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October 15th, 2012 at 11:37 am

Alasdair Cochrane: Making Animal Rights Inclusive

“Because there can be reasonable philosophical disagreements about the proper content of animal rights, I believe that it is only wise and proper for the animal rights movement at the political level to accommodate these differences.” — Alasdair Cochrane

Animal Rights Without Liberation We’ve had a good deal of discussion on our blog about what exactly animal advocates should be fighting for. While some claim that accepting compromises with the farming industry is in the interest of animals, others believe that only a complete rejection of farming as a practice is acceptable. This debate is indicative of a deeper divide among supporters of animal rights: whether full liberation is necessary for the fair treatment of animals. In today’s post, Alasdair Cochrane, lecturer in political theory at The University of Sheffield and the author of Animal Rights Without Liberation, claims that liberation of animals is not necessary to fully recognize their rights, and that our moral obligation to animals lie in ending practices that cause their suffering and death.

Making Animal Rights Inclusive
Alasdair Cochrane

If we accept that sentient non-human animals possess rights, what follows in terms of the obligations of individuals and society? One common view put forward is that a commitment to animal rights entails a duty to abolish the use, ownership and exploitation of animals. On this view, the acceptance of animal rights entails much more than simply refraining from killing or hurting animals: animal rights requires their liberation.

But while this position has become widely accepted by both academic textbooks and those who campaign on behalf of animals, I want to argue that it is both wrong philosophically and unhelpful politically.

Starting with the philosophical level first, it is important to be clear that on its own a commitment to animal rights implies almost nothing. Animals may have rights – but it is the content of those rights which tells us what we owe to them. Animal rights will only demand the total liberation of all animals if all animals actually do possess the rights not to be used, owned and exploited by humans.

The crucial question in terms of our obligations is not whether animals have rights, but which ones they possess. Importantly, there is a range of perfectly plausible answers to this question. And this should be of little surprise; after all, there is a range of plausible answers about the content of human rights.

Now admittedly, for both human and animal rights, some answers about content are more plausible than others. For example, the human right not to be tortured is one of the few that is rightly considered absolute in international law. And given that sentient animals can and do suffer terribly at the hands of others – just as humans do – the case for the animal right not to be tortured is compelling.

But when it comes to many other rights, there will be reasonable disagreements. Take, for example, the right not to be owned. The human right not to be the property of another is uncontroversial – but is the same right held by all non-human animals? While many proponents of animal rights would unequivocally say yes, I think that there are grounds for skepticism.

To explain, the reason that humans have the right not to be owned by another comes down to the fact that they are autonomous agents who should be able to frame, revise and pursue their own life goals and ambitions. Being ‘owned’ denies them the control over their own lives that their capacities and interests demand. Most non-human animals, however, are not autonomous in this sense. While it is certainly true that sentient animals have volition – the ability to pursue their desires – that is somewhat different from the capacity to reflect upon and shape their own desires. As such, there is reasonable doubt about whether animals have the same interest in shaping and pursuing their own life goals. This is why many of us think that it is perfectly permissible for us to own and enjoy the company of companion animals. These companion animals are, of course, our property, our owned animal slaves if you like. And yet most of us think that given their different natures and interests, owning and keeping a dog is quite different to owning and keeping a human being.

To be absolutely clear, I am not endorsing the current regimes of animal property ownership in contemporary political communities. Quite clearly, such regimes afford far too few protections to the owned animals and far too much protection to the rights of the property-owning humans. All I am doing is raising a doubt about whether animals possess the same interest in not being property as that possessed by humans – thus questioning whether a commitment to animal rights necessarily entails an acceptance that all animals have a right not to be owned. Given the differing capacities and interests of humans and animals, raising such doubts seems reasonable.

Because there can be reasonable philosophical disagreements about the proper content of animal rights, I believe that it is only wise and proper for the animal rights movement at the political level to accommodate these differences.

To put forward the idea that there is only one true and authentic animal rights position is not only misleading, but it is also unhelpful politically. It is unhelpful because it is divisive: it can split groups whose most important aims and goals are shared, simply because they have a reasonable disagreement about the precise content of the entitlements of animals. It is also unhelpful because it can marginalise animal rights: it can associate the idea only with the most radical position in the movement, thus making it easier for animal rights to be dismissed out of hand by those we urgently need to engage with. And it is also unhelpful because it is exclusive: it denies groups who legitimately believe in animal rights access to a term that is both useful politically, and extremely powerful rhetorically.

I believe that the time has come for the idea of animal rights to become more inclusive – both philosophically and politically.

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