forth. They also may be so "inferior" (a distasteful term due to its historical connotations). So if these humans have rights, then animals deserve rights too, according to the argument.
However, it is a serious mistake to marshal the argument from mentally disadvantaged humans as a main defence of any single theory such as animal rights, although it provides an excellent pause for critical thinking. People can indeed feel caught in their prejudices with this critique. However, it remains that this relatively straightforward argument does not hold true no matter what one's theory. The first two prominent ethical theories listed below do permit different treatment of animals and mentally disadvantaged humans, and the second two theories listed below permit comparable treatment of both types of beings that is far from favourable:
Now let us look at other would-be-short-cut arguments, and the perils of theories that permit the exploitation of animals as those listed above do.
If any of the theories listed above are right, then falling short of animal rights is not a speciesist outcome, but rather one dictated by legitimate moral theory.
Granted, animals have minds and even personalities, but it begs the question to assume that they have moral or legal rights, which is the relevant sense of personhood status for animal rights: a person is someone who has interests protected by rights.
This principle plays no part whatsoever in any of the theories mentioned, except such a principle might be permitted by the nihilism of moral skepticism.
These theories considered above have many adherents who are altruistic, but then, it begs the question merely to assume that ethical egoism is wrong. And ethical egoism does permit some ethical consideration of others, as already noted.
Harms to animals and/or mentally disadvantaged humans are permissible on the four theories. Therefore, it does not matter that these harms are not necessary. Take an analogous case. Desserts are not strictly necessary either, and yet that does not rule them out since they may well be ethically permissible.
It can be argued that we should care about others, or be compassionate towards them, just as much as the theories in question dictate.
This begs the question against ethical egoism, and superiorism, utilitarianism, and moral skepticism, all of which allow a like consideration of interests short of animal rights.
It is absurd then to put forward the argument from mentally disadvantaged humans as a comprehensive defence of animal rights, since someone who adheres to any of the greatest four rivals to animal rights would be totally unmoved by the argument in question. Thus, the comparison discussed here only preaches to the animal rights choir, who would indeed agree that both mentally disadvantaged humans and animals have strong rights. In sum, ethical egoism and moral skepticism allow treating these two broad types of beings differently, and utilitarianism and superiorism permit treating both categories of animals in like ways that are not favourable to them. This ominously portends a total failure of animal rights theory since a defence of such rights must justify animal rights (this argument provides no such justification) and decisively object to theories that compete with animal rights. This much-vaunted argument manifestly fulfills neither goal.
Regan also uses the would-be-short-cut argument appealing to the case of mentally disadvantaged humans. However, as I have shown, we cannot rely on that argument, so any remaining claim of Regan is intuitionist, such as the intuition that animals have a dignity that must equally be respected.
Humanists can simply counter with the intuition that animals do not have such a dignity from the standpoint of ethical theories such as utilitarianism, superiorism, ethical egoism, moral skepticism, and so on. However, here, essentially, is Regan's argument which relies heavily on the argument from mentally disadvantaged humans:
Regan offers many subsidiary arguments, but it should be noted that he has an intuition that human beings have equal inherent value, which is the key to his overall argument. This argument is helpless in winning over anyone who does not share a similar intuition. For example, someone can intuit that they lack direct obligations to anyone but ego, or that utilitarianism is right, or that nobody has inherent value and therefore moral obligations do not exist in any absolute form. Regan also has other arguments to help his case, such as evidence that many animals have significant mental capabilities, and that we cannot have any decisive evidence concerning souls. He argues that beings can have interests even if they do not use human forms of language. He also objects to theories which compete with his own, although in research that I have yet to publicize, I illustrate how his objections are inconclusive. At any rate, these other arguments are merely adjuncts to his central argument. And while they are noteworthy, they do not vindicate the case for animal rights either.
Francione also relies on the argument from mentally disadvantaged humans (especially in his discussion of medical vivisection which I will not treat here) and intuitionism. His argument can be summarized as follows:
Note that Francione does not use property in the literal sense of ownership, but intuitively associates it with being treated like an object, mere resource, and so on. Like Regan, he addresses other arguments such as "What about plants?" "What about moral dilemmas?" and so forth, but his key argument for animal rights, summarized above, does not work. For like Regan's case, Francione's argument does not refute ethical egoism, moral skepticism, utilitarianism, and superiorism. Also, in assuming that we should equally consider and defend everyone's interest in not being considered property, he begs the question or presumes that which needs to be justified in defending his particular version of animal rights. Therefore this is hardly a defence of animal rights and a defeating of anti-animal-rights perspectives, but little more than an intuitionist animal rights declaration in effect.
Francione uses an additional faulty argument:
However, he ignores the humanist sense of unnecessary suffering. Avoiding "unnecessary suffering" for humanist purposes does not mean avoiding all animal uses, but only minimizing suffering within the context of animal usage. There is a difference between deeming that we do not "need" to use animals for survival, and indicating that we "need" to use them (in ways that cause inevitable suffering, such as at slaughterhouses) as means to our ends. And if animals have no rights, then we morally "need" to respect human rights to liberty and "need" to avoid restricting human liberty unless by other rights, which animals lack on the humanist framework. Again, Francione quietly assumes what he needs to justify, which is called begging the question.
In the spirit of constructive but honest inquiry, I will offer much more detailed critiques of Regan's and Francione's arguments (among many others). (Note that Peter Singer's book, Animal Liberation, which started the modern animal liberation movement and is not so much associated with animal rights but rather utilitarianism, is also heavily dependent on the argument from mentally disadvantaged humans.) The above is only to demonstrate that these other animal rights thinkers by no means provide arguments that win the animal rights debate. If some animal rights activists or academics wish to depend on unreliable research, that is their choice. However, in my considered opinion, it is not credibly in the animals' best interest to rely upon such arguments.
Some will say that no one can win any philosophical debate. This may be true in the sense of winning that means being able to foresee and deal with all possible objections, conceptions, and permutations. However, we may be able to establish what I call a "winning tendency" by rigorously defending one's own positions and defeating others' relevant objections and competing ideas more generally. I am less interested in myself winning this debate than the animals winning - including all humans. I do not need to convince everyone, such as irrational bigots. If I can help people win the debate even only in some degree then my efforts will have been worthwhile.
The scientific method is perhaps the ultimate method for resolving any debate. Its looking to the evidence goes contrary to the spirit of intuitionism, which does not require evidence at all. I maintain that traditional science's sense of empirical knowledge - that is, awareness of reality based in experience - is too narrow. It only looks to the five senses of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. Yet we are not aware of our feelings in these ways. Therefore we need another mode of cognition, since we do indeed know our feelings and their particular qualities. We all know that pain feels bad for example - or so I argue.
Is it possible to consider it reliable - or even an uncommonly acknowledged fact - that pain feels bad? Is this "feeling bad" something of which we can become truly aware? Should we advocate the best as the most preferable to choose? Is the best for someone ideally all-good, or excluding of what is bad and harmful? Do things only matter to beings with minds, indeed to each one individually? If you think these questions might have reliable answers in the affirmative, then you may well be convinced by the arguments offered in my papers. If you are unsure, then please do research further as we try to ascertain truth and falsehood in these and other vital matters.
To insist that ethics is necessarily unscientific is itself an unscientific insistence if that is held onto as a merely intuitionist prejudice. To show scientifically that my ethic is unscientific, one would need to defend the hypothesis that I do not theorize ethics in terms of hypotheses validated by evidence. It is absolutely impossible to support that skeptical hypothesis, though, since that is precisely my method, as is made clear in my academic writing. Science has always had difficulty progressing when it has competed against widespread prejudices, and this would especially be true of prejudices such as a "value-neutral" approach, which has widely been interpreted to be "scientific." Yet being neutral between hypotheses if the evidence is indecisive (which is neutrality truly based in the scientific method) is hardly the same as being indifferently neutral in terms of feelings for example.
Defending ethics as science is not going to be popular in all quarters in the present day. However, like it or not, I believe that the idea is apt to win debating contests inasmuch as they are decided by reason. We must have the intellectual courage to assert what is evidently the case. Higher logic will tend to precede high fashion. Yet this is no pretension of prophecy but purely reflective of what I find to be the most logical conclusions, fully regardless of what anyone happens to opine. Ethics as science is perhaps starting to blossom, although this can only continue through vigorous elucidation and education. Ethics as science in broad terms may go beyond academics and become "popular science" given that the basic ideas may successfully be imparted to general audiences. If people can be taught basic algebra then they can also be instructed in a logical approach to ethics. The best hope for ethics to flourish in this world is for it to be taught in the most promising ways that are conceivable. Winning the animal rights victory is a win for everyone you meet and then some. Words can be backed up with both justification and actions. I hope to provide the former, and ask those convinced to join with me in freely choosing the latter.