Living Beings and Moral Rights

The following was an essay for the course Philosophy 5 at the University of California, Irvine. I thought it would be a waste to let it sit on my hard drive, so here it is:

Being humans, we identify other beings as humans and accept that humans are capable of freedom, decision-making, having basic rights, and participation in ethics. But where do other living beings, like non-human animals, fall in terms of freedom, decision-making, rights, and ethics? Living things do have inherent value simply from being alive; however, living things are subject to levels of rights based on capability. The discussion of this idea will be presented by a presentation of an existing argument, a critical analysis of this argument, and, finally, a new analysis of the idea.

One of the arguments for animals is that everything that is a living being has a common similarity in that they all are experiencing subjects of life and that this similarity secures rights. This idea is presented in Tom Regan’s The Case for Animal Rights. Regan first starts off by saying most people define animal rights under the belief of contractarianism, which is the idea that morality comes from agreement to some sort of ‘rule’. Regan goes on to say that not all humans would have an equal say in what is on this agreement, and some horrible atrocities would be morally right if certain groups agreed on it. For this view, Regan says, contractarianism is moot. The argument then lies in duties, as humans have a “direct duty to be kind to animals and a direct duty not to be cruel to them” (Regan 340). This idea means that humans simply have the moral obligation to be kind, but not cruel, to all animals. In light of not being able to find a sufficient moral theory to satisfy morality and animal rights, Regan simply says that living things have inherent value and that: “we are each of us the experiencing subject of a life, a conscious creature having an individual welfare that has importance” (Regan 343). Because animals can experience feelings, such as pain and pleasure, and have continued existence, from birth to death, animals too are experiencing subjects of life. With the idea that all non-human living things are experiencing life, implying inherent value, Regan concludes that animals, through these means, secure moral rights.

Regan’s The Case for Animal Rights is certainly an argument for non-human animals, and other living beings alike. Since the paper makes such claims, a critical analysis is needed. It is very easy to see that living beings hold value. When we compare living creatures to inanimate objects, it is very easy to tell the difference as living creatures are an order of magnitude more complex and certainly aware of their surroundings. The simple fact that a creature is alive and experiencing is certainly enough to secure some moral rights; however, all living beings are not created equal. It is very obvious that certain creatures are capable of different things, some being more capable than others; a nematode, for example, could not debate its own rights. Regan’s argument does take into account that animals have intrinsic value thus securing moral rights, but does not take into account that certain forms of life can experience more of life. If an animal is more capable, this animal should secure more rights. An elephant possesses more capability than a worm and under Regan’s view, this is not the case. Regan’s account of non-human life does not say where this inherent value in living beings stops. Do individual living cells inside a living being still have the same inherent value as a whole animal, which is simply a collection of cells? Take for example a cancerous tumor inside of a human’s brain. These cancerous cells are certainly living. If they continue to live, they will kill their host, and themselves along with it, but do they still have inherent value? A counter-argument to Regan’s case of animals having moral rights simply because they are living is that animals do not have autonomy, the ability to have free, responsible thought and action. In The Moral Community by Michael Allen Fox, the idea of a moral community is defined as a “social group composed of interacting autonomous beings where moral concepts and precepts can evolve” (Fox 182). Because these animals do not have critical self-awareness and autonomy as living beings, it stands to reason that animals are not a part of this moral community, and thus do not secure moral rights just by living. Only autonomous and aware beings, like humans, have inherent value. Fox reasons this argument by explaining that since animals cannot understand morality or rights, they will not respect other living being’s rights, and thus cannot have rights. Regan’s argument is certainly convincing since there is something valuable about life, but the reaction, by Fox, to this argument is that living beings must be autonomous to secure moral rights.

The two conflicting sides to the question of living beings and moral rights have been presented and both are convincing arguments. With such a multitude of types of living beings in existence, one blanket philosophy for securing moral rights does not work. Rather, a more complete answer to this question is to combine the two sides of the arguments of Regan and Fox’s arguments. Living beings have life, and because of this, they have at least one right: their own right to life. It stands then that living beings do have inherent value, and do secure at least one right simply by experiencing life. Even with this idea, there is still a very obvious difference from a moral perspective between humans and other animals. Humans are the only known living beings to have, what Fox calls, critical self-awareness and autonomy. Because of these traits, humans are more capable of having more rights than an animal without these traits. A human, for example, understands the concepts of past, present, and future, and can determine and plan how they want the future to be. Under this example, humans then have the right to self-determination. Moral rights are secured by living beings simply by experiencing life, but more rights are secured with capabilities such as autonomy or self-awareness.

With the issue of moral rights, there simply is not one single moral theory to describe the solution. Tom Regan’s The Case for Animal Rights argues that all animals, including humans, are simply alike, and it is the similarity of experiencing life that secures these living things their rights. Michael Allen Fox, on the other hand, says that to have moral rights, one must be able to understand morality, and thus traits like autonomy are needed to secure rights. Both of these arguments are sound, but the solution lies in between them. Moral rights are secured simply by a living beings inherent value, but more rights should be attributed based on capability like autonomy.

An essay by Alec Kriebel

Works Cited

Regan, Tom. The Case for Animal Rights. Berkeley: U of California, 1983. 336-344. Print.

Fox, Michael Allen, and Hugh LaFollette. "The Moral Community." Ethics in Practice: An Anthology. 3rd ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1997. 181-191. Print.