I say that claims about moral rights for other animals are dubious. What do I mean? I mean, simply, that about all the accounts I’ve read that purport to establish a case for animals’ moral rights, I have doubts. Not one of those accounts is entirely convincing. Either because an account presents little in the way of argument, or because an account requires that one accept a postulate that can’t be proved, or because an account moves without foundation from a claim about how animals are to how humans must act towards them, or because of another reason, no work of any philosopher or theorist has established beyond doubt in my mind that nonhuman animals have moral rights.
Is the standard “beyond doubt” too stringent? Perhaps it is, but to say that the standard is too stringent doesn’t mean that the arguments I’m referring to would no longer be dubious. It would only be to say that, even though those arguments are dubious, I would do well to accept them nonetheless. I might be able to live with that. If people want to say, even though no one has established that other animals have moral rights, the world would be a better place if we all acted as if someone had established that animals do have moral rights, then that might be a convenient fiction that we’d be better off adopting. I think we can make the world a better place without resorting to convenient fictions based on dubious claims, but perhaps it would be easier to resort to them.
Does any of this mean that I am an enemy of the animal rights movement? To those who think that the only people who belong in the animal rights movement are those people who believe that other animals have moral rights, perhaps I am an enemy.
But, of course, it’s silly to think that the only people who belong in the animal rights movement are the people who believe in moral rights for other animals.
Most people who consider themselves part of the animal rights movement are unlikely to have any views about moral rights carefully worked out. Arguments meant to establish the existence of moral rights are not easy things to work out. That is to say, most people are likely to think of the phrase “animal rights” as a generic term that means “care and concern for the lives of animals” or “animals shouldn’t be needlessly killed” or some such. It’s unlikely that most people think that “animal rights” means what philosophers and theorists think it means. If my doubts about the moral rights of other animals makes me an enemy of the animal rights movement, then the movement has lots of enemies within its ranks. (I will leave aside the question of who it is that gets to decide which people can claim membership in the animal rights movement. – as far as I know, there’s no application process or selection committee.)
If other people think the case for the rights of other animals is beyond doubt, I think they’re either mistaken or confused. Even Tom Regan, who wrote the book on animal rights, accepts that well-informed and intelligent people of good will may doubt the case he argues for. If Tom Regan can accept that the case for animal rights is dubious, then it can’t be too much of a problem that a person such as myself has doubts about it too.
Although the case for animals’ moral rights was once convincing to me, it no longer is. However, though I doubt the arguments about moral rights, I don’t doubt that lives and well-being of other animals matter. It’s for the lives and well-being of animals that the animal rights movement will be concerned, whether or not all the people within the movement are convinced by dubious claims about moral rights.