Lesson 9


Machan – Do Animals Have Rights?


Thesis: “This essay will maintain that animals have no rights and need  no liberation. I will argue that to think they do is a category mistake – it is, to be blunt, to unjustifiably anthropomorphize animals, to treat them as if they were what they are not, namely, human beings.” (163)


Only humans have moral obligations so only humans can have rights (asserted) (164)


Even though animals don’t have rights it is not necessarily okay to hunt them for sport, torture them, etc. (164)

“It is clear that once one has answered the question of whether animals have rights (or ought to be liberated from human beings) in the negative, one has by no means disposed of these other issues.” (164)


“To be a morally responsible being in the company of other persons one needs what Robert Nozick has called “moral space,” i.e., a sphere of sovereignty or personal jurisdiction so that one can engage in self-government – for better or worse” (165)


“Yet none of those who engaged in the moralizing ever entertained the need to “view our entire history as well as all aspects of our daily lives from a new perspective.” Rather they seemed to have understood that reckless disregard for the life or well being of animals shows a defect of character, lack of sensitivity, callousness – realsing, at the same time, that numerous human purposes justify our killing and using animals in the various ways most of us do use them.” (167)


The Case for Using Animals


Humans are more important than other animals. (167)


Animals rights advocates acknowledge that animals are more important than rocks. (168)


We can talk of better or worse trees non-morally but when we talk about better or worse humans we mean a moral evaluation. (168)


It is through human beings that the idea of moral goodness and moral responsibility enter the universe (168)


Some things cannot be evaluated.

Some things can be evaluated non-morally.

Some things can be evaluated morally.


“Normal human life involves moral tasks, and that is why we are more important than other beings in nature – we are subject to moral appraisal, it is a matter of our doing whether we succeed or fail in our lives.” (168)


“Animals are not the sort of beings with basic rights to life, liberty, and property, whereas human beings, in the main, are just such beings. Yet we know that animals can feel pain and can enjoy themselves and this must give us pause when we consider using them for our legitimate purposes. We ought to be human, we ought to kill them and rear them and train them and hunt them in a fashion consistent with such care about them as sentient beings” (171)


As one reads page after page of Regan’s book, one has the growing impression that his thesis is in an important way “going against nature.” It is a fact of nature that living things have to live on other living things in order to stay alive themselves. It is a fact of nature that carnivores must consume, not plant (which they can’t digest), but other sentient beings capable of intense pain and suffering, and they can survive in no other way. It is a fact of nature that animal reproduction is such that far more creatures are born or hatched than can possibly survive. It is a fact of nature that most creatures die slow lingering tortuous deaths, and that few animals in the wild ever reach old age. It is a fact of nature that we cannot take one step in the woods without killing thousands of tiny organisms whose live we thereby extinguish. This has been the order of nature for millions of years before man came on the scene, and has indeed been the means by which any animal species has survived to the present day; to fight it is like trying to fight an atomic bomb with a dartgun… This is the world as it is, nature in the raw, unlike the animals in Disney cartoons.



“Of course, one might then ask, why should human beings make any attempt to behave differently among themselves, why bother with morality at all?”



“Indeed, then, the moral life is the exclusive province of human beings, so far as we can tell for now. Other – lower(?) – animals simply cannot be accorded the kind of treatment that such a moral life demands, namely, respect for and protection of basic rights.”  (172)


Cohen – DO Animals Have Rights?


“A right (unlike an interest) is a valid cliam, or potential claim, made by a moral agent under principles that govern both the claimant and the target of the claim”( 1)


Note that built into the definition is a an assumed reciprocity of rights and obligations.


“. . . although we may have a weighty interest in learning, say, how to vaccinate against polio or other diseases, we do not have a right to learn such things.” (2)

Cohen is arguing that if animals have rights there could never be any justification for animal experimentation, no matter how great the benefit to society is.  (Or assuming Reagan’s position is the only position)



The harms others might face as a result of the dissolution of (some) practice or institution is no defense of allowing it to continue . . . No one has a right to be protected against being harmed if the protection in question involves violating the rights of others . . . .No one has a right to be protected by the continuation of an unjust practice, one that violates the rights of others . . . Justice must be done, though the . . . . heavens fall. (pp. 346-347)


On the rights view, (he means, of course, the Regan rights view) we cannot justify harming a single rat merely by aggregating “the many human and humane benefits” that flow from doing it . . . Not even a single rat is to be treated as if that animal’s value were reducible to his possible utility relative to the interests of other. (p. 384)


Cohen’s argument:

  1. If animals have rights then it is wrong to experiment on them to prevent diseases like diphtheria, hepatitis, measles, rabies, rubella, and tatenus.
  2. It is not wrong to experiment on them to prevent diseases like diphtheria, hepatitis, measles, rabies, rubella, and tatenus.
  3. So, animals do not have rights.


Animals do not have rights but “many obligations are owed by humans to animals” (4)




Obligations vs. Rights


Rights entail obligations but obligations don’t entail rights

Just like all trees are plants but not all plants are trees (4)


Professor and student: Professor has obligation to comment extensively on papers but students don’t have a right to demand comments on their papers.

Host and Guest: host has an obligation to be cordial but the guest does not have a right to demand cordiality.

Human and dog: I have obligation to care for my dog but my dog doesn’t have the right to demand it. (4)


How can we make sense of this obligation talk in the absence of a right. Personally I find the examples unconvincing. Why would I have an obligation if the other party doesn’t have a right.


What we ought to do = superogatory? = obligations not correlative to a right

What others can demand we do = obligations correlative to a right (5)


“I emphasize this because, although animals have no rights, it surely does not follow from this that one is free to treat them with callous disregard. Animals are not stones; they feel. A rat may suffer; surely we have the obligation not to torture it gratuitously, even though it be true that the concept of a right could not possibly apply to it. We humans are obliged to act humanely, that is, being aware of their sentience, to apply to animals the moral principles that govern us regarding the gratuitous imposition of pain and suffering; which is not of course, to treat animals as the possessors of rights.” (5)


Why not just think that animals have a right to not be caused unnecessary suffering??? Rather than the strict right to life humans posses???


We do we not interrupt (or think that we have an obligation to interrupt) a lion from killing a baby zebra  but we do think we have such an obligation to protect a human.


Cohen thinks it is because the human has a right to life and the zebra does not. Discuss.


Cohen asserts that since animals cannot be moral patients (he quotes Reagan) they cannot therefore be moral agents.


“Responding the infant objections he says “It is not individual persons who qualify (or are disqualified) for the possession of rights because of the presence or absence in them of some special capacity, thus resulting  in the award of rights to some but not others. Rights are universally human; they arise in a human moral world, in a moral sphere. In the human world judgments are pervasive; it is the fact that all humans including infants and senile are members of the that moral community – not he fact that as individuals they have or do not have certain special capacities, or merits – that makes humans bearers of rights.” (7)


“Therefore, it is beside the point to insist that animals have remarkable capacities, tha they really have a consciousness of self, or of the future, or make plans, and so on. And the tired response that because infants plainly cannot make moral claims they must have no rights at all, or rats must have them too, we ought forever put aside. Responses like these arise out of a misconception of right itself. They mistakenly suppose that rights are tied to some identifiable individual abilities or sensibilities, and they fail to see that rights arise only in a community of moral beings, and that therefore there are spheres in which right do apply and spheres in which they do not” (7)


“The misapplication of concepts leads to error and sometimes, to nonsense. So it is with rights also. TO say that rats have rights is to apply to the world of rats a concept that makes good sense when applied to humans, but which makes no sense at all when applied to rats.” (8) (drawing an analogy to Kant’s critique of metaphysics)


Cohen Response to Reagan


“The validity of the claim to respectful treatment, and thus the case for the recognition of the right to such treatment, cannot be any stronger or weaker in the case of moral patients than it is of moral agents.” (Reagan 279)


“Why in the world should we think this principle to be true?”


Reagan uses two senses of inherent value (10)


First Regan argues that all humans have inherent value, in contrast with utilitarianism. (10)


Cohen suggest that animals have inherent value in that they “live as unique living creatures”


“Inherent value in Sense 1, possessed by all humans but not by all animals, which warrants the claim of human rights, is very different from inherent value in Sense 2, which warrants no such claim. The uniqueness of animals, their intrinsic worthiness as individual living things, does not ground the possession of rights, has nothing to do with the moral condition in which rights arise. Regan’s argument reached its critical objective with almost magical speed because, having argued that beings with inherent value (Sense 1) have rights that must be respected he quickly asserted (putting it in italics lest the reader be inclined to express doubt) that rats and rabbits also have rights because they, too, have inherent value (sense 2). (10-11)


My Response:

However Cohen fails to address Regan’s basic claim whether an animal meets the “subject-fo-a-life criterion” that determines whether it has intrinsic value and therefor rights.


Regan’s basic argument:

  1. Anything that is the subject of a life has inherent value.
  2. Anything that has inherent value has a right to life.
  3. Some animals are subject of a life.
  4. So, some animals have inherent value.
  5. So, some animals have a right to life.

As I see it Cohen’s essay doesn’t really do anything to address any of the key premises of Regan’s actual argument.


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