Defining Animal Rights with H. Peter Steeves – ASI’s Defining Human-Animal Studies 17

[Music] I’m H Peter Steve’s and I’m professor
philosophy and director of the Humanities Center at DePaul University
animal rights is a term that we use in philosophy to talk about the ethical
status of non-human animals and in law to talk about the legal status of
non-human animals in both instances it’s just one way to talk about whether or
not animals and I’m going to go ahead and use the term animal here to mean
non-human animal the rest of the time it’s one way to talk about whether or
not animals count if they matter if they have some sort of normative standing in
your communities such that you have to take them seriously as subjects that
being said the term rights is itself complicated it’s not even clear when it
became the way to talk about how we treat subjects it’s pretty obvious that
it’s related to liberalism and modernity and the Enlightenment though it was in
use sometime before and it’s become the only way basically to talk about such
things today a majority of political philosophy that’s being done these days
has something to do with rights and if you ask people outside of academia about
someone’s moral standing or legal standing they’ll usually talk about
rights as well some consider rights whether for humans
are non-human animals to be natural and some consider them to be artificial or
social and cultural natural rights are the sorts of rights you would have that
are based on your inherent nature perhaps due to your species
classification or some sort of ability or quality that you have naturally such
as consciousness or the ability to use language or tools divine rights would
count as a kind of natural right the right given to you by God
these are opposed to civil cultural social rights artificial rights that
have been given to you by some sort of authority figure usually some political
organization the government or perhaps even a
document by the Constitution in the Enlightenment tradition it was usually a
social contract that would give subjects their rights the subjects would get
together and have mutual shared self-interest they would decide that
they’re going to use rights now to solve all future adjudications when it comes
to clashing interests some look at the history of the West and they see that
the way that rights have unfolded is as a kind of expanding circle of who gets
to count it begins with white men who owned property it starts including and
expanding out to include other sorts of men eventually white women then men and
women of color and now we’re to the point where we’re talking about animal
rights having included them even if this story is true after deciding who has
rights and what sorts of rights they are that’s not the end of the story because
it’s typically a case that we then have to compare the rights of all parties
when there are clashing interests and see whose rights prevail in other words
some rights can be revoked some can be denied some can come into battle with
other subjects rights and lose in fact rights are sort of like weapons or
shields that one can bring into battle when it comes to animals even if the
animals have rights sometimes human rights might trump animal rights so it’s
a complicated situation generally speaking however animal rights is a
phrase or a field of inquiry it usually means that animals are considered to be
the subject of a life and they deserve to be treated as such
in fact animal rights is sometimes put in contradiction to animal ethics that
take up a utilitarian approach so animal rights would be more associated with
deontology or the field of philosophy that Immanuel Kant more or less founded
and that’s different than John Stuart Mill and utilitarianism so for instance
someone who works on animal morality as utilitarian cares very much about animal
welfare in terms of happiness suffering pain and they let that count in the
general world calculus of such but if you are an animal rights person you can
still care about animal suffering and pain but not really per se you would
only care as they have a right not to suffer and
be in pain so in my own work I have tended to argue against using
rights-based language to talk about animals or even non-human animals simply
because as an anarchic communitarian I don’t really buy into the foundations of
the Enlightenment and modernity and liberalism that gave rise to social
contract theory it found so much of the talk about rights these days rights are
just one way of cashing out our intricate ways of being morally and best
with each other in the living world I think and in fact they’re a limiting way
in a way that stacks the deck against some subjects that being said when
someone outside of academia asks me about my work with animals I very often
say oh I work in animal rights because it’s just a shorthand way of saying I
care about animals and I take them seriously morally so as you can see
animal rights has a lot of different meanings and a lot of different
registers and it’s a very complicated issue I hope that we’ve elucidate some
of them in this brief talk thanks for watching [Music]

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