Animal Rights and Contractarianism

Koko the gorilla, among other primates, have higher brain functioning than we ever previously expected. Could other organisms have the same capacity to learn and we do not know so yet?

Koko the gorilla, among other primates, have higher brain functioning than we ever previously expected. Could other organisms have the same capacity to learn and we do not know so yet?

Another biocentric thinker who is interested in the preservation of animal rights is Tom Regan, a philosopher who specializes in animal rights theory. He criticizes thinkers that believe in what he calls contractarianism, in which a social contract is signed by individuals that everyone agrees upon. He sees it as a problem that animals cannot sign this contract and are thus left out, alongside the mentally retarded, infants and others. For Regan, the movement of animal rights consists of three goals: the total abolition of the use of animals in science, the total dissolution of commercial animal agriculture and the total elimination of commercial and sport hunting and trapping.

Tom Regan, a philosopher who believes in animal rights

Tom Regan, a philosopher who believes in animal rights, is opposed to contractarianism

Tom Regan maintains, like Singer, that human animals and nonhuman animals (especially mammals) are sentient in that they are self-aware, matter to themselves and have a certain subjectivity. In this worldview he maintains that animals are not mere things but have dignity. The principles that he forms in this worldview then follow and include respecting the dignity of nonhuman animals by treating animals as ends, not means to an end. In reply to people who believe that we have no duties to animals, Regan retorts that we can do wrong acts to them and so we have duties regarding them that include not committing those acts.

Animal cruelty, as was done to this dog, is wrong to Singer despite what is commonly thought of as accepted by society

Animal cruelty, as was done to this dog, is wrong to Singer despite what is commonly thought of as acceptable by society

Regan also refutes Contractarianism under the grounds that it is barely an adequate theoretical approach to the moral status of human beings, so it can hardly be considered to take animals’ status into account. There is nothing in contractarianism that requires that everyone will have a chance to participate equitably in framing the rules of morality and so blatant forms of discrimination could be employed.

Under contractarianism the mentally handicapped, such as these children, would not be treated equally due to their reduced intellect

Under contractarianism the mentally handicapped, such as these children, would not be treated equally due to their reduced intellect

Kantian ethics are often referenced by Regan in his Animal Rights theory, but he outright rejects the idea that rights are only given to rational beings. Like Singer, he believes that all are equal despite their capacity for logic, but unlike Singer he maintains that we have direct duties to beings who do not have a sense of justice. In this he refutes the more subtle version of contractarianism of John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice which does tend to revise previous racist and sexist shortcomings but does not ameliorate speciesist leanings.

Although Regan seems to be contrary to many beliefs he does maintain that there are adequate theories which fit in with his deontological, or duty-based ethics. The first view is the cruelty-kindness view which states that we have a direct duty to animals and a direct duty not to be cruel to them but he maintains that there is no guarantee that the act that you commit is a right act, just that it is a kind one. Another theory that he criticizes, but also acknowledges is a decent beginning is utilitarianism. Utilitarianism seeks to maximize happiness for the greatest number of beings and everyone’s interests have similar importance. However he concludes that although it does look to maximize the best balance of satisfaction for everyone affected it is decidedly immoral because it has no room for the equal moral rights of different individuals simply their equal inherent value.

Although Blue whales may not be perceived as having inherent value to humans, should they be still given the right to live freely?

Although Blue whales may not be perceived as having inherent value to humans, should they be still given the right to live freely?

His final conclusion is that the rights view is the most satisfactory moral theory. Rights theory explains that the foundation of all of our duties lies with the domain of human morality. Animals lack many of the abilities that humans possess but so do some humans and thus animals have that in common with non-ambulatory or persons retarded in growth. All dimensions of human lives make a difference just as the animals that we treat as objects.

Mentally disabled children may be intellectually at the same level as horses, yet mentally disabled children have full rights of their own agency while horses do not

Mentally disabled children may be intellectually at the same level as horses, yet mentally disabled children have full rights of their own agency while horses do not

Following from his moral conclusion Regan, like Singer, maintains his abolitionist leanings and holds that the institutions that enslave animals must be destroyed in order that animals are given treatment equal to human beings such as not being experimented on (for any reason), not forced into agricultural activities, not being consumed by humans, not being enslaved to circuses and other entertainment arenas for animals, and more. In his eyes there is no reconciling the greatest good with any of these activities because there are still individual animals’ lives being infringed upon to pursue the goals of formulating vaccinations.

When Regan discusses Animal Rights he does so from the heart, not from the head as he likes to put it, and so critics’ claims of his philosophy being “too cerebral,” seem to fall right off of him. There is something to be said for noting the depth of emotional grief that humans feel for the factory farmed cow or the caged rats riddled with tumors. This speaks to our conscience and thus imbues us with a duty to care for the creatures that are quite obviously so much more than just resources to be controlled. The views that Singer and Regan hold are certainly not pragmatic. The abolition of all animal experimentation and farming (not quite circuses and rodeos) would be economically devastating as well as likely to cause famine and social unrest in certain parts of the globe as meat would be no longer slaughtered. These laws are uncompromising, and may not happen overnight but Regan argues that they are morally necessary.

Factory Farms provide 99 percent of meat consumed by Americans, so can they be replaced by more humane substitutes?

Factory Farms provide 99 percent of meat consumed by Americans, so can they be replaced by more humane substitutes?

I do agree with Regan’s logic that there is no way that being a rational being is qualifications for being a being with rights to live life. In addition, it makes sense that there is equal footing for animals and people in the sense that both are beings with preferences not to die and want life, not just passive resources. I do not think, however, that it is reasonable or practical to abolish any form of agriculture and I don’t think that the scientific world is ready yet for a systemic overhaul of experimentation without animals because of the limited resources put into alternatives. There is hope for the future, however, because with a push for scientific inquiry as well as an active stance on reaching out to the populace about the viable alternative of vegetarianism, perhaps one day people may choose to create a more humane society. For now, people like Regan must stand up and let the world know that this systemic oppression of beings is wrong and we must revise our way of thinking. Maybe not in my lifetime, but one day we may see the revolution to defend animals from human oppression.

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