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More Fun With Libertarian Animal Rights

August 23rd, 2007 · 2 Comments

James Joyner writes:

While there are many theories and many stripes of libertarianism … it seems to me that at the core of all of them is the Harm Principle….
It would seem, therefore, that any libertarian case for preventing cruelty to animals — or, more correctly, as Sanchez notes, the particular classes of animals we find cute and cuddly — would have to be built around its impact on other humans, not the animals themselves. Presumably, the chief harm to others in torturing animals that are the property of the torturer is psychic.

I think this gets it backwards. While it may be most frequently invoked by libertarians, I think the Harm Principle, at least as a strong presumptive default, has pretty wide appeal in American culture. We’re all Millians now, and the most dyed-in-the-wool paternalists today will earnestly tell you that all they’re really trying to do is prevent some externality or another. What’s more particularly characteristic of libertarians is that we tend to want to stay pretty close to Mill’s rather narrowly constrained concept of “distinct and assignable” harms, excluding all sorts of purely psychic harms, costs “imposed” on the public system by people who make unhealthy choices, and so on. A libertarian case for animal cruelty laws will only work if it centers on the problem of the harm to the animals themselves. Which, pace James, is scarcely excluded by adherence to the Harm Principle—it’s only a question of how the “others” in the formulation “prevent harm to others” are defined.

Also, while I did make a silly mistake in the previous post, I don’t think it was the one Megan attributes to me. The problem wasn’t, as she suggests, that I was adopting a “binary” view of rights, such that you either have the full set that (say) a normally competent adult human is due, or none at all—which is frankly a bit crazy. The very different silly mistake I made was that we invoke the term “right” for different purposes and in different senses depending on context. Colloquially, “right” often just means any strong moral claim. Other times, we use “right” to indicate that a moral claim has a “trump” or “side-constraint” role in the moral architecture, rather than being a goal to maximize. And still other times, we use the term “right” to carve out the subset of moral claims that can be coercively enforced. What I had made was an argument for regarding higher primates, but not other animals, as having traits that give us reason to treat at least some of their moral claims as imposing side-constraints. (For the Nozick buffs, I should note that I don’t mean the term “side-constraint” to necessarily entail an absolute proscription; only that the claim is not defeasible in the ordinary linear way, by the next-biggest lump of utility to come along.) And I just sort of sloppily assumed that the traits that ground “rights” in this sense would also be the ones that make for the coercive enforcability of (some of) one’s moral claims. But I’m not sure that’s right, and at any rate, I’d need to have some sort of argument for it.

Tags: Moral Philosophy



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