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Sunday, November 15, 2009

PETA vs. Jan Narveson: Do animals count?

Peta The success of PETA is a fascinating study in how an uncompromising approach to advocacy, combined with brilliant marketing, can push a radical idea -- animal rights -- into mainstream debate.

Disagree with them or not -- and I almost always disagree with them -- PETA's use of celebrities and provocative, timely messages keeps them, and their cause, in the media and on the public consciousness.

The images in this post are two examples of the organization's latest campaigns aimed at changing public opinion about the use of animals for food, fur and research.

Peta rat There are a lot of arguments, however, against extending rights to animals, but the one that seems to present animal rights advocates with the most trouble has been advanced by Jan Narveson, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Waterloo. Narveson has written several scholarly articles on the issue of animal rights and has established himself as a prominent proponent of the contractarian argument against extending legal rights to animals. Narveson works within the Hobbesian tradition and argues that since animals can not enter into moral contracts they should not fall within the purview of the laws that come from these moral contracts. In short, animals don't count in any legal sense.

Here's Narveson in his own words:

What morality is is a uniform set of rules to be imposed by everybody on everybody. These amount to something like a social contract in the sense that we’ve got all these people that we’re relating to. Animals, on the other hand, are not part of this, because they can’t communicate with us. They’re not moral agents in the sense in which we are. And the question is, what is there about animals which makes us, who are moral agents, morally compelled to recognize rights on their part? And the trouble is that the answer to this seems to be: virtually nothing.

Posted by Matthew Johnston

Learn more about Dr. Jan Narveson by purchasing one of his books below. A portion of your purchase price will go to the Western Standard.

Posted by westernstandard on November 15, 2009 | Permalink


Weak! We still allow babies, the senile, the mentally deficient into our moral circle, and they can't communicate with us.

Why are we humans morally compelled to recognise rights for animals? For a very big reason - they are sentient, able to experience both the pains and pleasures of life. If you think causing suffering is virtually nothing, then this says more about you than anything else.

Also morality is not a uniform set of rules, each culture and history, and even individual, has their own take.

I think you would do well to look at some serious opposition to these theories. The idea that only moral agents are worth consideration is old hat at best.

Posted by: Rob | 2009-11-16 3:20:40 AM

I didn't read your comment because of the caps. If you want to be taken seriously, turn off the caps lock key and try to contribute something constructive to the debate.

Posted by: Tanner | 2009-11-16 7:59:59 AM

Rob raises the right questions. Unless Narveson can tell us why infants and the severely mentally handicapped have rights despite their inability to communicate with us, his argument collapses. It also collapses unless he can tell us why the fact that the desire of a lot of people who can be parties to a contract to protect animals from suffering does not count. Extending rights to animals is something that many contractors will fight very hard for, so it is not obvious that the correct contract would not include these rights.

But it collapses anyway. He says:

"Animals, on the other hand, are not part of this, because they can't communicate with us."

[Putting on best Seth Meyers / Amy Poehler voice] Really? So Narveson hasn't heard that a number of non-human primates have been able to communicate with sign language? Really? Are you sure he's an educated man? Really? And when my cat tells me he wants to go out or in or wants food through a pretty clear set of signals, that isn't "communication"? Really? And when I say the words "walk", "park", or "ball" around my dog and he gets all excited like he does whenever I take him out, it's just a coincidence, not "communication"? Really? [Turning off Seth Meyers / Amy Poehler voice]

Narveson is an idiot. Really.

Posted by: Fact Check | 2009-11-16 8:17:29 AM

LRFC, take it easy. The segment of my post that you quote is entirely factual. PETA has been effective. If you want to stay on this blog, you're going to have to tone things down.

Rob, it may be true that good taste and decency demand that we owe animals some consideration, but if animals are property in a legal sense, and not moral agents, what consideration should the law provide? That's Narveson's point as I understand it.

Animals can experience pain, but is this the foundation for legal rights? No, not according to Narveson anyway.

FC, you should follow the link and read the entire interview with Narveson. I think you'll realize he's no idiot.

I find the animal rights/liberation (two very different philosophical schools of thought) debate fascinating as it forces us to think about the foundation of human rights. If people have rigths but not animals, then what exactly is it that separates people and animals and why is this thing the foundation for legal rights? Some say reason, some say a soul, some say the ability to act as a moral agent.

It's interesting stuff.

Posted by: Matthew Johnston | 2009-11-16 10:22:54 AM

Fact Check,

You raise two interesting points, it seems to me:

1. Why shouldn't "the contract" include (some) animals (and infants, etc.)?

2. Why can't the moral views of those who advocate on behalf of animals inform the substance of the contract?

As I understand the contract argument -- and, charitably, as it ought to be understood -- the argument only pertains to one aspect of morality, i.e. "what we owe to each other, as a matter of justice." It is not meant to address broader ethical questions.

If justice is "that which can be exacted from us, by force if necessary", then (one might think) such obligations ought to have a robust foundation. Narveson thinks that the only foundation that will do is one articulated in terms of instrumental rationality: at the end of the day, justice must leave each of us better off than we would be without it, or at least no worse off.

Thus, in the contract, the substance of justice is determined by mutual advantage.

I think that's why non-human animals, even reasonably intelligent ones, don't get into the contract: since they are incapable of recognizing and abiding by the requirements of justice (whatever they turn out to be), there is no advantage for us in including them in the contract.

At the same time, I'm not sure how infants, mentally handicapped people, etc. get into the contract, either. In fact, I've often wondered why people find it self-evident that all competent adults get into the contract, or why there should only be one contract. Why shouldn't our obligations under justice differ from person to person?

For example, take the obligation not to kill those who are no threat. That obligation places certain burdens on me: I might get off on killing homeless people. If I accept a one-size-fits-all contract, I'll have to give up on killing the homeless. Of course, I don't want other people to kill me, so I need some kind of contract with them. But there's no reason that contract has to prohibit killing the homeless; it just has to prohibit killing people like me.

If I'm not homeless myself, and not likely to become so, the benefit of retaining my right to kill the homeless might outweigh the very tiny risk that a homeless person might kill me. A fortiori if you substitute "racial minority" for "homeless", since there is no chance I will occupy that group myself.

Posted by: Terrence Watson | 2009-11-16 11:03:40 AM

I knew this post would bring you back, Terrence. :-)

I don't understand your homeless example as the homeless are just as able to establish contracts as anyone else. Homeless people are moral agents.

More challenging for me is how this argument would take into account babies or the severely mentally disabled.

Didn't Aristotle put forth some idea about potentiality that would apply here?

Posted by: Matthew Johnston | 2009-11-16 11:49:08 AM

The Problem with PETA is that they compare apples to oranges. Imagine what the world would be like ran by these idiots.

Posted by: Doug Gilchrist | 2009-11-16 12:50:54 PM

Matthew, you hit the nail on the head in that rights apply to moral agents. They also are tied to responsibility, something many these days wish to ignore.

Animals are not moral agents. We cannot apply any kind of morality to animals, nor can animals be considered good or evil. As moral agents, human beings have a moral responsibility toward animals in that we do not have the right to inflict suffering or cruelty on them. This does not extend to the claim that the wearing of fur or leather or the eating of meat must be banned. I think it does mean that even these animals are entitled to be treated humanly and to be slaughtered humanly.

Posted by: Alain | 2009-11-16 1:13:03 PM

It's true that the content of justice will differ, if only a little, from the content of morality. As Terrence points out, the higher bar is as a result of us getting to force people to act in accordance with justice, whereas this is not true of "mere" morality (that bit of morality that does not overlap with justice).

For Narveson, the contract is not just a contract for justice, but a contract for morality more generally. Narveson thinks that the contract is a foundation of morality as well. And he doesn't shy away from the mentally handicapped, infants, and the senile implication -- namely, Narveson doesn't think they count, morally, either.

I see that as a reductio of his position, he sees it as an implication. So it goes...

While many animals are not moral agents (it's possible that some, like chimpanzees, are), it's hard to deny them the status of moral patients. Moral patients are creatures or things that we have moral obligations towards, even though they cannot be held accountable or responsible for their actions and, thus, do not count as "agents." This is true of children in general, for example.

The argument for potentiality would be really great if it also covered the case of the mentally handicapped and the senile. But it doesn't. There is no sense in which these folks are "potential agents." They've lost their agency, forever (true, with more science and medicine we may be able to fix this, but that's not true of Jimmy or Sally, say, who are mentally handicapped or senile now). Talking in terms of potentiality will help us with children who are not yet agents, but it won't help with people who have lost their agency.

Posted by: P.M. Jaworski | 2009-11-16 1:30:51 PM

Jaws and Matthew,

"For Narveson, the contract is not just a contract for justice, but a contract for morality more generally. Narveson thinks that the contract is a foundation of morality as well. And he doesn't shy away from the mentally handicapped, infants, and the senile implication -- namely, Narveson doesn't think they count, morally, either."

You're right as far as interpretation goes, but I think this is a mistake, so I was trying to be charitable. There is absolutely no reason the contract has to be the foundation of morality generally. It is completely inadequate to be the foundation of, e.g. obligations between friends, lovers, etc.

Justice, as Hume pointed out, comes into the picture when sympathy, love, friendship, and all that partial stuff runs out. That's exactly where the contract metaphor gets some bite, as we all recognize the gains strangers can attain through the making of contracts.

However, I still don't see why there must be a single social contract, imposing the same obligations on everyone. That's what I was trying to get at with the homeless guy example. There doesn't seem to be any reason for me to accept moral constraints which would prohibit me from treating the homeless guy badly.

If I reject such constraints, then the homeless guy and I remain in the state of nature with respect to each other. But why is that necessarily a problem for me? Obviously, it is rational to want to get out of the state of nature with respect to people who can actually do me significant amounts of harm, but the homeless guy isn't one of those people (and if you don't like him as an example, choose someone else.)

At best, I can see the homeless guy and I making a very different "social" contract than someone who is more potentially harmful to me. Perhaps I would be willing to accept 5 units of "deontic constraint powder" as far as the homeless guy goes, but 25 units for everyone else.

5 units is the point at which the benefit of additional moral constraints to protect me from the homeless guy equals the cost (to me) of abiding by such constraints myself. Any more constraint than that and the contract with the homeless guy is no longer to my advantage.

Posted by: Terrence Watson | 2009-11-16 2:23:21 PM

Terrence, if you operate in a state of nature -- or outside the law -- on any occassion, you'll signal to law-abiding, peaceful people that you're a standing threat to their life and property. This will put you at risk in many different ways: nobody will do business with you; nobody will include you in the non-aggression pact; nobody will like you.

Posted by: Matthew Johnston | 2009-11-16 3:12:08 PM


Nah, that's way too quick.

Being in the state of nature need not be an all or nothing thing. I can be in the state of nature with respect to you (meaning I don't observe any moral constraints that would protect you from me) while being outside the state of nature with respect to Jaws (meaning that, with him, I do observe moral constraints, and expect him to do the same.)

Since adopting moral constraints is costly, it is an open question why I would want to adopt the same set of constraints with respect to everyone. It's also an open question why person X would care if I adopt one set of constraints with respect to him, and a different set (or no set at all) with respect to person Y.

Other social contract theorists (Rawls being the most notable example) deploy the contract metaphor in a different way in order to ensure a unanimous agreement on a single conception of justice. But the way Narveson uses it, I'm not sure how unanimity can be expected.

Posted by: Terrence Watson | 2009-11-16 7:49:15 PM

"Nah, that's way too quick."

Now you're just guessing. Someone who steps outside of the law is generally -- and quickly -- treated as an outlaw.

I can't know what's in your heart so if you treat person x poorly, it would be wise for me to distrust you generally. So it would not be to your advantage to pick and chose with whom you treat justly.

I personally subscribe to the natural rights school -- nonsense on stilts? -- so these arguements don't do much for me anyway.

Posted by: Matthew Johnston | 2009-11-17 2:53:26 PM

I I just want to say, in the face of reasonable analysis, that an intellectual debate on who should or shouldnt have rights based on who is or isnt able to enter a moral contract, means nothing without first looking at what those rights mean to any particular group, notwithstanding that some rights should be universal. To an animal, rights will mean generally the right to natural behaviours ( one thing that any animal in a cage is denied ), the right to have access to food and water, the right to be handled kindly, handled with respect but the main right would be the right to not be made to bear pain and suffering.watched a video where some researcher took the skull off a monkey and implanted electrodes for some reason. The video showed this dazed monkey trying to scratch where the top of his head used to be. Having had operations myself and pain for up to four weeks after in some cases, I can tell you this chap was suffering. Monkeys can be taught to communicate and do so fluently using sign. They can problem solve, which means they can think. They can make moral judgements as seen in documented experiments where monkeys have decided to go hungry when they learn tripping a lever brings pain to a fellow monkey. To say that because we dont percieve that they can enter a contract ( debatable to any human with awareness ), means that we dont have to consider the above rights for them simply means that we, if we trade on that premise, are willing to devalue beings even when we know they are in pain. Is that who you want to be? Do you want your community to be like that? Cruelty is not about who we are doing something to, for instance but rather that we know its hurting and we are still willing to do it. This is cruelty whether the subjects have rights or not. And if we can devalue animals, for instance, in order to exploit them without considering their rights we raise other concerns i.e. are we not teaching ourselves that we can devalue anything if the basis of that devaluation seems logical in the context of the situation? Didnt Germany devalue one race when they decided that that race was the cause of all their ills and fears? And didnt this allow researchers like Doctor J.Mengels to conclude logically that they now had no rights therefore they were no longer part of the contract, therefore, he could test on them? Perform surgeries on them. Pour chemicals down their throats like they do to dogs today in the United States. Sew babys eyelids shut to study the denial of light on the development of sight like they are doing to baby kittens in Canada today. Jan Narveson may be okay with being such a person but I believe that for the human race to evolve we have to live with empathy and consider all those we share the planet with. I believe the rights we give others we gift ourselves. Otherwise tomorrow based on some argument we leave ourselves open to being devalued and losing the basic rights we think we have.

Posted by: Alex Kerr | 2009-11-18 7:14:01 AM

Alex, I understand your position and in general agree, however the flaw is the idea that "rights" will prevent any of this from happening. You used Germany as an example, so I shall do the same. When you are dependent on so-called rights granted by the state, the state can also take them away as it happened in Germany. Arguing for animal rights is not a solution to what you described.

It has to do with personal morality or compassion if you wish. We cannot change others but we can change ourselves and through example and moral education (not preaching) we may influence others to change.

Posted by: Alain | 2009-11-18 5:54:17 PM

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