Animal Rights and the Wrongness of Killing

2. Animal Rights and Justice for Animals

2.2 Two Utilitarian Approaches to Grounding Rights

Whether and how a utilitarian should attribute rights to some animals remains a matter for debate. For a utilitarian, there appear to be two main approaches to grounding a rights theory within a utilitarian ethical framework. One approach is to correlate rights with prima facie or certain basic duties. In this case, some animals, infants and mental defectives have rights because we owe them certain obligations. This view is attractive to some act utilitarians.[5]

Book cover: Utilitarianism by John Stuart Mill

Alternatively, moral rights may be derived from the duties stipulated by formal and implicit social contracts struck between autonomous, rational beings and with utilitarian warrant.[6] Duties prescribed by such contracts and quasi-contracts not only have as their objects rational, autonomous beings, but also some non-contractors, thereby ensuring such non-contracting beings their moral rights. Special duties to our own children are prominent examples of this type of obligation. (Assuming, of course, that the stipulation of such special duties is in our communal interest. In defence of this proposition, it may be argued that raising the next generation will ensure our future security and material prosperity, and that assigning such quasi-contractual duties is the most efficient means of achieving this aim.)

The distinct advantage of this utilitarian contractual view of moral rights is that it is faithful to the commonly held conviction that to have a moral right is to possess a moral immunity from having one's interests weighed against others in the all-encompassing utilitarian balance. For on this view, the raison d'être of the social contract is to guarantee specific social and personal goods by co-ordinating the behaviour of individuals, and this can only be achieved by stipulating specific duties and barring certain act utilitarian defences against the infringement of such duties. The drawback of this view is that moral rights are made conditional on the existence of the social contract or quasi-contract that guarantees them.

The prima facie or basic duties view of moral rights avoids this problem, but at the expense of doing an injustice to the anti-act utilitarian (or partially deontic) nuance of 'moral rights'. A salient feature of either view is that it allows the utilitarian the opportunity to cash in on the polemical advantages gained in engaging in popular 'rights' talk. Neither utilitarian analysis of 'rights' language, though, is without benefits and disbenefits.

In the face of these difficulties, the utilitarian may abandon talk of 'moral rights' altogether and simply concentrate on the question of how we ought to treat animals and what legal rights they ought to have. What if after admitting 'moral rights' into the utilitarian vocabulary, it is found that animals do not have moral rights after all? It remains open for a utilitarian to say that 'rights' talk does not encapsulate the whole of the moral universe; that we have obligations to others over and above those entailed by their possession of certain 'moral rights'.


  1. [5] See, for example, Singer [1979c: 81] and Frey [1983: 73–8].
  2. [6] For such a contractual view of utilitarianism, see Rawls [1967] and my Allan [2015: §3.2].

Copyright © 2015

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