[Regard this article as a draft; unfinished piece of writing]

I’m not writing this article particularly because I seek to provide some answers – but because I seek to get some.

I recently came across a reasonably plausible – at least seemingly – take which transparently suggests that animals do not have rights. Jordan Peterson, an apparently infamous Canadian thinker, clinical psychologist and a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, expressed it. I find it worth considering. Let’s have a look at it (I paraphrased it).

Animals do not have rights. Human beings have rights. Rights are not "inside" or part of a person. They are part of the complex agreements that make up civilized society. Or, in other words, they represent a story which educated human beings choose to believe in order to cooperate flexibly and in large numbers. They (or we) act upon this story as though it were a reality – because it massively comes in handy.
My right to freedom, for example, is your obligation to let me speak and act with a minimum of interference. Thus, each of my rights is your obligation. And each of your rights is, simultaneously, my obligation.
Animals cannot shoulder an obligation. Thus, they cannot participate in the complex social contract that structures rights.
This does not mean that we should treat them any old way. But it does mean that the proper treatment of animals is not predicated upon their "rights.”
This also explains why you don't have a "right" to medical care. Someone else has to provide it. If you have a right to it, then the provider, who has no choice but to provide it, is no more than a slave. Thus, if we had to give animals rights – this would result in us being their slaves.

Why Does This Issue Even Matter?!

In order to be able to hope that humanity can make progress towards protecting animals, I believe it may be (perhaps immensely) efficient to reach a consensus when it comes to what general path we should take in order to try to do so. And, by deciding to bestow rights upon them – both legally and socially speaking – we automatically choose a path. By choosing this path, things will change – and it may be ambiguous whether for the better.

Peterson essentially argues that if we give animals rights this would cause contradiction when it comes to what the concept of “rights” means. Theoretically speaking, I tend to agree with him. But, would this contradiction actually come to life and thus have any baleful consequences in practice? Or is it only and merely a theoretical and sophisticated truth? Indeed, theoretically, by offering rights to animals, this will result in us being their slaves. But, crucially, I don't see how this can affect us in a negative way in practice since animals are not even aware that we are their "slaves". They cannot deploy a power which they don't even understand and are unconscious of.

I will conclude vaguely, by sustaining that neither am I sure that by giving animals rights this would render us their slaves; nor that by doing so we will choose the best path towards protecting them better.


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One factor Peterson misses is counter-factual agreements.

If sufficiently advanced aliens came along whose concepts of rights were too complex for us to understand/implement how would we like them to act? Us unilaterally giving animals “rights” can be thought of as a counter-factual agreement with those aliens that we should be given similar rights. E.g. “All living beings have the right to achieve no worse utility than they would achieve if left to their own devices within their own environment”.

Not sure if this is helpful - probably the word “rights” is too loaded to be a useful concept in the debate anyway.

“All living beings have the right to achieve no worse utility than they would achieve if left to their own devices within their own environment”.

Does that include plants? This is not a frivolous question.

I don’t know - I just made it up :)

I’m not sure how one would evaluate utility for a plant. Without desires should we count revealed preferences? Should we count them as desiring offspring or desiring the continuation of their species?

Thinking about it like this gives an interesting and possibly helpful framing.

I’m not sure how one would evaluate utility for a plant. Without desires should we count revealed preferences?

That would be interesting. Clearly, an ethical vegan should never eat spicy food. Spices are toxins that plants secrete to defend themselves against predators, and the vegan should respect the plant's revealed desires. The same applies to plants that defend themselves with hard shells or thorns. A vegan should only eat plants that want to be eaten. The vegan must prohibit also the consumption of plants that can only be rendered edible by cooking. Cooking is an intrinsically violent and barbaric practice, as are stabbing with forks, slashing with knives, and grinding with teeth. And where is the dignity of plants when they are industrially grown and then transported vast distances, sometimes to regions where the living plant could not survive?

No. The ethical vegan should have all their teeth removed and subsist on free-range tomatoes, depositing their stools in the fields where they are grown.

One would have to distinguish between instrumental and terminal values. As evolutionary entities without a brain, their terminal value would have to be reproduction rather than survival? I certainly don’t think plants have a preference for dignity.

Also if humans give life to plants/animals, that being had 0 utility before humans got involved. However, others never had the chance to live and so lost utility. It certainly isn’t an easy calculation.

Peterson is correct (IMO) that "right" is a shorthand for behavioral constraints on people, not something innate. He's also right that animals cannot (as far as we know) think abstractly enough to respect or exercise rights. I disagree that rights are based on agreements - they're more about commonly-held expectations and social reinforcements, but that's not relevant to the question at hand.

So I don't think animals have rights (and honestly, I don't think humans do either, in a universal sense; Rights are always contextual). But I also don't think "rights" is the best filter for how to treat other entities. You should be asking "which animal experiences have moral weight, and how does that compare to the weight of various human desires"?

For me, the answer is "nonzero, but much much lower than humans". And I don't know how to answer existential questions like "would it be better for a being to never exist, or to live in well-fed captivity for some time, then die painfully?"

To your object-level recommendation that we "bestow" (I'd prefer "recognize" as a verb that applies better to the concept of rights) animal's rights, I say no. They have the right to remain tasty (or, in the case of pets, "entertaining/useful/comforting") for humans. If they choose to give up that right, they won't be brought into being in the first place.

First, to give my comment some context, I'm vegan, so I've decided to act to reduce the impact I have on animal suffering in at least the direction of removing my participation in activities that facilitate the creation of more animal suffering. That said, I don't really think in terms of rights for animals, although sometimes as a matter of political expedience it may make sense to talk in that language. Instead I think in terms of responsibility that comes from self-awareness: we know what we are doing unlike non-human animals, and so we have a responsibility given what we know to act in ways that help animals (and all life) rather than hurt them. Talk of rights has more to do with how we carry out that responsibility in the systems we find ourselves in.

This also explains why you don't have a "right" to medical care. Someone else has to provide it. If you have a right to it, then the provider, who has no choice but to provide it, is no more than a slave.

I don't understand why this logic would apply to medical care but not, for instance, the right to speech. Freedom of speech must be provided. Even in the narrow sense of the term - the right to not be persecuted by the government for your speech/expression - it requires a government with enough checks and balances and a society with enough rule-of-law style norms that any old judge/cop/politician can't abuse their power to persecute you for what you've said. That in turn requires taxes, elections, all that jazz.

You could argue that, empirically, the cost to ensure a right to medical care happens to be greater than the cost to ensure a right to speech (I don't know if that's true, but, questions about what counts as a cost aside, it's an empirical question), but I don't think a right to speech is a different type of right than a right to medical care.

In that light, it's not clear why animals couldn't have rights. It's clearly true that these rights would incur costs - if there were no cost to upholding the right, there would be nothing to uphold - and that these costs would mostly, if not entirely, fall on us humans. But why would the fact that the costs fall disproportionately on some people invalidate/disqualify the right? It costs a lot more to uphold some people's right to speech than others.

In fact, Jordan Peterson is a great example of someone whose right to speech costs a lot more to uphold than the average person's because he's actually saying things that cause governments and other powerful institutions to try to silence him. Similarly, some people require a lot more medical care than others. The cost to animal rights would, by definition, be incurred entirely by animals who can't provide anything back, so this makes it a sort of extreme case, but I (genuinely, not just for the sake of argument) don't understand why the extreme should be handled any differently (again, modulo empirical findings like "this right is too expensive to uphold right now, but we'll keep working on it and uphold it when we can").

More concisely: if upholding animal rights makes us slaves to animals, why does upholding Jordan Peterson's particularly costly right to speech not make us slaves (or almost-slaves) to him?

"Thus, if we had to give animals rights – this would result in us being their slaves."

If we give other citizens the right to not be murdered, does that make us their slaves? Obviously not.

If we give animals the right to not be murdered, does that make us their slaves? Again, obviously not.

I'm not sure how someone thinks that giving rights means slavery. Obviously obligations can fall into a spectrum of severity, but I don't think the entire spectrum is worth labeling "slavery."

I agree with other commenters that the slavery framing is unhelpful. However, I mostly do agree with Jordan Peterson otherwise.

Human rights set expectations how we treat each other. From my perspective, respect for them is conditional on reciprocity. I will not respect the rights of an individual who doesn't respect mine. Their function is to set standards of behavior that make everybody better off.

A benefit of human rights, rather than mammal rights or just smaller-identity rights is that they benefit everyone who can understand the concept, so they're memetically adequate to cover the basics in a globalized world without incurring the huge cost of including the very large number of nonhuman animals. Basically, everybody who can participate in the discussion should be able to agree on the concept - and benefit from that agreement - without having to commit to universal species-independent collectivism.

For this reason, I don't see the suffering of animals as a problem except for empathy management and perhaps creating a culture of anti-cruelty, if we need it for other purposes.

One problem with human rights is that they are not necessarily well-defined in all contexts, and sometimes people can do strategically better by respecting the rights only of a subset of people. A possible solution would be to insist on minimal standards for the very basic expectations, e.g. don't randomly torture or murder people you dislike, while setting higher standards only for subgroups, e.g. citizenship transferring the right to live and work in a certain territory.

You seem to write exclusively about political topics. If your goal is to become more rational, this is probably a bad idea.

Your disagreement with Peterson seems to be mostly about the definition of the word "rights". Based on your paraphrase, Peterson seems to define "having rights" roughly as being a part of a network of mutual obligations, and concludes that we could hardly have mutual obligations with animals; we could still choose to have unilateral obligations towards them, but that's not the same thing. (Calling it slavery is the usual political exaggeration though.) Your definition of "rights" seems more like a list of things that should happen to you in a society that aspires to be nice, and does not depend on imaginary symmetry. Shortly: you two are using the same word for slightly different concepts.

FYI, I think Robby's "Politics is Hard Mode" works better as a more up-to-date "politics is the mindkiller" referent. (edit: although it turns out Scott Alexander raised some interesting points that I somehow missed the last time I read the post)

Refuse to read directly from his book, but from the extract above Peterson argues that giving rights to a person/animal has a direct impact on another person individually. Specifically in his argument for medical care, if one person is ill the responsibility to provide medical care would fall on one individual.

I'd argue that our rights result from the shared values of the societies that we participate in. The burden of those rights are shared by all members of the society. An example being: Large majority of European inhabitants value health and believe medical care should be accessible by all, European societies see health/medical care as a right, burden of providing healthcare falls on society as a whole.

Key difference is that no-one is anyone else's slave.

Even following his argument, what happens to children or other people who may not be able to "shoulder the burden" in his model? Does he lump them in with the animals who in his view do not have any rights?

So if society values animal welfare, they will have rights and the burden of giving those rights will fall on society.

[Edited] Not all humans have an ability to reciprocate by carrying out obligations. It's true in general that rights imply obligations, but it doesnt have to be true in every case. Thats not implied by the fact that it has to be true in some cases. So you can offer rights to entities that can't reciprocate. But you don't have to offer them the full panoply. For instance, in most societies, minors have limited rights and obligations. So animals don't have to have a full set of rights, including the right to vote , or, more contentiously, the right to die of old age.

I don't understand the distinction here between rights and "not being treated any old way." Is the argument that the imperative not to make animals suffer is lesser/more contingent because of their lack of agency? What is the practical takeaway of "animals don't have rights"? 

I agree with Peterson in that animals do not have "innate" rights. Neither do humans.


Rights are a social construction, with specific rules of what is allowed and what's not. It can change through times as institutions evolve. In that sense, Peterson is right.

However, if we live in a socio-economic context where humans have "natural" rights, it is possible animals can have "natural rights." In fact, our institutions are evolving towards "nature rights" in which we create the framework for "non-thinking" animals or things to have rights and be defended.

Given that, and also taken for granted that we humans are also animals. I still got some questions about our rights, our role on the planet and, our interaction with others.

I'm going to give an example. I hope we all should agree that it is wrong to force humans to be sterile, but we admit to making dogs and cats infertile, and we present that as "animalism." But, is it not a violation of animals' rights to reproduce? Are we not imposing our views and needs on animals when we do that we wouldn't admit it for humans in such a way?

Slaves? Obligations? Seriously? This is an absolutist argument. It's the sort of argument that you'd hear for supporting slavery as society was changing away from the vile practice.

My guess is that once our society isn't dependent on animals for meat—and likely medical experimentation—the idea of animals having rights will be in the majority.

If animals have rights, then our only obligation is to respect those rights.

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