Ethics@Work: Animal rights: Are they good for people?

Cain's concern for animals resulted in his refusing to slaughter animals but killing his own brother.

Business ethics 88 (photo credit: )
Business ethics 88
(photo credit: )
Last week I wrote about Leona Helmsley's will, which left large sums for the care of animals. I claimed that it is technically as well as ethically impossible to actually bequeath the money directly to the animals. Technically, because animals don't have any legal standing; ethically because this technicality reflects the ethical reality that animals are unable to communicate their desires and therefore any human judgment regarding their welfare is necessarily conjectural. This week we will learn that my point of view is not universally accepted, at least among people. A prolonged legal battle is raging in Austria to get a 26-year-old chimpanzee named Pan declared a person, so that he may obtain a court-appointed guardian and hold property in his own name. An Austrian judge ruled earlier this year that apes are not humans, but a group of humans is appealing to the European Court of Human Rights on Pan's behalf. And just a few weeks ago a parliamentary committee in Spain supported a bill that would give rights to great apes, making it illegal to deprive them of life and liberty. Thus, it would be illegal to use them in medical experiments or in films or circuses in Spain. Technically, these provisions don't give animals rights; they only impose duties on human beings as is done all over the world. Animal-abuse statutes in many countries (though not in Spain) outlaw bullfighting, but that doesn't mean that bulls have rights. However, the rhetoric of the Spanish bill is a rhetoric of rights, and its supporters are vocally promoting an agenda of giving rights to great apes, and ultimately to other species. As I have written before, there are two main ethical approaches to animal rights. The openly anthropocentric Kantian view states that cruelty to animals is bad only because it cultivates negative character traits in human interactions. The utilitarian approach states that animals are subject to feelings of pleasure and pain just as humans are, even if not at the same level, and therefore their welfare should count in our overall effort to foster well-being. Today's animal-rights movement is strongly influenced by the utilitarian approach; a leading figure in the movement is the orthodox-utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer of Princeton, who asserts that great apes have the same cognitive level as human children and should therefore be granted comparable rights. I perceive a philosophical fallacy in the activists' position. They speak in the absolutist rhetoric of rights, yet the underpinning of their approach is utilitarianism, a philosophy of expediency that is ultimately incompatible with rights. So it is inconsistent to use a utilitarian philosophy to grant quasi-human status to animals, and thence to extend them quasi-human rights. Here is a concrete example of the paradox: Animal-rights activists seek to use animals' capacity for pleasure and pain to protect them from being used in medical experiments. Yet utilitarianism affirms the legitimacy of performing medical experiments even on humans, if the medical benefit obtained from the research outweighs the harm caused to the subject. Peter Singer, the main philosophical authority behind the animal-rights movement, acknowledges this; his proposed standard for animal experimentation is "asking experimenters who use animals if they would be prepared to carry out their experiments on human beings at a similar mental level." What does this mean for humans? The animal-rights movement has the potential to elevate our ethical sensitivity toward humans, because if we set the bar at a certain level for animals, we will be inclined to raise it even higher for humans. But it also has the potential to degrade our ethical sensitivity toward humans. Making the statement that humans and animals are ethically comparable can legitimate treatment of people that would previously have been acceptable only toward beasts, or to promote animal welfare at the expense or neglect of human welfare. Interestingly, an interpretation of Rabbi Avraham Kook places this dilemma behind the Biblical story of Cain and Abel. Abel brought an animal sacrifice; this angered Cain, who viewed it as an unethical violation of the animal's right to life. Unfortunately, Cain's concern for animals did not elevate his concern for humans but rather degraded it, and the result was that while he refused to slaughter animals he ended up slaughtering his own brother. I oppose causing gratuitous suffering to animals. But I find the current direction of the animal rights movement extremely worrisome. Philosophical consistency will inevitably lead to either prohibiting invaluable medical research on animals or to permitting it among humans without their consent; animal rights activists also weigh the relative ethical importance of animal and human suffering in a way I consider quite lopsided. At an ethics conference I attended, a "care ethics" advocate took pains to emphasize that she would save her pets from a burning building rather than save a neighbor's baby. (This scandalized an orthodox Kantian also present at the conference.) The best way to promote animal welfare is to impose clearly defined obligations on people to prevent gratuitous suffering, as is done in Israel. Extending the rhetoric or the legal framework of rights to animals will be dangerous for people. Asher Meir is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem (, an independent institute in the Jerusalem College of Technology.