Jan Narveson, "On a Case for Animal Rights"

Is it Wrong to Kill
Non-Human Animals?
Jan Narveson: “On a Case for Animal Rights ”
Narveson’s Project
• Narveson argues that Regan’s claims against
Contractarianism fail.
• Narveson argues that the moral principles we have the best
reason to adopt are those that make us better off.
• With regard to animals, Narveson argues that we can justify
a minimal set of restrictions on our treatment of some nonhuman animals without adopting Regan’s rights-based
• Narveson claims that the Contractarianism approach can
explain why we have a stronger duty to a severely retarded
child than to a non-human animal with similar capacities.
Morality, Generally Speaking
• Something’s being wrong either constitutes or implies that
there is a reason for not doing it.
• For agent A to “have a reason” for not doing x is for it to be
the case that among A’s values is a negative value attached
to x or to something connected with x.
• So what do we say of a case where x would cause pain to
some individual D, but where D is not an individual that A has
any particular interest in (D may be a dog, or a human).
• Suppose D knows that it was A who did x.
 This may not matter.
• Suppose D gives A a reproachful look.
 This certainly might affect A’s decision to do x.
• Suppose D is able to react to x by tearing A to shreds.
 Certainly, A will now take notice.
Morality, Generally Speaking
• With all this, however, we still haven’t given A a reason for
having a moral aversion to doing x.
• We need two things:
i. A reasonable understanding of what constitutes having a
“moral” aversion to something.
ii. A characterization of the sort of facts which would
constitute good reasons for A to adopt such an aversion.
Features of Morality (Defending Contractarianism)
• A morality is a set of prescriptions (requirements,
prohibitions, recommendations, rules) with the following
1) Overridingness: Where there is a moral prescript, it
should override contrary inclinations and interests held by
an agent.
2) Universal Application: Moral prescripts apply to everyone
(or at least to everyone in the relevant group).
3) Internalization: Where there is a moral prescript, some
agent A will apply it to A.
4) Interpersonal Reinforcement: Just as a moral prescript
applies to everyone, everyone is to “enforce” the
5) Decentralization/Informality: Morality is not a system
imposed by force of declared law from without; everyone
is to enforce it.
Features of Morality (Defending Contractarianism)
• On this basis, a morality could be clannish, or biased, or
arbitrary, but presumably rational individuals will not assist in
the informal reinforcement of restrictions on behavior that is
contrary to reason.
• Many acts are such that A will want to do them, but they will
only be in A’s interests provided that others don’t do them.
Other agents will be in the same boat.
 If all agents do these acts, all the agents will be worse off
than if they were able to agree to act in certain ways.
 What makes it worth A’s while to act on some reason is
that A can expect that all other agents will do the same
(and vice versa).
• It is in our collective interest to adopt collective rules that
override any particular interest.
• These rules will be components of a rational morality.
What About Non-Agents?
• If some individuals in a group are not agents (Narveson calls
them “patients”), this schema will not apply to them.
• While it will not necessarily be in the interest of others to
adopt and assist in the reinforcement of rules requiring
agents to have regard for patients as such, many agents will
be interested in such patients, and so it will be in everyone’s
interest to have rules that protect these patients from harm.
• But rules benefiting patients as such, or calling upon agents
to refrain from harming them as such, have no fundamental
• If we want something from an animal, and treating the animal
well is necessary for getting it, then we shall have a reason
to treat it well. If we don’t, however, why go to the trouble?
What About Non-Agents?
• We have a certain sympathetic involvement with individuals
having certain experiences, regardless of their ability to do
anything about it.
 As adults do with children, for example.
• But an argument that we should forego the many benefits
available from eating animals, and extensive animal
experimentation, simply because those benefits will come at
considerable cost to the animals themselves, seems to be
without merit.
• Certainly, such a notion is not generally intuitive: we do not
think we do anything wrong in raising animals for their meat,
even though the animals die as a result.
• However, we generally do believe that it is wrong to be
deliberately cruel to such animals, or to mistreat or take the
lives of human infants and the severely retarded.
Marginal Cases
• Some humans to whom we are inclined to extend the
benefits of morality are less qualified for them than are some
• So how can we give moral regard to those humans and not
to the animals?
• Some will argue that what is relevant is that one group
consists of humans, and the other not, and that this is
 But “speciesism” seems a poor candidate for moral
Marginal Cases
 “[M]oral relevance is established when it is shown that
there is good reason for moral agents to have a principle in
which the characteristic in question figures significantly. […]
And that good reason is provided by showing that there is
good reason to think that moral agents will be better off
having such a principle than they would not having one.”
 It seems clear that there is no such fact about the property
of being a member of a species, as such, that will benefit
agents, generally.
Marginal Cases
• Some moral agents identify strongly with a group of
individuals which are not moral agents (e.g. Hindus with
particular animals).
 We may have good reasons for not having their attitude,
but we will respect their customs when dealing with them,
even if we find them strange or irrational.
 Similarly, we have good reason to place restrictions on the
treatment of some particular animals, like household pets:
we expect others to respect the objects of our interests,
however peculiar.
 But extending this principle to higher animals generally
(say, comparing them with oppressed people) is
Marginal Cases
 The sort of commitment to “animal rights” is comparable to
the moral content of religious beliefs—it is a different sort of
morality than what we are talking about: “How can we live
with ourselves if we continue to treat some feeling beings
badly when we would object to such treatment of others, or
Marginal Cases
• While some vegetarians would dislike their dining
companions ordering meat dishes, and some nonvegetarians would refrain from doing so in the company of
vegetarians, we would not tend to take up vegetarianism
ourselves, nor support legislative against the use of animal
for laboratory experiments or as food.
• We have come to recognize the value of non-human animals
on an environmental level, such that it is imprudent to hunt a
species to extinction.
• Likewise, we value the intellectual interest in the continued
existence of different species.
• And it seems that no claim by hunters will be strong enough
to override either of these interests.
• Based on the public interest, we might restrict some extreme
treatment of animals, but there seems no reason to accept
the sort of restrictions imposed by Regan’s principles.
Marginal Cases
• Consider again children and the mentally infirm:
 Such individuals will be wards of others, since they cannot
care for themselves.
 So why should we be concerned for their wellbeing, as we
mostly are? Why not let people hunt them?
 To answer these questions, we need to refer to two strongly
supporting sets of considerations:
1) Every such individual is the offspring (and in many
cases, the sibling) of persons who take a close
sympathetic interest in their welfare; and
2) There is no appreciable interest in treating such
individuals adversely.
Marginal Cases
• This is contrasted with the case of most animals:
 Many animals have much to offer us, be it culinary, for
clothing, for experimentation, etc.
• There is one special “interest” that properly rates special
negative attention: cruelty for its own sake.
 There is a public interest to be had in exterminating
attitudes of cruelty, generally.
 While we should be free to use animals for human
purposes, we should not misuse them.
• “There is an overwhelming case for not classifying [marginal]
cases identically with normal humans, and there is a good
reason for generally regarding the higher animals as eligible
for minimally decent treatment.” (156)
 Marginal humans are to be given an intermediate status,
though they are not “charter members of the moral club.”