Philosophy 220

Philosophy 220
The Moral Status of the Non-Human
World: Cohen and Warren
Regan and Animal Rights
Tom Regan makes clear his commitment to the
animal rights movement in his book The Case for
Animal Rights.
As he articulates it, that movement has three
central goals.
1. Abolition of the use of animals in science.
2. The dissolution of commercial agriculture.
3. The elimination of sport hunting and trapping.
Only abolition is possible. “You don’t change
unjust institutions by tidying them up.”
Some Key Assumptions
 Regan specifies three assumptions central to
his effort to establish that NHAs have moral
rights and thus that we are wrong when we
treat them like resources.
1. Some creatures are possessed of inherent value.
2. Those that are, are possessed of it equally.
3. Inherent value necessitates respect, where respect
is understood (following Kant) as requiring treating
possessors of inherent value as ends in themselves
rather than means.
Advantages of the Rights View
 According to Regan, there are a number
of advantages to thinking about moral
standing in terms of rights.
1. In principle this view finds all forms of racial,
sexual and social discrimination immoral.
2. In principle it denies that it is ever
acceptable to trample on rights in pursuit of
good consequences (the Justice Problem of
The Argument
Moral respect (the basis for the possession of rights) is a
function of inherent value.
The property that explains our inherent value is being “the
experiencing subject of a life.” In our other vernacular, this is the
property that establishes DMS.
We do not know (can not?) how far this notion extends, but we
do not need to. It is clear that NHAs exhibit this characteristic.
Therefore, they have inherent value and thus the same right to
respect as human beings.
Cohen, ”Do Animals Have Rights?"
 Cohen takes up Regan's argument, ultimately
rejecting his claim on the grounds of a different
account of DMS.
 From his account, talk of animal rights is
mistaken, as is Regan’s characterization of a
Cohen-type position as morally equivalent to
racism or sexism (speciesism).
 He also disputes Regan’s analysis of the moral
status of the use of non-human animals on
basically consequentialist grounds.
Rights and Animals
 Cohen begins his discussion with a definition of rights.
 “A right (unlike an interest) is a valid claim, or potential claim,
made by a moral agent, under principles that govern both the
claimant and the target of the claim” (348c1).
 Important features: distinction of rights from interests (disputed
by other accounts of rights); specification of the function of
moral agency.
 Cohen then test our intuitions about rights by discussing the
use of humans and animals in medical research, disputing
Regan’s insistence that we have not more grounds for
testing on animals than on humans, on essentially
consequentialist grounds.
Animals don’t have Rights?
 Cohen acknowledges that we have many obligations to the
animals around us, both domestic and wild.
 He refuses, however to accept that these obligations flow
from rights possessed by animals.
 Though rights do impose obligations, not all obligations are
grounded in correlative rights.
 Ultimately, animals don’t have rights according to Cohen,
because they are not the right sort of creature.
 Serengeti thought experiment (351). Of course, we often
excuse the behavior of children on similar grounds.
Moral Standing and Rights
 Cohen’s rejection of the claim that animals have rights is ultimately
founded in a claim about DMS.
cannot be the bearers of rights because the concept of rights is
essentially human; it is rooted in, and has force within, a human moral
world.” (351c2).
 So for Cohen, DMS is coextensive with biological humanity.
 We’ve seen that this sort of answer faces obvious objections.
 Cohen makes an interesting move and locates the ground of the human
moral community in our moral/rational faculties (the capacity for moral selflegislation—there’s a Kantian influence here).
 Obviously, many humans don’t possess the relevant faculties, but
Cohen insists that the issue is not their possession by individuals, but
by the species.
Where Regan Goes Wrong
 As we’ve seen, Regan’s argument rests on the assertion that
animals have inherent value.
 Cohen accuses Regan of equivocating between two different
sense of inherent value.
 Sense 1: inherent value as the source of (human) moral dignity; all
of us, from the highest to the lowest, are moral equals.
 Sense 2: being more than “just a thing,” being in ourselves unique
and irreplaceable.
 Animals are inherently valuable in sense 2, but Cohen denies that
they are inherently valuable in sense 1.
 Since in is sense 1 that counts, morally speaking, Regan’s claim
that animals have rights fails.
Questions for Cohen
 Both Cohen’s argument and his critique of Regan are open to
important objections.
 First, with regard to his insistence that DMS overlaps with the
human species, he faces the charge of speciesism.
 In another essay, he responds to the charge by insisting that while
racism has, "no rational grounds,” preferring humans to other
animals does. Why? They have rights (which seems to beg the
 Second, with regard to his claim that Regan equivocates, we
should note that his analysis of Regan’s use of the concept of
inherent value never addresses the account of DMS that Regan
develops: being the experiencing subject of a life.
 If we took this idea seriously, it’s not clear that there is an
Warren, “Rights Compared”
 Remember Warren from our discussion of abortion.
Here she takes up the question of animal rights.
 The common moral intuition about the rights of
Non-Human Animals seems to be that if they have
rights, these rights are limited relative to human
 If you could only save one would it be your new born infant or a
loyal family dog that you’ve had for a decade?
 Warren thinks that advocates of rights for NHAs
need to account for this intuited difference and she
aims to provide it.
Strength and Content
 Warren focuses our attention on two
different features of rights where
differences between rights of humans
and rights of NHAs might be apparent.
 Content: what the right protects.
 Strength: how strong overriding reasons
would have to be.
Human v. NHA: Content
 Given the differences between the forms of
consciousness and activity of humans and
NHAs, there are going to be many, specific
distinctions in content between human and
NHA rights.
 Ex. Freedom of Movement
 These distinctions should not mask a great
deal of commonality in terms of content.
 Ex. Right to Life
Human v. NHA: Strength
 In those places of overlapping content, the
distinguishing feature of human and NHA rights is
 In general, human rights can only be overwhelmed
by reasons stronger than those which would
overwhelm the rights of NHAs.
 Even if this is not true, the lack of autonomy and
reciprocity in the granting and respecting of rights
is good reason to hierarchize rights holders.
Infanticide, Again?
 Does this argument once again strand
the human infant or the severely retarded
individual on the side of the limited rights
 Warren thinks not, both because they are
potentially or partially autonomous and
have value for us

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