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Do animals possess moral rights? Essay

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Updated: Jan 28th, 2019

The question as to whether animals possess moral rights has triggered a fierce debate ever since the Darwinian ages. Critics such as Tom Regan have criticized the use of animals in human research and experiments on grounds that it violates the moral rights of animals.

However, such arguments have been challenged by another side of moral philosophy that argues that non-human animals lack moral worth, and therefore, cannot demand any moral obligation towards them. These arguments can only be addressed to a satisfactory level by analyzing the aspects of humans that elevates humanity to a higher moral status that supersedes that of other animals.

Carl Cohen argues that animals cannot be given the same moral considerations because they lack independent moral will, and therefore, they cannot claim moral rights. Cohen, however, disputes that, animals’ lack of rights cannot be used by humans to alleviate themselves some obligation to animals because obligation is not necessarily based on a right.

To say that an animal should be given moral consideration signifies that those who recognize moral claims have a duty to reciprocate the same to other beings that share the same qualities. The main question that arises out of this argument is that, can animals be wronged in any way that can be said to be morally relevant? It is widely believed that only humans possess emotions and are, therefore, the only beings that can make claims on any moral grounds.

Those such as Cohen who argue against animal rights, base their arguments largely on the perceived none sentient nature of non-human animals. Cohen concludes that because animals do not have the ability to comprehend the rules of moral duty and cannot exercise claims against others, they do not have any moral rights.

Accepting the claims presented by Cohen would mean a justification for humanity to subject animals to acts that cause suffering, discomfort, pain, and even death. Opposing these views is Tom Regan who presents a radical egalitarian argument for animal rights.

He argues that animals that are exploited by humans for various uses have a life of their own that plays some importance to them other than just being resources for human beings. They have a sense of their environment and they have individual, biological, and social needs, which when violated, subject them to pain or deprive them of pleasure. Regan holds the view that it is fundamentally wrong for humans to use animals for food, experiments, research, and in any other way that treats animals as resources.

Regan’s views are quite radical, while Cohen’s argument that moral rights can only be claimed by those who recognize them and can understand the related rules is inadequate. This means that even those humans who are unable to comprehend moral contracts, for example, mentally unstable persons, cannot claim moral rights, and other humans similarly do not have a moral duty towards them.

Cohen fails to address this challenge. It is also unfounded to argue that animals do not feel pain or pleasure. Because humans do not understand how some animals express their emotions is not qualified to justify the argument that such animals lack emotions.

Humans are very different in a variety of ways from other animals, as well as within themselves as a species. However, these differences cannot be used as a philosophical defense to deny moral consideration to non-human animals. Humans have a duty to treat other animals with respect and dignity because duties are not necessarily based on moral right.

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