encompassing animals rights: ethical extensionism, rights theory, ecocentrism and the ethic of care

ethical.traditionsThe most solid foundation for the first extension of the moral realm to include animals has been just that – an extension of moral theory as it has been formulated in relation to humans. This is what deontological and utilitarian theories of animal liberation do when they allow that the criteria which we use to include all humans in the moral realm must necessarily also include some animals. Thus animals cannot be justifiably excluded.

Yet some thinkers have seen reason to question the validity of these two theories to adequately deal with human beings in the first instance, let alone non-human animals. Because of the inadequacies of extensionism some thinkers have sought to formulate more comprehensive theories that validate the rights of animals within a radical ecological ethic.

Extensionist theories

The two most influential theories that seek to expand the realm of moral consideration to include animals are utilitarianism and deontology. Their champions, Peter Singer and Tom Regan, both seek to extend moral considerably on the grounds that there is no clear-cut criteria to differentiate between humans and non-human animals that is morally relevant.


Source: Existential Comics – http://existentialcomics.com/

Singer does this by crediting the ‘interests’ of others as the most important characteristic of individuals that entitles them to moral considerability. If a being has interests, ie. if it matters to the being what happens to it because it is capable of sensing pleasure and pain, then it is wrong to harm that being. This is what gives every animal a claim to rights. However, rights for Singer are not equal for all sentient beings, but ranked either by complexity or by utility on a contingent basis. This contradicts his claim that “our concern for others ought not depend on what they are like or what abilities they possess…” (Singer 1998:26) Singer has merely replaced the arbitrary criteria that favoured humans over animals with one that favours sentience and utility over their antitheses. The bottom line is that human-centred and instrumentalist values still underlie the valuing of non-human life and this has been seen as problematic by environmental ethicists in particular.

The requirement that we judge the moral worth of an action by its consequences allows the possibility that some consequences will justify using an animal (or a human) for human purposes from expedience in terms of greater ‘good’ or ‘happiness’. By this criteria it would be acceptable for one being to suffer intensely to remediate the suffering of many. Such an outcome would be repugnant to many people’s sense of morality and an infringement of their ‘rights’, especially if they or a loved one were that individual. For Singer, if an action tends to increase the overall happiness in the world then it is good. Regan notes that, by ranking utility over non-utility one can justify cruelty which marginalises individuals in the minority. This ‘tyranny of the masses’ would tend to favour the rights of the majority, but infringe the rights of individuals. Other problems with utilitarian decision making include the enormous burden of forethought and knowledge placed on the actor in trying to estimate best outcomes, the subjective nature of comparing quantities of happiness, and the fact that non-material goods like aesthetics and love are often motivators to action and are certainly part of the motivation behind ethical vegetarian practices.

Regan seeks to expand the realm of moral considerability by appealing to the deontological idea of the ‘intrinsic worth’ of “subjects of a life”. He takes it as given that we value living beings not because of any arbitrary characteristics, but simply because all living things have a “nature-given” right to exist. Regan is extending the idea that we have, as a fundamental attribute of living, unalienable rights to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ per natural rights theory. Natural rights are held to be more fundamental than those accorded by laws, in that they still exist, we still have a claim to them, even where laws do not protect them. The idea of intrinsic worth is used as a foundation for the deep ecology ethic which I will discuss in due course.

Rights Theory

The notion of rights is basic to human morality: the assumption that we have rights is ensconced in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948, and more recently in the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Animals 1978 that sought to attribute the same sort of rights to non-human animals and nature.

Jeremy Bentham, the utilitarian, saw the idea of rights as “wild and pernicious nonsense” (Waldron 1984:1) Bentham rejected the notion that individuals could possess rights in any other way than that accorded by law. Bentham and others saw talk of ‘natural rights’ as victims of the naturalistic fallacy, whereby normative claims were being made from descriptive premises to which there is no logical connection. (define better) (more on Bentham)

Rights only made sense to Bentham when they were ascribed explicitly by law. However, rights as given by law do not have that same ‘unalienability’ that we intuitively feel we have to our own selves for instance. Without this intuitive sense of an unalienable self, a self who is the actor in our moral life, it is difficult to see how we could form moral judgements since it would not matter to us or to anyone else what happened to them if we did not identify with our selves, were not in ‘ownership’ of ourselves and hence our actions.

Additionally, laws always have exceptions. A law never creates an absolute right. It is always permissible for actions carried out, against a law (disallowing homicide for example) by the police or in self-defence, to transgress it but remain legal. Yet it would still remain so that, were our own lives threatened by such actions, justified by utility or not, we would demand our right to life. Laws do not offer absolute rights in the sense that most people mean when they speak of rights, for to have rights is to have some notion of their being unalienable.

So what are rights? Can they exist outside of law?

618NwDxlt7LTo address this question, Joel Feinberg postulates Nowheresville, a place where nobody has rights. To make it possible to prosper in such a world, he finds it necessary first to postulate a benevolent human nature, where people prefer to act out of kindness, rather than self interest or -seeking malice. In Nowheresville, no one has a claim on anyone else, no one has a duty to anyone else, for these are the two sides of the rights ‘coin’. So when one person injures another (and in this perfectly compassionate world this could surely only happen by accident!), the injured party has no claim to retribution against the injuring party. The injuring party er has no duty to redress the injury, nor even to apologise. In such a world, if governments existed, we would have no right to protest their actions if they affected us adversely, and no right to demand fair treatment or the enforcement of the law. (But perhaps there would be no laws if rights and laws are synonymous in the Benthamian sense) Indeed, we would have the same power over what happened to us as animals do now.

Feinberg then introduces the idea of duty and respect for authority, because without them it is hard to conceive how a just society could function. This is also a concession to Immanuel Kant, because the concept of morality would not exist in Kantian terms, if duties did not also exist. But in introducing duties, he suspects that “rights…(have been) smuggled in along with them” (Feinberg 1980: 143)

Feinberg subscribes to a form of contractualism, whereby rights and duties are a correlative and insuperable part of a contract between individuals. In Kant’s version of contractualism, the only parties capable of participating in the social contract are rational, self-conscious beings who are the only beings Kant considers as “ends-in-themselves”. Only rational, self-conscious beings have rights and all other beings, including children, the mentally incompetent and animals are only morally considerable indirectly. For Kant all duties are related to humanity only:

If a man shoots his dog because the animal is no longer capable of service, he does not fail in his duty to the dog, for the dog cannot judge. But his act is inhuman and damages in himself that humanity which it is his duty to show towards mankind. (Kant in Pojman 1994:28)

According to Kant, the classification of being an end-in-oneself rest upon our ability to conceptualize our ends. Because his contractualism rests on reason alone, it is easy to see why it excludes animals.

Despite the refinement of contractualism by John Rawls, whereby he postulates an ideal ‘first position’ or ‘veil of ignorance’ from which rational beings formulate the social contract, contractualism still only provides consideration to children, mental incompetents and animal through indirect duties. Thomas Scanlon, however, postulates a version of contractualism enacted with ‘real agents’. With this proviso, it is possible that the contracting agents might conceive of rules that favour animals because they care about them. However, as Carruthers points out, this method of contracting might lead to relativism, so personal preferences need to be discounted to be truly just. Yet, for some, indirect duties towards animals may be enough to ensure they are treated well. In this sense, animals do not have rights, but are considerable only in their relationship to humans, as human property. For many theorists this is the only way that non-rational, non-conscious beings can ever be included in a normative system that is essentially a human social construct. As such rights are neither natural nor prior to culture but given by society in the form of laws.

However, as Singer and Regan and others have shown, the prerequisite of rationality excludes some humans, and many people would agree that children and mental incompetents are deserving of rights for other reasons than being able to conceive of having them, and indeed are treated as having them in law. They argue that it is our similarities, not our differences (possession or lack of rationality in this instance), that should be the defining characteristics of rights-bearers. In Singer’s argument it its the criteria of sentience, Regan’s the criteria of ‘experiencing life’ that accrues rights. If we accept that the concept of rights, and their correlative duties to others as fellow rights bearers, is useful in formulating normative theories, then there appears to be no valid reason that animals cannot be included within this framework. However, some environmental ethicists seek to go beyond instrumentality to humans and sentience, to include all life. But, as Singer says, this “is a difficult task” because “without conscious interests to guide us, we have no way of assessing the relative weight to be given” (1988:277)

Ecocentrism and rights

Source: ABC

Source: ABC

Environmental ethical theories often seek to justify our obligation to preserve animals and the environment beyond the needs of sentient life. When deep ecologists speak of nature having ‘intrinsic value’ they seek to find value in nature that is not attached to the needs of life forms. Paul Taylor claims that judgements based on merit are a human cultural phenomenon, a form given to nature based on our value system. Inherent worth or intrinsic value judgements, he considers, have no grounding in culture. If a thing has inherent worth, it simply does, you believe it or you don’t, but no evidence can be brought forward to defend the claim. The ‘good’ or ‘end’ of an organisms life exists independently of our valuing it.

it is the good (well-being, welfare) of individual organisms considered as entities having inherent worth, that determines our moral relations with the Earth’s wild communities of life. (Taylor 1998:73)

Roderick Nash elucidates the two main views that promote human obligations to non-human life:

First, some people believe that it is right to protect and wrong to abuse nature…from the standpoint of human interest…But the more radical meaning…is that nature has intrinsic value and consequently possesses at least the right to exist. (1989:9)

On the former view, of anthropocentrism, or human-centred ethics, conservation of the natural world is a matter of expediency for human survival, but the rights of individuals other than humans are not taken into consideration except in the same way that contractualism does: in their relationship or use to humans.

The ‘more radical meaning’ Nash refers to, is ecocentrism, which he considers as part of the evolution of ethics. In this sense, ecocentrism is a form of extensionism along the lines of Regan. It seeks to “enlarge the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants and animals, or collectively, the land.” (Aldo Leopold in Singer 1988: 280) Nash observes that environmental ethics is “revolutionary; it is arguably the most dramatic expansion of morality in the course of human thought” (1989:7) Indeed, Holmes Rolston III suggest that “ethics is not complete until extended to the land” (Rolston 1988:188) Nash also observes that the idea, to most people, is still ‘incredible’. Using a similar argument to Regan and utilitarian animal liberationists like Singer and Bentham, Nash points out that the idea of freeing slaves, women’s equal rights and the rights of indigenous peoples were once as unbelievable as both animal rights and the rights of nature are to many people today. In Regan’s formulation of what constitutes animal rights, he appeals to the notion of the ‘intrinsic worth’ of all life. This is also part of Nash’s conception of the rights of nature.

Andrew Dobson makes the distinction between anthropocentric ‘environmentalism’ (or what Naess calls ‘shallow’ ecology) and ‘ecologism’, the latter including deep ecology (which values both individuals and the whole as an interconnected web) and ethical wholism which values ecosystems and species over individual rights. Ecologism locates the value of nature simply in its existing, in this it relies on the tradition of Natural Rights. Albert Schwitzer was an early proponent of life-centred ethics resting on our apparent natural right to life. Kenneth Goodpaster claims that “nothing short of the condition of being alive seems to me to be a plausible and non-arbitrary criterion” for moral considerability (in Johnson 349). Paul Taylor also sees the acceptance of life-centred rather than ‘human centred’ ethics based on the intrinsic worth of all life forms as having the potential for a “profound reordering of our moral universe” (1998:72)

Singer voices some doubt about the usefulness of speaking of life having ‘intrinsic value’. In his essay All Animals Are Equal 1974, he suggests that intrinsic value “takes the problem back one step, because any satisfactory defence of the claim…would need to refer to some relevant capacities or characteristics that all and only humans possess.” Given that there is no such characteristic, to use intrinsic value to substantiate a claim necessitates including all of life, including non-sentient life which Singer is loathe to do. However, nineteen years later, in the 1993 edition of Practical Ethics, Singer does accord animals intrinsic value, but sees any further extension of the concept as ‘problematic’. Hence Singer’s view of environmental ethics is restricted to the instrumental: preserving the environment protects the interests of animals. It is hard to see how he can credibly draw the line at animals, when some have as little awareness as plants appear to have.

Leopold claims: “a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise” (Leopold in Singer 1988:280) It is evident the rights of individuals will be subsumed under the greater good of the ‘biotic community’ in this conception of ecocentrism. Singer takes wholism to task because it makes no sense to talk of the rights of ecosystems that do not have definable ‘selves’ and as such no interests. Although he may be correct in deducing the impossibility of attributing rights to ecosystems, this does not discount a moral obligation on our parts to protect the environment, because it protects the individual species living within it. Under Feinberg’s schema of what constitutes a right, having a duty towards the environment is correlative with its having a right.

Arne Naess redefined ecocentrism in his formulation of the deep ecology ethic. Naess allows scope for the rights of individuals in the “vital needs” clause: recognisng that all life forms require the use of others for their survival, but that this should be minimal. This appears not to grant animals the same blanket protection that the abolitionist stance of Regan does. But the ethic also has an important facet regarding personal growth and integrity which is often overlooked or outright rejected as mystical nonsense in interpretations. An important part of Naess philosophy is the idea of ‘self-realisation’. Naess bases this in the traditions of “non-violence, non-injury and reverence for life” in Buddhist practice. In this sense, it goes beyond being a normative claim, and instead suggest that respect for nature is as much an attitude, an ecological consciousness.

Paul Taylor defines his ‘Respect for Nature’ ethic as, are all moral schema, tripartite, consisting of :

  • A belief system – that all nature is interconnected and interdependent; all parts are necessary to the whole; that all parts are inherently worthwhile
  • An ultimate moral attitude – respect for the autonomy of oneself and other persons as loci of inherent worth, hence respect for nature
  • A set of rules defining our duties – non-violence, a commitment to minimal harm etc

 Taylor, Regan and Naess have this in common: they recognise that value exists in individuals as “teleological centres of life”, that life is 93454b2453872fe8c44535c6da13861dpurposive, not mechanical. There appears to be no valid reason for Regan’s limiting himself to sentient life, because, as Taylor see its, goal-centredness does not necessitate consciousness. Being alive, he says, involves having a ‘good of one’s own’. That good is the “full development of (one’s) biological powers”, through the realisation of the life-cycle. There is no need for a life form to have awareness of this end for it to exist.

I take it that trees, for example, have no knowledge or desires of feelings. Yet it is undoubtedly the case that trees can be harmed or benefited by our actions… we can help or hinder them in the realisation of their good (Taylor 1981 in Zimmerman 1998)

The same can be said for the more primitive and relatively non-sentient animals, like prawns, molluscs etc.

This conception of ecocentrism does not suffer from the exclusion of the rights of individuals that wholism does. There is easily room to include the rights of wild animals at the least. But conflict arises when one attempts to balance the rights of individuals against one another as it does in any moral framework: with the issue of feral animals or native species that humans judge to be plaguing the environment to the detriment of native ones. It is the creative potential, or ‘inventive processes’ of the biosphere that Rolston identifies as the “root of all value” (1988:198) In Rolston’s theory the worth of individual animals is secondary to the worth of the system. In reality, human beings do regularly exterminate species to preserve ecosystems, for Australia exterminates millions of kangaroos every year in the name of land conservation. However, kangaroo ‘culling’ is done for anthropocentric reasons, to preserve human uses of the environment, not because we value the worth of the environment for itself above the worth of individual animals.

Clearly a wholist outlook would permit the culling of plague animals (or plants) for the benefit of the total ecosystem, but by the same logic it should also permit the culling of excess humans who are surely in greater plague proportions and doing more ecological damage than any other feral species. Indeed, the radical exclamations of ecocentric wholists do nothing to promote the widespread acceptability of their ethic when they make statements about “siding with the bears” (John Muir in Nash), that injuries resulting from trees spikes “served them (the loggers) right for killing trees” (Gilliam in Manes 19:458) and that sometimes “killing of a wildflower…is just as much a wrong…as the killing of a human…in some situations it is a greater wrong” (Taylor in Nash 1989:155) However, Taylor does differentiate between wanton destruction and self-defense.

Domestic animals are not protected by a wholist deep ecology ethic, for often they are identified as detrimental to ecosystems, causing erosion and competing with native fauna who are though to be more ‘in tune’ with the ecosystem. However, Naess formulation of the ethic, with its emphasis on non-violence and reverence for life should include a respect for the lives of domestic animals, and perhaps even non-use of them, in accordance with the respect given to the animals teleological status. Use of nature that is not directly meeting vital needs is not acceptable in this deep ecological ethic, and it can be shown that the killing and consuming of non-human animals, domestic or wild, is not a vital need: humans can and do live on purely plant-based diets.

Murray Bookchin has been a prominent critic of deep ecology, seeing its apparent ecological egalitarianism as based in mysticism and dangerously misanthropic. (Indeed the behaviour of Earth First! in destroying private property in ‘defense’ of nature does little to quell this notion!) He likens deep ecology to a “cult of nature worship” because, like Bentham said of rights, both are victims of the naturalistic fallacy: drawing moral (and hence cultural) normative conclusions from amoral nature. Despite this criticism, Nash observes that most environmental ethicists do consider nature as amoral: that “ethical norms were human constructs…Morals existed in the human mind; they were self-imposed constraints on people’s freedom of action.” (1989:124)

Deep ecologists have tended away from identification with moral extensionism, and towards a focus on human virtues, self-realisation and the feelings that underlie morality. This is where they coincide in some respects with the project of ecofeminists.

An Ethic of Care

Ecofeminists, though a diverse group, agree that nature and animals are often partnered in oppression:

We need not choose between one liberation cause and the other: women’s rights and animal’s rights suffer a common oppression in the patriarchal world. Male dominance attacks feminism: they say we are bra-burners, they say we are house wreckers, they say we are man-haters. Human dominance objects to animal rights: they say we are terrorists, they say we are people-haters (Adams 1990)

Despite it’s claims to radicalism, many feminist critics would say that ecocentrism is not radical enough. By remaining dualistic in it’s thinking, the wholists perpetuate an anthropocentric human dominance over nature. Extensionist theories attempt to justify our obligations to animals through extending the ‘realm’ of moral considerability, feminists see the very idea of extension as a perpetuation of the hierarchical system, namely patriarchy, that creates relationships of domination and submission. Marti Kheel in The Liberation of Nature: A Circular Affair 1985, suggests that even ecocentric theories, with their self-confessed ecologically egalitarian “interconnectedness” are actually perpetuating hierarchical relationships by placing the ‘interests’ of the ecosystem or the biospheric whole over the needs of individuals. J Baird Callicott reinforces this when he writes that endangered species have a “prima facie claim to preferential consideration from the perspective of the land ethic” (in Kheel 1985:19). Kheel suggests that contrary to their claims, there is no equality in wholism as represented by the land ethic, it still involves a kind of utilitarian calculus where ‘biotic integrity’ replaces the ‘greatest happiness principle’. Animal Liberationists also perpetuate hierarchy (and thus the dominator culture that has created the system of competitiveness that breeds inequality) through a hierarchy based on sentience, rationality or interests.

4e2c32e81f12fadc87d53684d35d9aedKheel advocates a reclamation of “wholism” from hierarchy that values the whole over the individual to one that includes the individual as a meaningful part of the whole: “what the wholists seem to forget…is that the whole consists of individual beings – beings with emotions, feelings and inclinations – and these too are part of the whole.” (1985:22) It is a mistake, she says, to think that valuing the individual will be detrimental to the whole.

However, in other respects Kheel sees an affinity with deep ecology where

the emphasis of both philosophies is not on an abstract or ‘rational’ calculation of value but rather on the development of a new consciousness for all of life…they call for an inward transformation in order to attain outward change (1990:128)

Such an ethic permits the acceptance of non-rational sources of knowledge in the formulation of our moral lives. It recognises that normative principles are bound to be broken, and this is the case with a rigid Kantian framework of ‘imperatives’ where ‘justice be done though the heaven’s may fall’ and all other normative systems. However, feminists are not advocating the abandonment of reason, just the acceptance of its limitations. In the context of animal rights, this means that we can admit what we otherwise have been encouraged to hide: the empathic and rational basis of our motivation to protect animals.

Respect for nature, and indeed life, as conceived by deep ecologists , then, is an attitude informed by beliefs, based on experience and feelings and reflected upon with reason. This is the point that some ecofeminist philosophers make when they identify feelings, compassion and caring as the source of morality. Indeed, when one thinks about the right or wrong of despoiling wilderness, it is a feeling that something good will be lost by doing so that first arises. John Rodman describes this sensation when he says:

I confess that I need only stand in the midst of a clear-cut forest, a strip-mined hillside, a defoliated jungle, or a dammed canyon to feel uneasy with the assumption that could yield the conclusion that no human action can make a difference to the welfare of anything but sentient animals …I strongly suspect that the same basic principles are manifested in quite different forms…in damming a wild river and repressing an animal instinct (whether human or non-human), in clear cutting a forest and bombing a city, in Dachau and a university research laboratory, in censoring an idea, liquidating a religion or racial group, and exterminating a species of flora or fauna…

Many feminists locate the basis of our moral judgements in our feelings, our ability to empathise and extrapolate our duties to other beings from them. Feelings were certainly a strong part of the motivation to Mark Dubois who chose to chain himself to a cliff to prevent the flooding of a valley for a dam on the Stanislaus River in California in 1979. Dubois says of the act: “Part of my spirit dies as the reservoir fills” (in Nash 1989: 191) Similar sentiments are expressed by animal rights activists who readily identify empathy for other species as part of their motivation to act morally.

According to Nel Noddings an appreciation and respect for animals and life arises as a result of the nurturing, the learning how to care that we experience as children. The ‘ethic of care’ is a sensibility developed through experiencing and reflecting with reason on the feelings that arise from those experiences. Noddings conception of caring suffers from two flaws that lessen its impact: identifying caring as a basis for a ‘feminine’ morality seems to reinforce the gender stereotypes; and secondly it restricts itself to reciprocity and thus only to humans capable of reciprocity. This doesn’t gel, for me at least, because our duties towards animals should remain, regardless of our caring about what happens to them: when we cause the pain of another being, we are still doing something objectively wrong to it by making it suffer, whether we acknowledge it (or care about it) or not. On the first point, it is undoubtedly the case that individuals caring for each other and for other beings whether they can reciprocate or not, is essential to a functioning society (human or not) and as Mary Midgley acknowledges, we needn’t reject it as part of patriarchal stereotyping because to feel is not to exclude reason:

feeling and action are essential element in morality, which concentration on thought has often made philosophy overlook…In general, feelings, to be effective must take shape as thought, and thoughts, to be effective must be powered by suitable feelings (in Kheel 1985:26)

This unity of feeling and reasoning is what Robyn Morgan calls a “unified sensibility”. In the same way that deep ecologists call for a recognition of the interconnectedness of all the physical elements of the ecosystem, ecofeminists call for a recognition of the interconnectedness of human thought and emotion in morality. To achieve such a synthesis is to reject the objectification, the atomisation of the world as prescribed by scientific rationalism and perpetuated by the search for universalizable normative moral theories, and reconnect with the real world in which moral decisions are made. Carol Gilligan, psychologist, found that men were more likely to subordinate relationships to universal principles or rules thus objectifying relationships.

This objectification and separation of subject from object is what Carol Adams in The Sexual Politics of Meat, recognises as the source of oppression because it enables us to remove ourselves from the effect of our action. Objectification leaves the death out of meat and makes killing animals acceptable, in the same way that pornography objectifies women and leaves out the relationship between persons making the ‘use’ of women to men’s ends acceptable. By this analogy, Adams identifies the consumption of meat/death with the acceptance of male dominance.

Eating animals acts as mirror and representation of patriarchal values. Meat-eating is the reinscription of male power in every meal…If meat is a symbol of male dominance, then the presence of meat proclaims the disempowering of women. It takes the notion of objectification one step further, not only have we objectified animals but in objectifying them we take what we want and leave the rest out, we leave their death out and we take their bodies, we leave the images of their death out but take the meaning of meat and apply it to women. (Adams 1990)

Adams sees sexism and speciesism as “mutually reinforcing systems of oppression” so by condoning meat-eating we are implicitly condoning male dominance and vice versa. (1990:174) For Adams, ethical vegetarianism is a moral act that denies collusion with those systems of oppression.

Kheel suggests that being privy to the consequences of our actions is vital to achieving the synthesis of reason and emotion feminists see as essential to a complete moral life:

If we think, for example, that there is nothing morally wrong with eating meat, we ought perhaps, to visit a factory farm or slaughterhouse to see if we feel the same way. (1985:27)

Singer advocated the shedding of such ‘womanly’ characteristics as sentimental “affections” in favour of “hard, logical, well reasoned argument” (in Kheel 1985: 24) However, Singer denies the emotions implicit to his arguments, and thus renders his argument only partial. There is no waterproof rational argument for the protection of marginal cases like children, mental incompetents or animals in either utilitarianism or deontology. No argument to respect life, no matter how well reasoned, will convince anyone of its veracity without a prior feeling attached to it.

This need not lead to moral relativism, for it is a fact that not only do all societies formulate moral codes, they don’t vary a great deal in their content. It is possible, then, to claim as Nel Noddings does, that morality is “rooted…in common human needs, feelings, and cognition…” that do not lead unproblematically to normative principles (1984:270) This feeling, is socialised into us. Noddings does not accord rights to animals, nor to anyone else. But in the duties inspired by caring, she is surely implying that rights exist.

Of course, identifying with animal suffering is not without its risks. Personal trauma stemming from the “incalculable numbers and intensity of animal suffering” is always a risk and the possibility of suppressing these feeling to deny the pain is a common human reaction (Adams 1985:186). However, suppression is perhaps one of the reasons why rational calculation has been reified by rights theorists: “To protect oneself from one’s own pain, one cannot feel anyone else’s pain either” (Adams 1985:187). Such denial of the pain of others leads to the devaluing of the lives of others. Our society as a whole encourages this when we hide the goings-on in abattoirs; construct an ideological renaming of animals when they become food (from ‘cow’ to ‘stock’ or ‘head’, and ultimately ‘beef’); and devalue the pain of animals by labeling them as our resources: as women ‘choose’ to be porn models and prostitutes, it is suggested by our culture that animals ‘choose’ to be eaten, that they exist only for this purpose! (Adams 1986:190)

Adams also identifies the feeling of caring as vital to morality, and this is implicit in rights theory. She sees the “male ideal of the BzAnimalRightsCartoon07autonomous individual” that is the agent of all moral theory, “…is fraudulent” because it is dependent on that world of relationships that sustain individuals and without which they cannot function. So despite their claims to absolute rationality, at bottom rights theories, like all human cultural manifestations, rest on a web of relationships and feelings.

Though this does not form a comprehensive ethic for the protection of the rights of animals, it does help to reclaim the empathy that we feel for the suffering of others as an important informant of morality. As an animal liberationist, the acceptance of the right-bearing status of non-human animals is no mere rational philosophical speculation: it is an impassioned imperative to act, to change one’s own life to be consistent with one’s beliefs.


No one moral theory seems able to generate absolute rights for human or non-human animals, so perhaps there is truth in the observation that all moral reasoning is a human social construct with ultimately human value-judgements at their root. In the absence of a normative moral framework, feminists have sought to locate our duties to other species outside rigidly reasoned theory and reconnect with our basic human feelings and the values that stem from them as the strongest basis for moral acts. Yet the concept of rights still remains useful in describing the obligations that stem from recognising these values.

Kim Stewart 2001


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Waldren, J 1984 “Introduction” in Theories of Rights, Oxford Readings in Philosophy, OUP 1984


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