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Can an Animal Have Rights and Still Be Dinner?

The answer is a very qualified yes.
(Photo: stockcreations/Shutterstock)

(Photo: stockcreations/Shutterstock)

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a four-part series on the philosophical defenses of eating animals. Read the first, “Can Eating Meat Be Ethical,” here.

The phrase “animal rights” gets tossed around a lot these days. More often than not it’s mentioned in the context of Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation. But it really shouldn’t be—and those who reflect on the ethics of meat eating should understand why. Singer’s case against eating animals, influential as it is, never grants animals rights. It only acknowledges that sentient animals have morally significant interests and that, as a result, we should make decisions whereby the greatest good is achieved for the greatest number.

As I pointed out in my last column, the utilitarian calculus has two implications for meat eating. One, it makes eating meat sourced from agriculture pretty much a moral impossibility—the pleasure of taste can never outweigh the suffering of slaughter. Two, in its denial of inherent rights to animals, utilitarianism creates space for other forms of ethical meat consumption—so long as overall goodness is maximized (which, I argue, it can be).

Because of this latter loophole, “ethical vegans”—vegans who believe it’s always morally wrong to eat animals—often ditch Singer’s utilitarianism in favor of a rights-based approach to animal ethics. The defining text for this position is Tom Regan’s the Case for Animal Rights, an admirably readable and persuasive argument underscored by a key premise: Animals who are “the subject of a life” have intrinsic moral worth. That intrinsic moral worth grants to animals valid claims against being harmed. This includes, for starters, being killed and eaten for dinner by hungry humans.

There’s one notable exception to this dictum, and it’s often illuminated through something called “the lifeboat case.” The lifeboat case refers to a real life legal incident (from 1884) in which three people stranded on a raft 1,000 miles at sea killed a forth crew member in order to eat him and, in turn, save their lives. Drawing on this case, Regan qualifies the one circumstance in which an animal’s rights can be justifiably violated:

Provided that all those involved are treated with respect, and assuming that no special considerations obtain, any innocent individual has the right to act to avoid being made worse-off even if doing so harms other innocents.

Of course (except in the rarest circumstances) raising an animal for its flesh is no lifeboat situation. In fact, raising any animal for its flesh is ipso facto an example of granting “special consideration” (as in “you, chicken, will be fattened and slaughtered so I can have chicken salad”). As such, it seems impossible to ever morally justify eating an animal within a rights-based framework.

But is this always true? Can we eat animals, honor their rights and be ethically consistent?


The answer is a very qualified yes. But first, a clarifying note.

The reason why I think it’s critical to highlight the possible philosophical justifications for eating meat is twofold. First, it enables otherwise thoughtful consumers to avoid such flimsy excuses for eating animals as “it’s a personal choice” or “death is just one day” or “meat tastes good.” Two, and relatedly, it offers ethical justifications that are not only consistent with rational moral reasoning, but may even allow us to be conscientious carnivores without violating basic moral logic or being reduced to saying, “I know it’s wrong to eat meat but it’s too hard to give it up so I’m going to eat it anyway!”

It’s with these goals in mind that we can interrogate the rights-based argument against eating animals. Carl Cohen, a philosopher at the University of Michigan, has dedicated much of his work to this task. He argues that "animals cannot be the bearers of rights, because the concept of rights is essentially human; it is rooted in the human moral world and has force and applicability only within that world." He bases this assessment on the idea that “the holders of rights must have the capacity to comprehend the rules of duty, governing all including themselves.”

Animals who are “the subject of a life” have intrinsic moral worth. That intrinsic moral worth grants to animals valid claims against being harmed.

Seems fair enough. But the deeper problem with Cohen’s rejection of animal rights (and thus permission to eat them) is that it denies rights to marginal human cases—infants, the severely mentally infirm, the senile—none of whom “have the capacity to comprehend the rules of duty” but nonetheless maintain (most rational people would agree) basic rights.

But Cohen’s argument goes further. He also challenges the idea of animal rights by bringing wild animals into the picture. In a 2004 essay published in Food for Thought: The Debate Over Eating Meat, he argues that, if animals had rights, then our obligation to reduce animal suffering in the wild would be just as relevant as our obligation to reduce the suffering of domesticated animals. Because the proposition of micromanaging all wildlife to ameliorate animal suffering is obviously absurd, Cohen concludes that animals do not, in fact, have rights.

But this move, too, doesn’t fully convince. Cohen is correct that the rights of wild animals do not include the right to be unharmed—the deer has no right to be unharmed by the coyote. Nonetheless, the deer’s intrinsic moral worth is hardly erased because a coyote can kill it with amoral sangfroid. And as long as that moral worth remains intact, human obligations to respect those rights also remains intact, an obligation that includes, among others, not hunting that deer (except for the purposes of survival).

Because Cohen’s argument never undermines the claim that a deer has a right not to be shot by bubbas with high-register weaponry drinking Budweiser in a blind hovering over a corn feeder, hunting animals within a rights-based framework remains unethical.

There is, of course, a long tradition of scholarly defenses of the hunt—from Roger Scruton to Tovar Cerulli—which propose a form of hunting more refined than the bubba-beer model. They suggest a primitive hunting ethic in which human hunters enter the predatory/pray matrix in a way that’s more coyote-like. In their idealized version of the ethical hunt, the time-honored pursuit requires skill, risk, endurance, and minimal impact on the ecosystem. One could further fetishize this vision and obligate hunters to hunt with primitive tools, pursue larger and older animals, and kill in a way that enhances biodiversity, wasting nothing in the process. (I recently profiled a guy who did just that.)

It all sounds fairly OK. But there’s something critical to note here: To promote this kinder, gentler vision of hunting, Cerulli and Scruton must deny, with Cohen (and Haines), that animals lack rights. And none of them, as I read them, ever effectively explain precisely how those rights disappeared. Thus the problem of ethical inconsistency remains.


Which brings us back to square one. Where does this leave the ethical consumer hoping to acknowledge that animals have rights while still eating some meat? Barring a lifeboat case situation, domesticated animal agriculture as it’s now practiced is out of the question. And hunting, no matter how refined the approach, seems to be out as well.

But there are other options, at least two of which thread the needle, allowing (as with utilitarianism) a highly qualified kind of meat consumption that, while it may seem far afield of how we eat today, absolves us from willingly engaging in an act we otherwise consider wrong.

The first and less realistic way is to replace hunting with scavenging. Scavenging for wild animals is a non-exploitative method of obtaining animal flesh. Hominids have been doing it for over two million years and evidence suggests that we were better scavengers than hunters, with the advent of fire made scavenging even more popular because cooking reduced pathogens.

Barring a lifeboat case situation, domesticated animal agriculture as it’s now practiced is out of the question.

As one summary of scavenging explained, “it was entirely feasible for early humans living on the African savanna ... to acquire enough calories simply by lying in wait and scavenging the remains of prey left by lions or big saber-toothed cats after they finished eating the first cuts.”

Today, there are peripheral groups of neo-scavengers. They’re “freegans” who raid dumpsters in urban areas, seekers of roadkill in rural areas, adventure eaters discussing scavenging in the wild as an option even acceptable to vegetarians, and the severely impoverished. These groups comprise a decimal dust portion of the population, as scavenging fits poorly into modern lifestyle and certainly comes with health risks. But scavenging, I’d argue, still makes the cut.

A more achievable and safer option would be to do something closer to agriculture as we now know it: domesticate the scavenger hunt. That is, raise animals—preferably ruminants—on limited pasture with the utmost attention to their welfare, allow them a life free of human exploitation, feed them natural diets in appropriate habitats, allow them to die a natural death, and then, and only then, consume them.

Yes, it’s an out there proposal. It will mean less profit, less meat, tougher meat, and meat from an animal that, if you happen to participate in its rearing, you will know very well and may have a hard time eating for emotional reasons.

No one said granting animals rights and, at the same time, eating them would be an ethical picnic.

But it is possible.

The Things We Eat is a regular Pacific Standard column from James McWilliams on food, agriculture, and the American diet.