Review of Feinberg: Should Animals Have Rights?
What entitles a being to moral rights?
P.S. this is not one of the usual posts. It’s an article I wrote for a school project that I think is somewhat interesting. It’s more “traditional philosophy” than I usually care to write about.
Anyhow, whether you like this article or not, I suggest checking out Feinberg’s “The Rights of Animals and Unborn Generations.” It presents a very attractive version of long-termism based on the more deontological moral rights. It’s attractive because it doesn’t lead to weird conclusions like “we should exponentially increase Earth’s population even if it means reducing the average person’s happiness”
Factory farming is industrial capitalism’s answer to our overpopulation problem. The wild pigs and cows grazing on grassland take up too much land, resources, and time to grow. So, we just cram them into dingy little cells and feed them processed nutrients to expedite their growth (Harsh). These pigs are raised to be eaten. And they live horrible lives in those crowded and unsanitary factory farms. Yet the majority of the people on this planet do not seem concerned for the welfare of these animals.
To some philosophers, this is a pathology. Humanity is repeating the mistake of limiting our scope of empathy and morality. Just several centuries ago, European colonizers had denied the moral standing of people who looked different from them. Are we sure we are not making the same mistake by denying animals rights because they look too different from us?
To others, animals simply do not deserve rights. The famous philosopher, Immanuel Kant, for example, would point out that animals lack the ability to rationalize morality (“The Moral”). As such, we cannot impose moral expectations or obligations on animals because they can’t rationalize about whether their behaviors are moral or not (Feinberg 373). Animals are not moral agents—it’s beyond them—so they have no place in the moral calculus (“The Moral”).
That does not mean Immanuel Kant endorses torturing animals (“The Moral”). Harming animals deliberately is still bad (“The Moral”). Not because it violates animals’ rights—they don’t have any. But because torturing corrupts the torturer (Birch). So, although philosophers disagree about whether animals have rights, most of them agree that we shouldn’t destroy their habitats or harm them for no good reason. Big difference!
So, “do animals have rights?” To begin to answer the question, philosopher Joel Feinberg suggests that we take a good look at the definition of moral rights (Feinberg 372).
According to Feinberg, a moral right, in the most general sense, is just “a claim to something” (Feinberg 372). When I say I have a right to liberty. It means I have a morally recognized claim to liberty. If I say I have a right to housing. That means I have a morally legitimate claim to a place I can live. I can also have the right to starve. That just means I can choose to starve myself if I want to, without anyone trying to stop me. So, a “right” is a morally legitimate claim to something and that “something” can be good, neutral, or bad. It doesn’t matter. This is as general as a definition of right can go.
With a solid definition in place, Feinberg turns to look for the prerequisites for a being to have rights. The critical ingredient he identified was desire (Feinberg 375). Now, Feinberg is not talking about humans’ basic hormonal desires (oh I have a desire to eat that chocolate bar…). Feinberg is talking about desire in a very broad sense—any interest or motive you have counts as some kind of desire. “I want to get a good grade in my class” is a very different type of desire than “I want to gulp down that hamburger.” But we are going to call both of them “desire” for simplicity.
Why does a being need desire to have rights? Well, if a being has no desires, it doesn’t want anything; it has no internal intentions. I don’t think such a being is a “subject.” In my view, a subject is a source of action. It does not merely react to the environment. It is capable of creating a subjective action. While a reaction is induced by another action, a subjective action is produced from a subject’s internal intentions. That is why I think a being has to have intentions to be a subject. Without any internal intentions, it cannot act because it lacks the source of intention to act out of. It can only be the recipient of an action—an object that is acted upon by its environment and merely reacts to its environments. And indeed an object deserves no possession or claim to anything. It deserves no rights.
A being without desire also cannot be harmed. I think the word “harm” is best defined as some type of damage to a being’s interest. Hence, a being without desires and interests cannot be harmed because it has no interests that can be damaged. If such a being can never be harmed or morally wronged, then I don’t think we need to confer any intrinsic moral standing to it since no moral bad can ever be done to it. It would not make sense to give it moral rights.
Furthermore, if a being doesn’t want anything, it wouldn’t want to lay claim to anything. It wouldn’t want “rights” in the first place. It would be rather weird to force rights onto it if it never wanted any rights.
A philosopher like Kant might agree with Feinberg that having desires is necessary for a being to have rights. But they might use this argument to further discredit animals’ moral standing. They might point out that animals can’t lay claim to anything either because they don’t have enough intelligence (Feinberg 373). So, perhaps it also wouldn’t make sense if we force these “rights” onto animals when they don’t even understand what these rights entail, much less express any wish to have them (Feinberg 373).
Feinberg would disagree with that. He would point out that babies, like animals, also don’t understand what their human rights are and they never express any wish to have these rights (Feinberg 373). But an infant is, nonetheless, entitled to these rights because it has interests and desires that can be satisfied by these rights (Feinberg 373). An adult human would represent its interests, defend its rights in court, and collect the benefits of those rights. She would then use these benefits to satisfy the infant’s desires or serve its interests.
To Feinberg, representation provides a means for an unintelligent being to exercise its rights and benefit from them. That being does not need to understand the rights it possesses (Feinberg 374). Just like how you and I—normal citizens—don’t understand the details of the legal rights we possess. We don’t know what benefits we have claims to. But that doesn’t matter. We can have a lawyer represent us in court, and claim those benefits for us.
Representation, therefore, broadens the range of beings that can have rights. According to Feinberg, as long as a being has any interest, its interest can be represented by a more intellectually capable agent (Feinberg 374). And it possesses its rights through that representative (Feinberg 374). An unconscious patient can have rights (Feinberg 374). An infant can have rights (Feinberg 373). An animal can have rights (Feinberg 375).
Those piglings living in filthy factory farm cells can have rights because they have desires and wants: they want to roam free in open grassland instead of serving a life sentence in a tiny cubicle. Just lift open those metal bars and you will see how eagerly they rush out of their cells to nature, where they want to be.
So, by equating “having desires” with “having rights,” Feinberg concludes that all beings with desires—infants, people with psychiatric disability, and animals—can also, definitively, have rights. The weight of Feinberg’s argument is enormous, as it challenges us to consider the moral calamity happening in factory farms around the world. If animals have rights, how can we tolerate their imprisonment, auto-insemination, and mass butchering in factory farms every day?
A century from now, more enlightened homo sapiens will look back at our history of mass butchering, and condemn us just as we have condemned the European enslavers.
Birch, Jonathan. "The place of animals in Kantian ethics."
Feinberg, Joel, “The Rights of Animals and Unborn Generations.”
Flesher, John. "Factory farms provide abundant food, but environment suffers."
Harsh, Cameron. "What Does it Really Mean to Eat Like a Pig?" World Animal Protection.
"The Moral Status of Animals." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy