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8.2.08

Are there any serious intellectual counterarguments to animal rights?

I would be very interested in finding one, because my academic reading on the subject (which is admittedly at the equivalent of "one-semester seminar" level, not "comprehensive exams" level) has failed to turn up any. (I'm defining "animal rights" broadly here as any position that grants animals enough consideration to make it impermissible for humans to raise and slaughter them for food under normal circumstances, even if they don't get full equality or "rights" sensu strictu.)

The point has been brought home as I read Cass Sunstein and Martha Nussbaum's recent edited volume Animal Rights. One would think that two scholars of their intellectual capacity and international renown would be able to solicit the strongest available pieces to include in their book. And since the book came out in 2006, they can draw on the very latest thinking on an issue that has commanded great public attention (unlike, say, someone trying to find rebuttals a year after Animal Liberation was published). And they've certainly found some scholarly heavyweights, with no less than Richard Posner writing one of the anti-animal-rights chapters. Nevertheless, at the halfway point of my reading, the results from the antis are almost laughable.

The aforementioned article by Posner, for example, is largely an appeal to intuition. Posner says that his instincts tell him that eating meat is fine, and therefore he refuses to grant any normative weight to philosophical arguments that might run counter to his inclinations. Peter Singer has a response chapter that pretty effectively demolishes the absurdity of Posner's attempt to create an argument against arguments. Singer doesn't mention that Posner fails in the opposite direction as well. He as much as admits that by his own reasoning, slavery and women-as-property were truly moral as long as (some ill-defined group of) people instinctively thought they were OK. If Posner is right that animal rights arguments are likely to be impotent in the face of our carnivorous intuitions, then surely his brand of slavery-excusing crude moral relativism is likely to be even more impotent in the face of our instinct that moral rules mean something*.

A later article by Richard Epstein (maybe it's something about the name "Richard" ...) is even worse. I can barely make out what, if anything, he's arguing. The strategy of the article seems to be to throw out any half-baked seeming problem or not-immediately-obviously-answered question prompted by the animal rights idea, hoping that one of them sticks. The best developed of them is the absurd assertion (disguised a bit by focusing on domestic cats -- which, contrary to an apparently popular view among animal rights opponents, not all animal rights proponents are opposed to -- rather than, say, factory farmed cows) that animals are happier being exploited by humans than running wild. I have an uncharitable mental image of Epstein red-faced and stammering at having an unthinking assumption challenged, flailing about for some rebuttal that will allow him to restore his previous mental balance**.

As it happens, I have actually encountered some intellectually serious counterarguments to animal rights. But they're not going to be of much help to most people who would like to see the animal rights position rebutted, because they come from radical ecocentrists. Their argument is not that animals don't count, but that so many other things -- trees, ecosystems, geological formations, the process of evolution itself -- do count that the model of interests and rights that we accord to humans and that animal rights proponents want to extend to animals becomes unworkable. (Most of these ecocentrists, out of fear of being labeled "ecofascists" who might countenance massive human die-offs if it were necessary to protect nature, pull their punches by retaining such a traditional rights-scheme for intra-human matters -- but they thereby expose themselves to the animal rights argument at that point within their larger system.)

There are certainly silly arguments made by ecocentrists (for example, Holmes Rolston III, one of the leading ecocentrists, has tried to argue that eating meat is morally good because it gives us another route through which we can interact with nature). But they at least seem to be making an attempt to engage with animal rights as a serious position, unlike the "but eating meat feels so right!" whining of committed anthropocentrists like Posner.

*Posner's chapter does give me further evidence for my long-standing suspicion that conservative hyperventilating about leftist moral relativism is of the "doth protest too much" variety, since when pressed conservatives seem so willing to resort to patently relativist invocations of intuition and tradition.

**Epstein does have one good early point, which is that animal rights authors' frequent claims that animals, slaves, and inanimate property have been treated precisely the same are false. But showing that the law did not in fact see horses as precisely identical to cars is only a tiny step toward making a case that the further protections animal rights proponents are asking for are unjustified.

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