There are many people around the world who believe that it is ethically wrong to carry out medical research using animals. At the center of this belief is usually an assumption that animals have, or deserve, rights. Few would contend that animal should have a right to vote, or a right to a minimum level of education, or even a right to own property; however animal rights activists do believe that animals have a right to life. In their defence, many activists bring up a quote by Jeremy Bentham:
“The question is not, Can they reason?, nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? Why should the law refuse its protection to any sensitive being?” – Bentham (1789) – An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation.
However, Bentham neglects to explain why suffering should be a basis for rights. Central to this question is that of “What grants rights?”
What grants humans rights?
Rights are a human invention used to moderate human social interaction. Before humans there were no rights, as one must be able to understand the concept in order to follow it. It is the human faculty of reason and reflection, often called sapience, which has allowed us to create concepts such as rights and duties, guilt and innocence, and right and wrong. The pairings of these words is important, and this can be illustrated by looking at a common animal rights misconception, “The animals in research are innocent”.
Animals (in research or otherwise) are no more innocent than they are guilty. In order to be guilty an entity must have a choice of actions, and, knowing the difference between right and wrong, must choose to act out the immoral (“wrong”) action. Animals do not have the autonomous facilities which would allow them to be morally responsible for their actions. We would not accuse a cat of murder when it kills a mouse, or even when a lion killed another of its own specie. Animals are amoral beings, meaning they stand outside the concept of morality, right and wrong, and thus, rights.
Much the same applies to humans. A person who, due to severely diminished mental capacity, does not know right from wrong, and who commits a crime (say, murder), can plead “not guilty by reason of insanity” (insanity is defined as being unable to tell right from wrong at the time of the crime). He/she may be committed to a mental institution as being a danger to society, but will not be guilty of the crime.
It is the power for entirely autonomous thought and action which grants rights to human, uniquely among all animals. However there is more to the advent of rights. With a right comes a duty. My right and your right not to be arbitrarily killed are fundamentally linked to your duty, and my duty, not to arbitrarily kill someone else. My right to property hinges on my duty not to steal from other people. Before civic society came about, humans were free of any laws preventing them from killing each other, however killing your neighbor would justify your neighbor’s friend in killing you. So an unuttered agreement formed that said “if I don’t kill you, you don’t kill me”, and the beginnings of society could come about.
Animals cannot partake in any agreement.They cannot understand the duties required of them that would allow them to receive the protection that rights would offer them.
Bentham would have been better to write:
“The question is not, Can they talk?, nor Can they suffer? but, Can they reason? Why should the law refuse its protection to any sensitive being who is willing to live according to it?”
For more on the ethical question of animal research read the Pro-Test ethics page.
Also from our blog:
Consciousness and Moral Status – 2012
Mr Bogle’s Confused Morality – 2012
Frans de Waal’s Ethical Arguments Need Clarification – 2012
Equality of animals and humans? – 2012
Objections to the Marginal Case Argument – 2012
Animal Rights and Science Denialism – 2012
The Freedom of Speech Paradox – 2012