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Schnee Wrong on Animal Rights

I applaud Kris Schnee for at least considering the notion of animal rights [“We the Animals,” Nov. 12]. Unfortunately, Schnee jumps to a few hasty conclusions.

Schnee warns, “We must be careful not to slip into another definition and start thinking of nonhumans as moral agents, self-aware beings who are capable of arguing over things like the concept of rights. Since animals are not capable of entering into the complex social agreements humans use ... and can’t be convinced to abide by the same laws, they are not automatically protected by the ‘rights’ humans create.”

Does Schnee examine this argument long enough to realize what ridiculous conclusions follow from it? If granting rights are about moral agency, then is it morally acceptable for infants, the mentally ill, and other humans incapable of moral agenthood to be confined, experimented on, killed and eaten? If Schnee’s answer is yes, he should have pointed out these corollaries of his philosophy. If his answer is no, then moral agenthood is clearly not a litmus test for whom we accord rights to. Moral agenthood is as irrelevant to the granting of rights as intelligence or height.

What is important here is moral patienthood. Although it is likely that animals are not moral agents (as Schnee claims), they are clearly moral patients: they possess the capacity to suffer harm and are therefore proper objects of consideration for moral agents. As moral agents, adult humans have the responsibility to accord basic rights (e.g., to be free from torture and death) to infants, the mentally ill, and (gasp!) nonhuman animals.

Schnee supports his claim that animals aren’t guaranteed rights by writing, “A hungry tiger does not care whether you have the right not to be eaten.” This statement is very misleading. If we replace the word “tiger” with “person,” the sentence is still true. Whatever conclusions Schnee draws about tigers from this sentence also apply to humans.

Additionally, what beings do in life-or-death situations is outside the realm of your discussion of rights. Humans (just like tigers) throw all complex social agreements out the window if faced with the threat of death or torture. What a tiger cares about when it is trying not to die of starvation is irrelevant to whether humans have the right to torture and kill animals for experimentation and food, when it is not necessary to their survival.

Next time Schnee retrofits moral arguments to justify the status quo, he should make sure that the arguments are really predictive of his model moral system, because I doubt that Schnee meant to exclude all humans incapable of moral agency from the realm of moral consideration. Assuming that this is the case, Schnee failed to demonstrate why humans, but not nonhuman animals, deserve rights.

Whether such an argument exists is an open question. Until someone plugs the holes in fallacious cases against animal rights such as Schnee’s, I think MIT and the rest of the institutions that invasively experiment on animals would do well to examine their position more carefully while placing a temporary moratorium on all invasive animal research.

Ian Ross ’00