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Tuesday, September 25, 2018

A Vindication of the Rights of Brutes - the Slippery Slope and Animal Rights

(This was meant to be posted on 22nd September)

Another example of how the slippery slope is not a fallacy:

"The first defense of animal rights came in the form of a joke on human rights. As a reaction against the new ethics of the Enlightenment, a conservative aristocrat ridiculed rights for men and women by arguing that these would eventually lead to the laughable and absurd idea of giving rights to brutes, and perhaps even plants and things. The idea of human rights should thus be abandoned. After two hundred years it is worth revisiting this old argument to address the question of whether granting moral status to animals, plants, and even landscapes eventually makes hard-won human rights into a joke...

Taylor used his knowledge of emblematic natural history to show that animals deserved the same rights as humans. The argument took the idea of exclusive human rights down the slippery slope of the great chain of being from humans (men and women), to animals (elephants, apes, dragons), arriving at the possible rights of vegetables and minerals. The booklet contains page after page of entertaining quotes from ancient sources about elephants conversing with one another and wild dragons having the right to marry and settle in society. It also includes numerous comparisons of women to brutes. Writing under a pseudonym allowed him to play rather freely with the sources. This creative use of evidence permitted laughter, apparently on the idea of granting animal rights, though the target of his joke was Paine and Wollstonecraft’s defense of human rights. This sarcasm was spelled out in the first page of the book. “After the wonderful productions of Mr. Paine and Mrs. Wollstonecraft, such a theory as the present, seems to be necessary, in order to give perfection to our researches into the rights of things.” Taylor’s rhetorical strategy allowed him to attack the idea of human rights, while at the same time retreat by making it clear that he was only joking.

Today the idea of animal rights or liberation is not a joke anymore, and few will find Taylor amusing. His humor was that of an old-fashioned aristocrat failing to see that the world was changing. This at least has been the opinion of Peter Singer and Tom Regan, both who have argued that Taylor’s joke was anything but funny. Indeed Singer began his famous Animal Liberation (1975) by challenging Taylor’s implicit claim that granting rights to brutes was “manifestly absurd...

From a historical perspective Taylor’s reductio ad absurdum of human rights is not absurd, at least if one is to believe Roderick Nash’s history of The Rights of Nature (1989). Nash argues that the evolution of rights of tyrants, Kings, aristocrats, men, women, and blacks is a process which will continue with rights for animals, species, and perhaps whole landscapes. To many activists of the 1970s this gradual historical evolution of rights was a matter of personal experience emerging from their involvement in the Civil Rights and feminist movements. This modern and progressive view of history as a linear development of moral standings from humans, to animals, birds, fish, insects, plants, and ecological communities has prevailed in much environmental philosophy. As a result, arguments in favor of exclusive human rights have been portrayed, at least in the writings of Nash, as backward looking. Progressive environmental ethicists have consequently been struggling with the problem of trying to draw boundaries of inclusion and exclusion in the fortunate group of beings in the moral community...

The aim of Taylor’s satirical defense of animal rights on biocentric grounds was to undermine the emerging notion of human rights and thus secure his own aristocratic privileges. The aim of current biocentric environmental ethics is also to undermine the anthropocentrism of the Enlightenment, which raises the question of whose human interest this ethic will serve. In the aristocratic world of Taylor, it was up to the King, Prince or Duke to determine the hierarchy of rights in society. In the world imagined by animal rights groups and environmental ethicists, rights will ultimately be determined by expert zoologists and ecologists with intimate knowledge of species and landscapes. Scientists will be the ones settling rights and privileges within the biotic community. In the case of Deep Ecology, for example, the ecologists will in effect be nature’s aristocrats laying out the rules of the game.

Taylor’s old pamphlet also provokes the question of whether or not animal rights, and by extension, rights of the rest of the natural world, may turn human rights into a joke. It is not clear how one is supposed to defend hard-won human rights in a world where moral status is a privilege of every species. If everything is entitled to rights then no one will end up respecting them, since breaking these rights would be inevitable in order to survive. A vindication of the rights of brutes risks vindicating human brutes. A world without boundaries would allow any type of action, since there would be no demarcation between right and wrong. A return to anthropocentrism, on the other hand, does not imply an endorsement of cruelty to animals or environmental destruction. As indicated above, to damage anything beautiful would undermine the human moral sensibility Kant thought was of paramount importance. The defense of human rights implied a moral duty to not harm nature because that would undermine human dignity."

--- A Vindication of the Rights of Brutes / Peder Anker
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