Moral philosopher Peter Singer—on the right!

To give animals legally recognised rights—to not be killed, tortured, exploited for entertainment, transported live, and so forth—we should be able to justify why. Well, what are the criteria?

A lot of the attempts defend animal rights seem to hinge on how they experience the world—assuming they experience the world at all.

Animals seem to express things like fear and joy through sounds and body language, which points to some underlying features of mental experience, even if it’s of lesser quality. But is this sufficient justification?

Immanuel Kant, an ‘exceptionalist’, claimed only humans should be considered because we uniquely face the problem of normativity. With our reasoning powers only we can deploy reason for good: ‘The fact that the human being can have the representation “I” raises him infinitely above all the other beings on earth . . . a being altogether different in rank and dignity from things, such as irrational animals, with which one may deal and dispose at one’s discretion.’ No rational capacity: no duty to them.

René Descartes believed animals to be automas with no possession or thoughts or feelings at all! What we see, he said, are ‘merely expressions’. But I hear my cat’s piercing screams when she’s hungry and her unignorable wails when she’s bored; surely, there are thoughts in that troubled mind!

Utilitarianism may be able to save her. Jeremy Bentham once said: ‘[T]he question is not, Can they reason? Nor, can they talk? But, can they suffer?’ And, judging by those screams and those wails, my cat can’t reason or talk but she can suffer! Peter Singer (pictured) speaks of ‘speciesism’: ‘If possessing a higher degree of intelligence does not entitle one human to use another for his or her own ends, how can it entitle humans to exploit non-humans?’ Singer, however, argues it’s okay to consume bivalves (oysters, mussels, clams, etc.) because they’re not sentient, a position which Descartes fuzzily applied to all animals. Fortunately, my cat is vaguely sentient and won’t be eaten.

What do you think?