Forget Sentience: Here’s the Real Reason We Grant Rights

In my entry “Problems With the Argument From Marginal Cases and Using Sentience as a Basis for Rights,” I attempted to debunk the argument from marginal cases, the keystone argument that holds up obligatory veganism and the notion that sentience is the basis for rights.

I’m getting tired of summarizing the argument from marginal cases, so in case you’re unfamiliar with it, here is Jack Norris and Ginny Messina’s take on it from Vegan For Life:

A human rights ethic suggest that no human—not just intelligent humans, but also babies, infants, and those who are mentally challenged—should be abused and used by others for whatever purpose they like. This raises the question about whether rights should be extended to animals. The idea that if we grant rights to humans of lesser intelligence or ability, we should also grant rights to animals is sometimes referred to as the argument from marginal cases. If intelligence and capability are not criteria for the possession of rights, why would animals—who have the capacity to feel fear and pain—be excluded from moral consideration? Some philosophers may reject the argument from marginal cases, but we have never known any of them to provide a compelling reason for doing so. (234 - 235)

Jeez, okay, I’ll try to do better this time.

First, for nostalgia’s sake, let’s look at the points I made in that earlier entry:

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Case For a Baby-Free Argument From Marginal Cases

I talk a lot about the argument from marginal cases on this blog, because it’s the moral equation that glues logical veganism together. This argument is the bridge that makes it possible to think of humans and other animals as morally equivalent. It’s what allows vegans to say “what if you did that to humans?” every time you talk about some aspect of animal use that you don’t think is so bad. If you’ve ever heard a vegan say something about how if you eat animals, you should be cool with eating babies, lurking in the background is the argument from marginal cases. 

Welp, time for yet another argument from marginal cases summary. (Skip this paragraph if you already know what it is.) The argument from marginal cases is an attempt to thwart the meat eater desire to draw a solid line between humans and other animals, that line which permits people to think it’s okay to kill and eat other animals even though they wouldn’t do the same thing to humans. The main philosophical excuses meat eaters make for this line is that other animals operate on a basic cognitive level that often doesn’t go much beyond survival, these animals aren’t living out a story because they can’t really make plans or have ambitious goals, they can’t function as equal members in our society, and they cannot enter moral exchanges with us. To this, marginal-case-thumping vegans say, “But we give rights to babies and the severely mentally impaired, and they operate on a basic cognitive level, don’t have ambitions, can’t function as equal members in our society and cannot enter moral exchanges with us. Therefore, not giving rights to animals too is speciesist.”

I don’t think the argument from marginal cases works overall (I explain why in this entry, and I’ll take another swing at it in my next entry), but I believe the example of babies is especially problematic. My reasoning for this is somewhat obscure and only applies to a subset of vegan beliefs, but unless you don’t like nitpicky minutiae for some reason, I’m sure you want to know it anyway.

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Problems With the Argument From Marginal Cases and Using Sentience as a Basis for Rights

The logical case for obligatory veganism rests entirely on the Argument From Marginal Cases. This is the argument claiming there is no morally significant difference distinguishing every human from all other animals. You can’t say that humans get rights and other animals don’t because humans are intelligent, have long-term ambitions and are capable of rights/responsibilities exchanges with one another, because what about babies and the severely intellectually impaired? They have rights (don’t they?) and they aren’t intelligent, they don’t have ambitions and they can’t respect our rights in exchange for us respecting theirs.

So why do we dangle rights in front of animals and then yank them away, only to give those rights to babies and the mentally impaired, whose mental states are similar to or sometimes lower than that of adult animals? If we say “because babies and the intellectually impaired are human,” that is speciesism, and we might as well be saying that straight people are allowed to get married because they have sex with the opposite gender. Is this why babies have rights? A racism-like prejudice in favor of our own kind? Or is it something else?

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