What a Prominent Columnist’s Tweet Tells Us About Our Approach To Animal Rights

Quite a while ago, I was reading a scathing piece on the celebration of Labor Day by NRO’s Kevin Williamson. After making it amply clear that he’s no fan of unions, he went on to take a swipe at animal rights activists, calling them “animal-rights nuts.”

Being someone who supports animal rights myself, I contacted Kevin on Twitter to register my objection and share with him an excellent pro-animal rights piece by a conservative Matthew Scully, a former speechwriter for George Bush and Paul Ryan.

His immediate response was to denounce Scully’s views, but what he said upon being prodded further was especially revealing.

Now, what does his shooting animals for fun have anything to do with them having rights? (Leave aside the ludicrous proposition that one can’t be cruel to non-human sentient beings.) If animals do, in fact, have rights, it would just mean that he’d been grossly violating them, not that they can’t possibly exist! After all, humans have been brutalized and subjected to all kinds of horror throughout history. That is not used as evidence against the existence of human rights (rightly so). Possessing rights does not automatically protect someone from violence.

There’s a reason I am highlighting and showing the problem with this particular bit of reasoning. What he said so openly is one reason people are so reluctant to accept the fact that animals, like humans, have rights. This is a typical response of a non-vegan:

“How could a pig have rights? I ate bacon just this morning. In fact, almost everyone eats bacon.”

Even if many don’t articulate it explicitly, this is how they seem to think. Now, it’s not as if animal rights have not been established enough by moral philosophers. Consider the very powerful Argument from Marginal Cases expressed by David Graham in the form of a dialogue between an opponent and a proponent of animal rights:

Opponent of animal rights: How can you say that animals have rights? It’s impossible.

Proponent of animal rights: Why?

Opponent: For one thing, animals can’t reason. They can’t be held responsible for their actions. To have rights, you must have these capacities.

Proponent: Wait a minute. Infants can’t reason. Does that mean it’s open season on babies?

Opponent: Of course not. Infants will be able to reason someday. We must treat them as prospective rights-holders.

Proponent: But what if the infant is terminally ill and has only six months to live? What about a person who was born with part of his brain missing and has the mental capacity of a pig? What about a senile person? Is it OK to kill, eat, and otherwise use these people for our own ends, just as we now use pigs?

Opponent: Well . . . let me think about that.

Welcome to the Argument from Marginal Cases.

So, in short, if you want to deny animals rights on the (very popular) basis that they can’t and will never be able to reason, you’d have to also deny any rights to a terminally ill infant. Same is the case with a mentally deficient adult. This shows that setting the bar at rationality yields nonsensical outcomes. The only way out is to accept that rights depend on sentience, the ability to feel pain or experience sensations.

Then, there is this non-objection objection repeated endlessly: “humans evolved to eat other animals, just as lions evolved to eat deer.” There’s a name for this kind of faulty reasoning: “appeal to nature” or “naturalistic fallacy.” The thing is the way humans or other species evolved tells us nothing about what we ought to do. It does not tell us what behavior is moral and what is not.

Many people steal, lie, rape and murder. Many species engage in infanticide and cannibalism. Notice how that is never invoked to derive a system of morality. No one ever says in these cases, “it’s natural, so it must be morally okay.” We realize that we have all sorts of tendencies; being ethical involves realizing which of our actions harm others and curbing them.

So, it’s not as if there is any intellectual objection to the concept of animal rights that keeps a large number of people from accepting its validity. Instead, it’s the more mundane fact that seeing so many animals used, tortured and killed for human convenience somehow makes it harder to accept that they could have rights. (Also, isn’t it just plain convenient?)

This isn’t a unique situation: when blacks were owned as slaves, anyone saying that they possess the same rights as whites would be laughed at. It would be just as obvious that blacks are meant to be owned and used, like it is now to own and use animals. It is baffling that many fail to see the obvious parallel here. (If you are saying, “but blacks are humans, these are animals,” you are falling prey to the same kind of essentialism that the racists employed; sentience matters, not attributes such as species and race.)

In a world where most of the meat and dairy products come from extremely cruel factory farms, the only moral thing to do is to expand our circle of empathy: to recognize that it’s wrong to use animals for our selfish ends, to go vegan and thus stop participating in and funding this violence.

It’s not even difficult once you see a pig or a chicken the way you see your dog:


Want to know more about how animals are treated in farms? Watch this 60-second video of treatment of pigs, or this award-winning documentary Earthlings. You can also read this informative post at What I Vegan.

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13 thoughts on “What a Prominent Columnist’s Tweet Tells Us About Our Approach To Animal Rights

  1. wadenewb

    This was extremely well-written and argued. As a recently-turned vegan, it’s very appreciated to read a reasoned response to anti-vegans. Thanks! I’ve followed you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pork Pie Hat

    A vegan who likes to argue, what a surprise.

    Fundamentalist Hindus standing on a box yelling that everyone else has to follow their religion are no better than Christians or Muslims doing the same.


  3. jason

    Pretty weak argument with an awful lot of base-stealing going on. A strong argument doesn’t rely on contrived exceptions (terminally ill baby, brain-damaged human.) The fact that you were wowed by such silly thinking speaks volumes of your reasoning style. When you possess an intellectual position you are unwilling to give up, you’ll cling to any false shred that appears to support your position.

    Read “The Righteous Mind” for more details on how you are being fooled by your own emotional biases rather than employing logic. It happens all the time to folks trying to defend something they believe in.


      1. jason

        Your argument goes like this (quoting from above.)

        “So, in short, if you want to deny animals rights on the (very popular) basis that they can’t and will never be able to reason, you’d have to also deny any rights to a terminally ill infant. Same is the case with a mentally deficient adult. This shows that setting the bar at rationality yields nonsensical outcomes. The only way out is to accept that rights depend on sentience, the ability to feel pain or experience sensations.”

        You make no logical connection explaining why you MUST deny rights to a terminally ill infant. A terminally ill infant is not an animal, even it you want to argue that they will both never be able to reason. An infant, even one that will never be able to reason (due to terminal condition) is still in the CLASS of those that do reason or will be able to reason one day. We don’t exclude an individual member of that class from having rights simply due to a disability. Graham makes a weak and tendentious case that you accept as gospel because it supports your position. If you want to say that terminally ill babies and animals have equal access to rights simply due to an inability to reason, you’re gonna have to come up with a lot more that that.


      2. Why infer the class as human and not let’s say mammal? Many mammals have ability to reason and some don’t. Why should that not lead us to the conclusion that all mammals have rights? (The class could be still wider or even narrower.)

        Basing the negative right not to be killed on ability to reason doesn’t make sense anyways. There are beings which can’t reason but have rights.

        Also, see http://youtu.be/ti-WcnqUwLM

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Me_10

        You can’t infer mammal rights from human because the latter is a subclass with specific distinguishing characteristics. Suggesting the rights in question should be extended based on more general commonalities ignores the more critical, specific differences that are connected to the rights in question.

        Your restatement of your argument at the end ignores that rights are conferred to classes of beings. There’s a reason we speak of “human rights” as opposed to “rights for thinking reasoning humans” or “currently thinking-human rights.”


  4. Me_10

    The Argument from Marginal Cases is flawed because it attempts to transfer rights based on normative classifications (such as reasoning humans) to classes who not exhibit those norms (animals incapable of significant reasoning) by pointing to exception in the former class (humans who are disabled to the point of being unable to reason). The problem is that human children disabled to the point of being unable to reason have reasoning parents and family. Aside from the handicap in question, they are members of the class whose normative capabilities connect them to the rights in question. It is precisely this idea that some exception or marginal attribute equates them to classes not currently endowed with such rights that has been used to deny certain classes of humans rights throughout history. In other words, by suggesting that certain humans are like animals in regards to reasoning or other attributes (suggestions often spurious or bigoted when made in other circumstances) we ignore that it is the common normative characteristics that define us as human or not, not marginal exceptions. Doing so makes a shambles of the ontological nature/definition of humanity (as seen with abortion, euthanasia of the handicapped, and other usurpation of human rights based on these marginal exceptions).

    To use your other example, the senile were once capable of reason – they once met the normative standard. We would no more consider them for food than we would the deceased, who are also no longer cognizant and reasoning. We not consider them in such a way, not because of their individual or temporal capacity for reason, but because they are members of a class of beings for whom the normative standards are reasoning, and the corresponding rights.

    *All of this still applies regardless of the normative specifics, as reason is but one of a few characteristics applied to distinguish humans from animals – altruism, moral choice, etc. Which is to say one might cherry pick a particular characteristic and attempt to associate it beyond humans. But humans are not defined by one single distinguishing characteristic.


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