The Prospects for Consensus and Convergence in the Animal Rights Debate

By Varner, Gary E. | The Hastings Center Report, January-February 1994 | Go to article overview

The Prospects for Consensus and Convergence in the Animal Rights Debate


Varner, Gary E., The Hastings Center Report


Controversies over the use of nonhuman animals (hence-forth animals) for science, nutrition, and recreation are often presented as clear-cut standoffs, with little or no common ground between opposing factions and, consequently, with little or no possibility for consensus-formation. As a philosopher studying these controversies, my sense is that the apparent intransigence of opposing parties is more a function of political posturing than theoretical necessity, and that continuing to paint the situation as a clear-cut standoff serves the interests of neither side. A critical look at the philosophical bases of the animal rights movement reveals surprising potential for convergence (agreement at the level of policy despite disagreement at the level of moral theory) and, in some cases, consensus (agreement at both levels).[1] Recognizing this should make defenders of animal research take animal rights views more seriously and could refocus the animal rights debate in a constructive way.

In response to the growth of the animal rights movement, animal researchers have begun to distinguish between animal lights views and animal welfare views, but they have not drawn the distinction the way a philosopher would. Researchers typically stress two differences between animal welfarists and animal rightists. First, welfarists argue for reforms in research involving animals, whereas rightists argue for the total abolition of such research. Second, welfarists work within the system, whereas rightists advocate using theft, sabotage, or even violence to achieve their ends. A more philosophical account of the animal rights/animal welfare distinction cuts the pie very differently, revealing that many researchers agree with some animal rights advocates at the level of moral theory, and that, even where they differ dramatically at the level of moral theory, there is some potential for convergence at the level of policy.

Animal Welfare: The Prospects for Consensus

Peter Singer's Animal Liberation is the acknowledged Bible of the animal rights movement. Literally millions of people have been moved to vegetarianism or animal activism as a result of reading this book. PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) distributed the first edition of the book as a membership premium, and the number of copies in print has been cited as a measure of growth in the animal rights movement. However, Singer wrote Animal Liberation for popular consumption, and in it he intentionally avoided discussion of complex philosophical issues.[2] In particular, he avoided analyzing the concepts of 'rights' and harm,' and these concepts are crucial to drawing the animal rights/animal welfare distinction in philosophical terms.

In Animal Liberation, Singer spoke loosely of animals having moral "rights," but all that he intended by this was that animals (at least some of them) have some basic moral standing and that there are right and wrong ways of treating them. In later, more philosophically rigorous work--summarized in his Practical Ethics, a second edition of which has just been issued[3]--he explicitly eschews the term rights, noting that, as a thoroughgoing utilitarian, he must deny not only that animals have moral rights, but also that human beings do.

When moral philosophers speak of an individual "having moral rights," they mean something much more specific than that the individual has some basic moral standing and that there are right and wrong ways of treating him or her. Although there is much controversy as to the specifics, there is general agreement on this: to attribute moral rights to an individual is to assert that the individual has some kind of special moral dignity, the cash value of which is that certain things cannot justifiably be done to him or her (or it) for the sake of benefit to others. For this reason, moral rights have been characterized as "trump cards" against utilitarian arguments. Utilitarian arguments are based on aggregate benefits and aggregate harms. …

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