Your rights end at the beginning of my tastebuds

By Megan McArdle

In the post I linked yesterday, Julian made a side point about animal rights that I think bears examining: we tend to base our notion of which animals have rights based on whether they are a) cute or b) tasty:


I will note of existing animal cruelty laws that most contain specific exemptions for agriculture and various other industries, in ways that seem hard to justify. At any rate, I'm having trouble coming up with some coherent view on which "Tender meat is tasty" counts as a justification for the appalling way we treat veal calves but "I like watching violent bloodsports" is no excuse for how Michael Vick treated dogs. If abuse with no better rationale than mild enjoyment is "gratuitous," then factory farming is gratuitously cruel. (Lest it sound like I'm on a high horse here, I should note that, by my own lights, I really ought to either be a vegan or at least consume only dairy of known, humane provenance.) Our inconsistency here suggests that animal cruelty laws are less a function of high principle than of the fact that we like both burgers and cute doggies.



That's not really an argument for failing to ban dog-fighting--surely we can perfect some of the laws while we wait for our perfect state. But it is a call to come up with a better justification for our reasoning than "puppies are cute". Personally, I'd find it hard to construct an argument that bans dogfighting but allows veal--which is why I don't eat veal.

But I'm still battling with the question of whether animals should have rights. I'm a utility maximizer for animals: I think that eating certified humane meat is a positive moral good, because it causes the creation of additional happy animals (insofar as animals can be understood to be happy). Likewise having a pet. But while I certainly have a duty to my dog, does he thereby acquire rights? I'm pretty sure I have a very strong moral obligation to ensure that my dog is taken care of, but I'm not sure I'd legally enforce that claim against someone else.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2007/08/your-rights-end-at-the-beginning-of-my-tastebuds/1780/