Do Animals Have Rights?—A Roundtable

Editor's note: Quillette asked three scholars to reflect on the debate about animal rights. If you would like to contribute to this discussion, please send a response of ~800 words to

I. Animals have rights

Bo Winegard is an essayist and holds a PhD in social psychology. You can follow him on Twitter @EPoe187.

What do we mean by “rights”? For the purposes of this discussion, my answer to this complex question will be pragmatic: Rights are like rules in a sport. They forbid some practices and behaviors and encourage or demand others. In basketball, if you step on the out-of-bounds line with the ball, you must turn the ball over to the other team. The rule is real in the sense that all parties agree to it, and it is enforced by the relevant authorities. In the social world, to say that humans have “a right to life” means that people are forbidden from killing other people under (almost) any circumstances. This right is real in the same sense that most parties have agreed to it, and it is enforced by the state’s criminal justice system. If we treat rights in this pragmatic way, we do not need to wrestle with abstruse metaphysical questions about their ontological status.

We do, however, need to acknowledge a fundamental difference between rights and rules. Rights appear to exist prior to social arrangements, whereas rules are arbitrary and exist only after parties have agreed to them. We readily accept, for example, that basketball was once played without a three-point shot or that baseball players were once out if a fielder caught a fly ball after a bounce. We do not believe these rules were immoral, even if we now think they were unwise. On the other hand, we believe it to be egregiously immoral that slavery used to be a nearly universal feature of human societies. So, while rights may be similar to rules in a sport, they do not seem to be as arbitrary. This may reflect a feature of human psychology more than a feature of the universe, but I will not press the point here. I will only contend that we should think of rights as rules so that we can avoid thornier philosophical disputes.

The claim that animals have rights, therefore, amounts to a claim that any morally tolerable society should regulate the way that humans interact with animals in such a way that certain behaviors (cruelty) are forbidden and others (care) are encouraged. Consequently, any morally responsible human should behave in these ways in his own interactions with animals, regardless of whether other humans are monitoring or capable of punishing him. If animals have rights, they are a part of our moral world, and our treatment of them should reflect that. The rules of any decent society should proscribe some behaviors toward animals and encourage others, and these rules should be internalized.

It is hard to imagine somebody reasonably arguing that a society in which animals are gratuitously tortured is morally equal to a society in which animal torture is prohibited. If we grant that our moral intuitions cause us to recoil from gratuitous cruelty, then societies that prohibit and punish the torture of animals must be morally superior—on that point, at least—to those that do not. This suggests that these rights are not arbitrary since they are based on human moral intuitions. And these intuitions, like other moral intuitions, are not entirely socially determined. They are part of the hardware of the human mind (though this hardware interacts with the environment in complicated and often unpredictable ways).

This intuitive and pragmatic approach is very different from the utilitarian approach to animal welfare championed most prominently by the philosopher Peter Singer. Although he has changed his mind about exactly which variation of utilitarianism is more plausible, Singer’s ethical approach begins from the premise that sentience is what matters morally. Creatures capable of experiencing pain and pleasure have moral significance, even if they are not capable of higher level reasoning. This is because pain is ceteris paribus bad, and pleasure is ceteris paribus good. I have two (and a half) objections to this approach.

The half-objection is simply that utilitarianism, like the pragmatism I’m advocating here, is also based on a moral intuition—that sentience is what matters most. Many utilitarians would readily acknowledge this (although some would claim that utilitarianism is objectively true in a non-trivial way). But they would also argue that it is the most important and primitive moral intuition that we have, and that it should therefore guide our moral norms and trump other intuitions when it conflicts with them. This is a plausible claim but it is not self-evident.

The first objection is that sentience is impossible to ascertain. We simply do not know if other animals have conscious experiences. Even quite complicated animals, such as rabbits or squirrels or dogs, do not appear to be capable of propositional thought, and it is therefore unlikely that they have second-order cognition. It could reasonably be argued that second-order cognitions are necessary for conscious experience (as opposed to mere consciousness), and this does not require a retreat to Cartesian dualism because the mind is caused by the brain. But brains that are capable of symbolic thought are surely different from those that are not, and it is more plausible than not that only symbolic minds have a phenomenological reality—a world that they experience.

But this should not be a problem for those who wish to defend the existence of animal rights. Sentience per se is not the only important variable in our moral calculus. If I were to find out tomorrow that dogs do not have conscious experiences, I would still maintain that dogs have moral value and dignity and that it is wrong to treat them with cruelty. Nevertheless, for some utilitarians, this is a serious (albeit surmountable) challenge, and many philosophers, biologists, neuroscientists, and other intellectuals have written intelligently about these issues.

A second objection is that sentience-based approaches to animal rights/welfare do not deal effectively with the ethics of painless killing. Let us suppose—to take an extreme example—that a man is delighted by killing frogs in his backyard by smashing them with a hundred-pound mallet. He does this about 40 times a day and discards the crushed carcasses in the garbage can. Is this wrong? My intuitive response is that it is not just wrong, but egregiously and obviously so. From a (hedonic) utilitarian perspective, the act of smashing with the hammer itself is not wrong because instantaneous death does not cause the animal pain (and, in fact, it provides the sadistic person doing it with a lot of pleasure). The hedonic utilitarian could (and probably would) assert that although the act is painless, the killing of a frog is wrong because it eliminates future pleasures that the frog might have experienced otherwise. But this raises the problem of moralizing potential life—if it is wrong to extinguish future pleasures, is it not equally wrong not to create them? This leads to all kinds of complicated philosophical issues, which I cannot possibly address here, but which are easily avoidable if one simply rejects the utilitarian framework and approaches the issue of animal rights from a more pragmatic perspective: Killing frogs gratuitously is wrong because it violates more powerful intuitions for no good reason.

Against my pragmatic proposal that animals have rights comparable to non-arbitrary rules in a sport, the late philosopher Sir Roger Scruton contended that rights are necessarily reciprocal and imply obligations, which animals cannot fulfill. The notion of animal rights is therefore an illegitimate expansion of the concept of rights, which are necessarily and properly limited to rational (or potentially rational) persons. But this objection is almost entirely definitional. If one defines rights in this way, then of course it does not make sense to extend rights to a cow or a chicken. But there is no compelling reason to accept this definition of rights, and it is quite reasonable to contend that, say, dogs have rights in almost all the relevant ways that infants have rights.

Animals have moral significance because our moral intuitions reveal that they do. Moral realists can argue that our intuitions reveal this moral significance because it exists objectively; pragmatists can remain agnostic about the ontological status of morality, because they do not think it matters much. Most of us behave as moral realists in our daily lives. Because we believe that animals have moral significance, we would prefer some societies to others because of their treatment of animals. Those that treat animals well are preferable to those that do not. Rights are like rules; they proscribe certain behaviors and encourage others. Animals therefore have rights because we want to create a society that regulates, to some degree, human interactions with animals, and that prohibits some behaviors. The exact nature of these rights is always debatable and complicated, as it is for humans. But some of the most basic rights are, as Thomas Jefferson wrote, self-evident.

II. Animals have some rights

Nathanial Bork is a political scientist and philosopher. You can follow him on Twitter @BorkNathanial on Twitter and read his essays at

Animals deserve some rights, but not the same rights as humans, and it is ethical to use animals for food and experimentation, so long as certain criteria are met.

Prior to the modern period, concern for animal welfare largely revolved around issues of human character and the promotion of virtue. Because European Christians at that time believed that animals did not have souls, or at least the same type of souls as humans, the concern for their wellbeing came from the duty of biblical stewardship. Prominent philosophers such as Immanuel Kant argued that the cruel treatment of animals was not bad because it violated the rights of animals, but rather because it degraded the self.

The first animal welfare campaign in America can be traced all the way back to the 1600s, but the contemporary movement of animal rights really began in the 1960s and ’70s. Inspired by the successes of earlier movements, and by the civil rights campaigns of that time, the modern animal rights movement has been successful, but it is still wrestling with massive technological changes that have made the exploitation of animals easier and more profitable.

Two major technological advances led to mass animal exploitation—the development of antibiotics and the rapid growth of molecular and cell biology as academic fields after World War II. Antibiotics made it possible for farm animals to survive in Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), and molecular and cell biology made it possible for animal experimentation to yield medical and veterinary breakthroughs through extensive animal testing.

Of course, farmers of the last 70 years were not less (or more) moral than their ancestors, but prior to the development of these technologies, animals kept in such conditions would have died, bankrupting the farmer. Animal death is a huge cost to farmers, and prior to the modern medical era, there existed traditions in animal husbandry that kept the animals in good health, because that was in the farmer’s best interests.

The early days of animal experimentation were unsavory and replete with experiments that induced incredible amounts of needless suffering, often for little or no benefit. Some of those experiments did lead to tremendous gains in human welfare (for example, advances in skin grafts and space travel), but many merely led to discoveries that catered to more trivial human needs (such as cosmetics).

During this period, people began to develop formal theories of animal rights. The first two major philosophers in this area were Peter Singer, who wrote Animal Liberation in 1975, and Tom Regan, who wrote The Case for Animal Rights in 1986. Singer defended the notion of animal rights on utilitarian grounds, arguing that the capacity for suffering made them worthy of moral consideration. Regan, on the other hand, argued that animals have inherent moral rights because they are the “subjects of lives” who have conscious experiences (awareness of surroundings, relationships, preferences, etc.). In this respect, Regan argued, animals are like humans, especially young and developmentally disabled humans, and thus deserving of moral recognition. Both Singer and Regan advocated for vegetarianism on account of the harm suffered by animals in industrial farming.

Bernard Rollin, the father of veterinary medical ethics, took a different approach to animal rights to that of Singer or Regan. He argued that because humans and animals had been in a symbiotic relationship prior to World War II, we could develop a system of rights aimed at taking good care of the animals we use. According to Rollin, the problem isn’t that we eat meat or use animals in experiments, it’s that industry abandoned the concept of animal husbandry, which farmers had employed for thousands of years. From this position he developed the first ethics protocols that animal researchers must follow to conduct animal experimentation, and helped to develop technologies that reduced animal suffering. He believed that we could use animals, but not abuse them, and I agree with this position.  

On utilitarian grounds, a cow raised from birth to slaughter in factory-farm conditions has suffered much more pain than the pleasure that consuming meat gives humans. However, a cow living in a field with acres in which to roam, free to eat grass and protected from predators and diseases, is able to enjoy a pretty good cow life. And if that cow is ethically slaughtered with the infliction of minimal suffering and distress, the pleasure produced for humans by the consumption of its meat outweighs the pain of the cow’s premature death. Cows have consciousness and instinctually avoid pain and death, but they’re also getting a good deal from the non-industrial farmer who practices good animal husbandry and keeps them safe from the harms they would face in the wild. So long as animals are treated ethically, a utilitarian calculation does not morally prohibit the raising and slaughtering of livestock.

John Rawls offers a similar logic and conception of justice in his “Veil of Ignorance” argument. The veil of ignorance asks us what types of lives we’d be willing to live if we jumped into the world without knowing which individual we’d get to be. This thought experiment was formulated to encourage support of welfare capitalism, but it is useful here as well. If you were going to have to live as a cow, what kind of cow life would you opt for? No one would pick the life of a factory-farm cow, or the life of a lab animal prior to the introduction of ethics board oversight. But if people had to choose between life as a well-cared-for cow on a ranch and life as a wild cow, it’s not immediately obvious which is preferable.

Many farmers have been amendable to animal husbandry practices that benefit the animals, even if it costs them a little extra or gives them less space because each animal gets more room. Industrial factory farming of course resists this logic, but they tacitly acknowledge it by the amount of effort they expend concealing their operations from the public. I used to show my students the 2008 documentary Food, Inc., and it would make them feel guilty for supporting the production of meat from factory farms. People want to be happy, but not at the expense of someone or something else suffering like that.

Ethics guidelines for lab researchers have come a long way since they were first introduced. Originally, animal experimentation that leads to suffering and death was considered ethical so long as the experiment could not be simulated (for example, on a computer), or conducted on cell cultures and biopsies or in some other way that avoided those outcomes. Anesthesia could be employed unless it damaged the experiment. Further, the research had to be original, such that the information could not be gained from other sources, and it had to be likely to bring about a pharmaceutical good which would aid more beings than were sacrificed.

The decision to allow for animal experimentation is now made by Internal Review Boards, which are made up of scientists and lay people—scientists because they understand the experiment at issue, and lay participants to keep the scientists in check. The current version of this procedure in Europe is enshrined in Council Directive 2010/63/EU of the European Parliament and the Council. In addition to the above, it stipulates that animals must always be treated as sentient, death should be avoided wherever possible and a particular threshold of pain must not be crossed, the number of animals used must be minimal, and the type of animal is determined by its capacity to experience pain, suffering, distress, or lasting harm.

Thus, animals have the right to not suffer needlessly and to have their interests taken into consideration by the humans who use them. It is possible to both respect these rights and to gain the benefits of using animals in agriculture and medical science, and we have a corresponding obligation to pay the extra associated costs of maintaining a morally satisfactory standard of animal welfare.

III. Animals do not have rights

Jake Scott is undertaking doctoral research of political theory at University of Birmingham, UK. You can follow him on Twitter @J_Scott_95.

Rights have become the gold standard of political discourse in the West. In his 1977 book Taking Rights Seriously, Ronald Dworkin maintains that “rights are trumps.” Dworkin, like other rights theorists, struggled to answer the question of what happens when rights conflict, but if we understand his statement as a straightforward observation and not a moral claim, it is difficult to dispute. In the West, we often hear the rights of individuals or groups invoked, as if merely doing so is enough to end an argument, such as the right to privacy or the right of free movement. Such assertions frequently beg the question at issue, but the rhetorical currency of rights is prima facie evidence of their societal importance and appeal.

Here, however, my concern is normative, and to answer the question of whether or not animals have rights, we need to be able to define what a right is, to whom it belongs, and what it does. This requires a brief excursion into metaphysics to examine the philosophically relevant differences between human and non-human animals.

The phrasing on which this question is predicated is not accidental—humans are animals, famously defined by Aristotle as political animals (the zoon politikon). Whilst we retain our “animality,” we do not live in groups out of mere physical necessity, but according to rules of our own making. In other words, we are politic about the way in which we live together, and we recognise that individuals often have desires that conflict with those of other people. Here we can turn to Sir Roger Scruton, a philosopher who argued extensively that animals do not have rights, and that it is cruel to pretend otherwise.

In Chapter 2 of Animal Rights and Wrongs, Scruton wrote, “although other animals are individuals, with thoughts, desires and characters that distinguish them, human beings are individuals in another and stronger sense, in that they are self-created individuals.” When he describes humans as “self-created,” he means that human individuals have the power to shape themselves and to do so through the higher faculty of rationality. It is this rationality that allows us to talk of the human person, in a way we never can of an animal. Some people might describe an animal as having a “personality,” but this is not a reflection of the animal, but of the person describing that animal.

Focusing on personhood and humans as political animals, Scruton recognised, gives rise to a conflict produced by the paradoxical nature of humanity that could never occur in the non-human animal world: “people depend on others and also need to be free of them.” Humans, as Aristotle wrote, are not capable of living self-sufficiently, and yet they feel the desperate need for freedom from other persons.

Scruton argued that the notion of rights and personhood attempts to resolve this conflict: “the concept of the person should be seen in light of this. It denotes potential members of a free community—a community in which the individual members can lead a life of their own. Persons live by negotiation and, through rational dialogue, create the space which their projects desire.” In other words, “human beings are actual or potential members of a moral community, in which each member enjoys sovereignty over his own affairs, so long as he accords equal sovereignty to others.”

It is in this world—of sovereign individuals who must nonetheless live together—that the language of rights arises. In his 2014 work, How to be a Conservative, Scruton described rights as producing a “sphere of personal sovereignty” as part of a “calculus of rights and duties,” which rational beings use in order to settle their disputes and to reach agreement over matters of common or conflicting interest.

Some rights are passive, and some are active. As Scruton put it, my right to life implies a duty on others not to kill me, which requires nothing of them; on the other hand, a right to food implies that others have a duty to help feed me. There is a debate to be had over the significance we ought to place on passive and active rights, but so understood, their existence is plausible and socially important.

Rights give weight to that sphere of personal sovereignty as an inviolable territory of personhood that helps to create and regulate a society of consensual relations, rather than one of domination and exploitation. If rights exist in a nexus of duties and responsibilities, then they act (1) to allow a person to control his own life; and (2) to ensure coercive interference is punishable. “The individuality of the moral agent,” expressed in this nexus, wrote Scruton, “exists also as a constraint upon treatment by others. … Around the moral being, therefore, a sovereign territory exists, which cannot be entered without permission. This fact is enshrined in our concept of a right, in the idea of the person and in the moral law and its prohibitions.”

Non-human animals, for all their varied intelligence, do not have the conceptual consciousness required to respect others’ rights; they do not have the ability to settle disputes relating to the moral law of personal sovereignty that human animals do; and, importantly, they do not have the potential to do so. Throughout his writing on animality and human rights, Scruton uses the word “potential” to qualify members of the moral community. This allowed him to include those humans who do not have the capacity to exercise their own rights or respect the rights of others—such as fetuses, infants, or the mentally disabled. In A Political Philosophy, Scruton asserted that we include such “marginal humans” and not non-humans in the moral community because “the human form is, for us, the outward sign and symbol of the moral life, and because we never wish to foreclose the possibility that each human body harbours, in whatever embryonic form, a personality.” To put it another way, in this question we must consider normal developmental trajectories. Humans ordinarily develop moral consciences, whereas animals do not.

The point is that animals cannot have rights because they cannot respect rights, and do not even have the potential to respect rights. And not simply the rights that humans claim for themselves—a leopard in the savanna does not respect the right to life of the antelope. If animals cannot respect the rights they each supposedly possess, then they cannot reasonably be said to possess rights in themselves; they do not exist in a moral community, but in a community of necessity and appetite.

Furthermore, it is actually cruel to impose human normative notions on animals because that would require them to suppress their own natures. We do not imprison a leopard if it kills an antelope. I do not impose a fine or civil sentence on my dog if she steals one of my biscuits. Animals do not have a moral conscience capable of understanding the notions of life, ownership, property, and so on, and for that reason it is not in their nature to understand the moral weight at stake in the inviolable sphere of personhood. Animals are not capable of moral reasoning, or at least of the reasoning required for sophisticated conceptions of reciprocal rights.

This does not mean that animals have no moral worth. That would be an absurd claim. Nor does it mean that humans have no obligations to animals. In fact, it means the opposite: humans have a greater obligation to animals than rights can possibly imply. Animals cannot make a moral judgement, but nor can they make a moral claim. To invoke rights as a possession of animals is to imagine that predatory animals would respect the claims of their prey—an idea that is negligent and disrespectful. Instead, humans should recognise that they alone can know what is right and wrong and what is therefore abuse. The gross industry of factory farming needs to end—but only because we alone can recognise the immorality of such practices. The animals do not care if it is moral or not, they only care if they can be their natural selves.

It is a human behaviour to assign human characteristics to non-human objects. We can talk of the face of a building, the song of a bird, and the love of a dog, but only because it is we that can do so. We alone can make the moral judgements necessary to sustain a moral community, and it is a gift of that aesthetic mind that we are able to include animals within such a community, but never as equals. To treat them as equals is cruel; they are our wards, and we are their guardians. To give them rights is to expect them to respect the rights of others, and only when the lion lies down with the lamb can that be said to happen.

It is worth closing with Scruton’s reflections on this point. In this essay, I have attempted to make clear the moral distinction between human and non-human animals, and explain why this means non-human animals can neither respect nor possess rights. According to Scruton, this is a kinder view of animality than the pro-rights writers such as Peter Singer:

A creature with rights is duty-bound to respect the rights of others. The fox would be duty-bound to respect the right to life of the chicken and whole species would be condemned out of hand as criminal by nature. Any law which compelled persons to respect the rights of non-human species would weigh so heavily on the predators as to drive them to extinction in a short while. Any morality which really attributed rights to animals would therefore constitute a gross and callous abuse of them.

The point is this: rights demand a duty. Non-human animals do not have, and cannot develop, the moral capacity to fulfil these duties. If we treat non-human animals as having duties, then we have no choice but to punish them as we would punish a human. This is absurd—whether it is imprisoning a leopard for killing an antelope or fining a cat for wandering through a neighbour’s garden. Such examples might seem somewhat frivolous, but they are to the point: animality really demands that we recognise its difference from humanity and treat non-human animals as such.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at
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Missing the point as always. The more important question is “are humans animals?”

Of course we, are despite our best attempts to deny it.

Come to Africa. See animals. Find a new morality based on reality rather than intellect.


I think the protagonist was trying to argue for humans being special.

If you westies (yes you @Schopenhauer) actually climb down from your carefully constructed societies, all of which are carefully patrolled by deliberate and careful violence, you will observe that casual human existence is little different from animal existence.

Morality is the privelege of the adequately protected.

Of course morality requires responsibility in equal measure to ‘rights’. But you westies really have no understanding of what ‘rights’ are.

Take yourself away for 40 days and shout for your rights in the desert.

All you will come back with is a better understanding of yourself.

Now, ask yourself the question of what useful behaviour is, in dense human society.

Ask yourself how you can encourage that. Don’t kill your neighbours, rather obey the law, or we will kill you.


Simple debunk. Guide dogs for the blind. They very much understand their contract with their existence. They are very much capable of acting like raw animals given the appropriate contrary encouragement.

How are humans different?

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I find the idea of ‘rights’ intuitively compelling. However, I have found myself left without any real support for the notion, not for humans nor animals. We live vicariously through what of others we don’t want for ourselves, and so we plea for their ‘rights’. Rather I see that my relationship with others is only through the responsibility I take. I define “responsibility” as the ontological state of a mature human. As a concept, then, a dearth of responsibility is a state of immaturity. Authority is a state of immaturity, an arrogance related to being stuck in a young developmental stage. Individually it can show up in over-achievement as much as under-achievement, as much as authoritarian stance as a stance of no distinction or discrimination at all. A mature human is responsible for all of it, not as ‘being the cause of’ but more like the concept of ‘being cause in the matter’. I see the matter as the flourishing of all humans and our best ecosystem. The mature adult mostly finds themself a more socially adaptable way of being, more independent of all groups and yet able to engage with many conversations. And it is here, in an interdependence of independent thinkers, that true maturation and the effectiveness towards a flourishing human landscape occurs. What circumstances are available for animals will tend to fall out in the flourishing. There a big questions here for the adult society. On domestic animals it comes down to where do pets and food animals fit into the flourishing ecosystem? For when that answer is agreed to, even temporarily, then whatever pets and food animals are part of the ecosystem will be automatically managed, by the mature adult as to their flourishing. For example, I propose that civilisation should now give up the culture of pets, for social and environmental flourishing. Nonetheless, I realise that there is yet great resistance to such. Much of that resistance comes from the immature ‘consumerist’ attitude to social life, including, "it’s all too hard to deal with (people, work, bosses, climate change, politics etc etc etc). So, while domestic animals abound I shall assert to those with authority (ownership) of them, to deal with them in full consideration of their place in a flourishing human society and ecosystem. And because there is a relationship between our immaturity and the quantity of pets and food animals there are, the more social and ecosystem breakdown can be seen on a daily basis. Conversations that include the evidences from various outcomes related to animals will either gain power or loose power. In democracies, the conversations that gain power form policies and laws. The effectiveness of policies and laws are quite directly related to the degree of maturity, the responsibility among humans to consider the full flourishing of everything.

I think we need to distinguish between the rights of nonpersons, and the rights of persons.

I think of a ‘right’ as an emergent phenomenon, a nonempirical but nonetheless real entity/property which governs how canonical persons are to interact, both with other canonical persons, and other rights-bearing entities in the world.

I say that ‘rights’ are emergent phenomena, because their being is concomitant with the coming into being of persons. Now, I take homo sapiens sapiens to be canonical persons. Homo sapiens sapiens are the only beings (that we know of as yet) that are able to elaborate a concept and a theory of “rights.” This very ability is performatively constitutive of rights as phenomena. Once these phenomena have been constituted, they become nonempirical facts of the world, and for practical purposes exist independent of the intentions of human beings. We may make an analogy here between rights and other nonempirical entities like numbers and logical relations.

Note that it is the ability per se to elaborate theories of rights, which is sufficient for the being of rights as such. We have certain species-specific cognitive capacities which enable us to appreciate primitive notions of obligation and desert; and it’s these capacities which are the incipient ground of the being of rights. A key question to ask here, is whether it is only our species that possesses the capacity to appreciate primitive notions of obligation and desert.

It is in virtue of our specific cognitive capacities, that we are canonical persons/canonical rights-bearers. A canonical person is a being which has moral autonomy, i.e. is morally free and responsible, is able from the basis of its rationality to self-legislate for itself (auto nomos) the core of the moral law: which we should understand in terms of the Kantian Categorical Imperative. The moral law and our status as persons does not depend on any Utilitarian consideration.

Such a law binds equally all canonical moral actors, i.e. all adult, typical, normal members of the moral community. Now it should be obvious, none of us are angels - none of us actually comes into being with full-fledged moral autonomy, none of comes into being as canonical moral actors. There has to be some sense in which we have the rights of persons, even when we are not self-consciously asserting them. And though these rights exist as a matter of natural law, they do not have force except where there is a formal political power that enforces them.

Again, there has to be some sense in which we have the rights of persons, even when we are not self-consciously asserting them. And this is true not only for us as individuals, but it also true for us as a species. Just as no person is a canonical person de novo, our species did not achieve the status of moral actors “from nowhere.” The community educates the individual, and nature educates the species.

To properly understand/ground rights, then, we need to look past the horizon of our species, to earlier natural history, to identify the evolutionary roots of moral autonomy. And I would propose that those roots don’t lay with homo sapiens sapiens, but instead with species that are “merely” sapient. There is where moral personhood lies, in its embryonic/primitive form, before it emerges in its canonical form in our species.

It should of course come as no surprise, that personhood - just like intelligence - emerges along a continuum of sapience in the natural world; and that personhood can be historically identified to emerge first with certain nonhuman animal species. I stress identified historically, because personhood and its properties are first formally realized in the cultural life of homo sapiens sapiens (at least on planet Earth); but once the concept has been formally elaborated by adult, normal, typical members of a community of canonical moral actors, the rights associated with personhood can then be enforced for other persons who are not able to advocate for their rights themselves (whether incidentally or in principle).

The ‘continuum of sapience’ indicates, first and foremost, that any moral community is also a community of “necessity and appetite.” Only the angels live in a world freed from scarcity, where rights don’t conflict. The rights of persons are a sustained equipoise of tension between moral actors, actors who in their moral autonomy are constitutively independent of and dependent on one another.

Personhood in its most primitive form can be found in sapient animals; nature did not wait until certain animals “woke up” and realized they were persons, to fashion persons. The relevant natural capacities for the kind of moral autonomy that suffices to make a being a rights-bearer, include everything from the capacity to intuit Other-mind, to tool use, to the transmission of learned behavior (otherwise known as culture), to the ability to recognize inequitable treatment, to planned interspecies cooperation, to appreciating and even making art, to passing the mirror-test.

All these capacities indicate that the species in question have crossed the sapiens-threshold. Again it is these capacities which are the incipient ground of the being of rights. These are all capacities which the species homo acquired through our own evolutionary history, and as sapiens sapiens we are different from these other nonhuman persons only in degree, not in kind.

The rights then of nonperson nonhuman animals, then, are just an extension of the rights of persons (both human and nonhuman). As we recognize the reality of the personhood of certain nonhuman animals, we are morally obligated to treat them as persons (if not according them the full suite of rights that canonical persons have (in this respect any more than we accord children the rights & responsibilities of adults)). Likewise, animals that are not sapient but yet sentient we can assign certain legal protections to. We may find indeed that canonical persons are morally obligated to give sentient beings such protections, not on the basis of any inherent rights nonpersons might possess, but on the kind of behavior that is incumbent on canonical moral actors to exhibit (e.g. to refrain from cruelty and the infliction of needless suffering).


Nonsense. Other animals organise their own societies through exactly the same performative rights and responsibilities.

Homo sapiens just talks about it a whole lot.

I guess you are leading from the legal canon.

That canon is not necessary, a priori.

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Nonsense. Authority is earned and respected in both human and animal societies.

Societally, in human terms, we also have the concept of ‘old’ or mature (just words) societies - mostly in Asia, despite the poverty, and ‘young’ societies, mostly in Africa. Admittedly ‘western’ society is somewhere in between.

What is authority? The recognition of useful learning or experience in a person or animal - something to teach less authoritative beings.

Ideally nobody thinks that they are intrinsically authoritative. But for society to gel, there does need to be some form of learning passed between the animal generations.

Authority is often artificially created in dense societies like modern homo sapiens - we literally are the rats of the modern age. Or ‘artificially’ according to patterns that you might not respect as a young man, @OwenAllen.

This all is done according to societal self-organisation tho. You might not see the pattern or reason, but you are part of it, nevertheless.

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I don’t think that purely instinctual behavior is moral, properly speaking (though it can serve as proto-moral). The natural (cognitive) capacities that are relevant to the status of personhood transcend the instinctual and include abilities like anticipating the future behavior of others, the intentional transmission of learned behavior, passing the mirror-test etc. The vast majority of animals can’t do these things, however elaborate the cooperative behavior that they exhibit by instinct. Therefore the vast majority of animals are not persons, and so far as we know only we are canonical persons.

It is certainly true that only canonical persons have natural language, and are thereby capable of elaborating concepts and theories of rights and personhood. My contention again is that the elaboration of these concepts performatively constitutes them as something existing independent of our intentions (much as concepts and language themselves have a salience which is independent of our intentions). Nonhuman persons don’t have natural language, and so are not capable of cognizing, let alone enforcing, the rights of persons they have by natural law.

I guess you are leading from the legal canon.

That canon is not necessary, a priori

No. I am talking about natural law, about the ontological foundation of our moral & legal ideas.


I would argue that this is an arbitrary distinction. Certainly most animals in Africa survive only by anticipating the behaviour of others, particularly in the hunter/hunted realm. It goes deeper in the case of Elephants, for example, anticipating even long term climate events by, for example, leading their breeding group to last-gasp water holes far from their normal range. All learned and passed down through the generations.

The instinct vs intelligence debate is long-worn.

You need to do better to identify humans, homo sapiens sapiens, as ‘special’ in this regard.

I’m not talking about hunting-behavior or flight-behavior, which is instinctual. I’m also not talking about longer-term behavior patterns like migration, which is also instinctual. I am talking about the distinctive cognitive capacities of elephants, however - who are persons, if not canonical persons.

The fact that only humans have natural language, is all the criterion of their “specialness” that is required. Still it is only a matter of degree, not kind, in comparison to nonhuman persons. If we ever encounter a superintelligent nonhuman extra-terrestrial species, I would expect that they would extend the same courtesy to us.

Animals do talk, do communicate, and not just in sound. Again, is this a degree of sophistication, in other words arbitrary distinction, or do you believe that it’s qualitative?

I think our frontal cortex is quantitative in development, and of course has led homo sapiens to dominate the earth.

Is it qualitatively different? I don’t think so. I think it’s arrogant to assume so, just like it’s arrogant to assume a particular mode of thought (law) is in itself useful.

Science really is useful, on the other hand. New tools etc. But that’s still quantitative improvement rather than qualitative improvement over our fellow animals. Just human’s strength.

Soon octopi will rule the earth. Will we understand them? I doubt it. So non-useful modes of human thought might not stand the ages.

You’re contradicting yourself.

All animals have natural language. Even written language (deliberate scent drops).

For you ‘canonical’ human is someone who naturally assumes or embodies the rights of humans.

There is an a priori problem there.

You can’t define what exactly embues a living being with human canonical rights. Unless you can do that, you cannot extend the rights to other beings.

You have to have a crisper understanding of what and why your canonical rights body is.

You will fail. There are no rights. Nature is brutal.

Start again by defining how you would like to be treated.

Then we animals will chuckle :joy:

It’s “what is a woman” all over again.

We animals know what a woman is. Don’t abstract yourself to the point that nothing makes sense any more. It’s not useful, apart from fun debates.

And necessarily so. This is the interesting conundrum, not the human abstraction of rights.

Rights require a mechanism to impose such rights.

Such mechanism can only be created and enforced by fellow humans/animals.

Unless we have god-like beings to provide us rights, then we are eating our own abstract tail. Ouroboros.

Only humans have full-fledged natural language. We may see certain embryonic forms of it, e.g. in dolphin communication, which appears to include personal names.

If they do, they will rule over a wasted Earth. I do think cephalopods may be candidates for personhood - but it is tricky to assess, since their cognition is so distributed across their bodies it’s hard to imagine a shared frame of reference with them.

Look up “natural language.”

I don’t actually have to. Whatever cognitive organization enables the kinds of cognitive powers I mentioned for sapients, suffices to make an animal a person. And whatever cognitive organization enables the possession of natural language suffices to make an animal a categorical person. The cognitive capacities themselves can be a black box; we don’t need to know how a computer works, to know that it works.

It is in light of the cognitive capacity for natural language, that we can elaborate concepts of personhood and rights - which as I’ve said, is performatively constitutive of personhood. It is through language that we can self-legislate for ourselves the moral law (or what is the same, recognize ourselves as being not things but ends-in-themselves). The statement of the truth-conditions for rights and personhood doesn’t get crisper than that.

Rights, again, are performatively constituted. Might makes right. And then in its turn, right makes might.

The animals in fact don’t know what a “woman” is. They don’t even know what a female is. But none of that is necessary, to qualify as a person.


The problem here is that we can, indeed, self-legislate.

We can write civil rights documents. We can write a constitution.

Those are just words.

They don’t create a means to manifest those rights in and of themselves.

I live in an African country with the most wonderful constitution and civil rights legislation that you can find anywhere on earth.

Our government is bankrupt. Youth unemployment is about 70%. Most people born now will never have a job, never get educated, just be animals.

In the beginning was the word. But words are cheap.

Rights are the vestige of the privileged.

The more important questions lurk in the understanding of what kind of society provides such rights.

We cannot even talk about animal rights when humans are trampling animals into extinction, just cos homo sapiens is good at surviving pretty much any niche society.

And as humans are good at flourishing anywhere, there will be no rights for those at the edge of existence. Rights are just not something that makes sense in an animal world.

Survive or die will always be the animal or even plant reality.

You westies are way too isolated from life itself. Enjoy your time on earth. It won’t last forever.

You have not created the answer to human or animal existence. You’re just enjoying a bubble of very easy existence in time and space.

So abstract. But usefully. The ultimate end of rights enforcement by the western world is to admit absolute material privilege and give it all up.

Morally that’s the right thing to do. You have no right to be so comfortable compared to most of humanity let alone the rest of the fast dying animal kingdom.

You won’t of course. You’ll write language like every human has a right to XYZ. Every animal has a right to ABC.

Enjoy your fiddling.

Au contraire. Animals have a very strong instinct of sex. They just don’t fart around like you humans do.

It just is.


As Wittgenstein has put it, “words are deeds.” Again, the concept of rights is peformatively constitutive of them. They immediately manifest those rights, because they begin in being always and only where they are asserted. And once they are recognized, they can be recognized to apply a priori even to beings that cannot entertain the concept of them.

Words are not cheap at all, when you consider the kind of energy required for the cognitive organization to produce them. Words are as rare in the universe as categorical persons are - in other words, very rare indeed. You’re just taking all these things for granted. It’s understandable (very human), but we’re trying to think matters through seriously, here.

Westerners have never taken rights for granted. That is why we enjoy more of them, than other peoples in other places.

I haven’t said that auto nomos is the answer to the question of the existence of persons. It is an important part of the answer, but it isn’t the whole answer.

One thing that the West excels at, is making useful abstractions.

Now now. Ressentiment is not a good look. One thing that you non-Westerners still have not grasped, is that wealth-generation is not a zero-sum game. That’s at the core of the reason for many of your practical problems.


Next up: Do Insects Have Rights?

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