Resolved: Justice requires the recognition of animal rights.It's a fairly straightforward sentence with a lot of deep philosophical implications, and is a great way to start the season.
To get started, here's a thought-experiment.
An alien spaceship descends on your hometown, bug-eyed spindly-legged creatures emerging from its bowels. "Great," you think. "This is gonna be great." You've always wondered whether there was intelligent life elsewhere in the universe--and here it is, practically knocking down your door.
Actually, it is knocking down your door, and vaporizing your furniture, and corralling you and your family into cages, until you're whisked off to some distant galaxy, ostensibly to serve as entertainment for Emperor Garthron of Planet X.
You try to reason with your captors. Their eyes are blank with apathy, however; they cannot hear, nor can they understand your rudimentary bleating. They ignore your gestures and are unfazed by your scribblings. Your actions are meaningless to them, beyond the detached interest of idle alien curiosity.
How would you convince one of these aliens that their behavior is unjust, and that they've violated your rights?
Or would you even bother to try?
Clearly, your rights exist regardless of your ability to articulate them to an outsider. But what if the situation were reversed, a la District 9? Would intelligent aliens have rights?
Or, more to the point, what if animals find themselves in the same position regarding their human neighbors?
How wide is the circuit of our moral concern? Should it include organisms of different species?
Why do we care about animals?
Suppose you feel anger or sadness about recent reports about whales' susceptibility to industrial toxins. Your sentiments could arise from many sources: appreciation of the whales' beauty and power and intelligence; pity for their helplessness; respect for their unique place in nature, or for divine mandates for environmental stewardship. You could also take a different tack, highlighting their instrumental value--for instance, their essential role in the oceanic ecosystem, or their utility as a food source.
The last makes the problem particularly acute. It's tough to concede rights to something you might grill on the barbecue. Here the culturally arbitrary nature of our attachments becomes evident: some folks dress up their dogs in funny clothes, while other folks eat them. (And if dogs have a right not to suffer, why not whales?)
How do we define "animal?"
Dictionary.com (based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary) gives us at least three workable definitions.
1.any member of the kingdom Animalia, comprising multicellular organisms that have a well-defined shape and usually limited growth, can move voluntarily, actively acquire food and digest it internally, and have sensory and nervous systems that allow them to respond rapidly to stimuli: some classification schemes also include protozoa and certain other single-celled eukaryotes that have motility and animallike nutritional modes.This scientific definition would set up an interesting affirmative:
All humans have rights.The second and third definition are much narrower:
All humans are animals.
Therefore, some animals have rights.
Thus, we affirm the resolution.
2. any such living thing other than a human being.The former sets up a distinction between human rights and animal rights, which is the traditional manner of thinking about such things. The latter is even more restrictive, making it so the affirmative would have to defend rights for whales and grizzlies and gibbons, but not for lobsters, snakes, or chickens. (Serious efforts to grant rights to apes and to cetaceans already exist.)
3. a mammal, as opposed to a fish, bird, etc.
Which animals would have rights?
The definition chosen points to a potential answer; other arguments might revolve around distinctions based on sentience or intelligence.
Which rights would these animals have?
Hard to say. In Spain, for instance, non-human apes have rights of life and freedom from suffering.
Where do rights come from?
If they come from God, we may have to turn to some kind of scripture to answer the question.
If they're inherent, we have to figure out whether they're inherent in animals.
If they're social constructions, we have to decide whether our society admits nonhumans.
If they're contractual, we have to wonder whether non-signatories are covered by the contract.
If they're legal constructs, we have to determine whether the law assigning rights to animals is wise.
If they're a matter of utility, we need to know whether a life with animal rights increases utility.
The SEP's entry on the moral status of animals.
Lawrence Hinman's list of relevant links and resources.
As always, your ideas and questions are critical. Fire away in the comments.
Note: this is a slightly modified repost of the topic preview from last year, since, following custom, the Sept/Oct topic is the least popular top choice from the 2010-2011 list.