In The Case for Animal Rights, Tom Regan argues that all commercial animal agriculture (this extends to their use in medicine) should be abolished. In order for this to happen, a new ethical framework must be adopted in order to give animals rights in the same way that we give them to other human beings.
According to Regan, the commercial animal agricultural industry isn’t morally wrong because it causes animals to suffer (though this is clearly morally condemnable); it is wrong because it uses animals as a means to an end, e.g. to produce meat for our taste buds, or cosmetics for our skin, or medicine for our health. Such an anthropocentric view of animals is inherently immoral, because animals are viewed not as living beings with their own value, but as resources to be used for human consumption and human benefit. Regan’s thought follows Kantian lines; namely the belief that something is immoral if it treats another (human being) as a means rather than an end in itself. Regan wants to extend this maxim to animals, so that any action that treats an animal as a means rather than an end in itself is categorically immoral.
Up until this point, animals have been given rights only in an indirect way, as rights are afforded to our property or to our pets. When I harm your pet dog, it is not the dog who I have wronged, it is you, because I am obliged to not harm your dog only insofar as harming your dog might cause you distress and thereby harm you. Without rights of its own, I can not directly wrong the dog. This is why contractarianism fails as an appropriate ethical framework for for the abolition of commercial animal agriculture.
Contractarianism is the belief that morality is something tacitly agreed to for the sake of mitigating harms to ourselves and others, under which animals, along with infants and disabled people, can not be morally considerable in the same way as adult, non-disabled human beings because only adult, non-disabled human beings can partake in the sort of decision making required for moral participation. Children and disabled people have rights only in so far as their non-child, non-disabled guardians have rights: it is up to the guardian whether that dependent is allowed to go outside, or is given or withdrawn from medical treatment etc. Under such a framework, animals can not be free from exploitation since their rights are decided for them by human beings.
Utilitarianism also fails as an ethical framework appropriate to the abolition of commercial animal agriculture, because it allows means to justify ends – even if those means are themselves wrong. An animal might be denied a life-saving vaccine if, for the same price, six animals of another species could be given an equivalent vaccine and survive. In all cases where a greater number of animals will live for the sacrifice of a lesser number of animals, utilitarianism prescribes that everyone ought to act in the way that saves the greater number, even if doing so meant that one species suffered more, or was brought closer to extinction. If everyone were to act in this way, certain animals would inevitably suffer and die out for the sake of maximising the existence of others. This is incompatible with the abolition of commercial animal agriculture.
Regan’s proposal that animals should be afforded rights in the same way (and of the same moral weight) that human beings are rests on the premise that all animals have inherent value. Assigning a living thing inherent value is a way of sidestepping the problems caused by other ethical frameworks when confronting the ethical problems of commercial animal agriculture. Inherent value is often given as a reason for why abortion is morally wrong, or why suicide is morally wrong (if life is inherently valuable, then terminating it is not wrong because of the suffering that it causes; it is wrong in and of itself). But what if I don’t think it’s true that things can have inherent value?
One way around this would be to argue that the suffering caused by the commercial animal agricultural industry is what is really morally contestable, and by extension the animals who suffer (Regan would have this the other way around). If suffering alone is what matters, then it doesn’t matter if one animal suffers or ten do: both are equally immoral and deserving of equal disapprobation. Utilitarianism wouldn’t work under this framework (the suffering of ten animals will always be worse than the suffering of one); but contractarianism could: if suffering is what matters then whatever obligation I have towards an animal is irrelevant to the moral blameworthiness of my action towards it. Commercial animal agriculture could continue, but only in situations where no animal suffers. To argue that this is insufficient, since it doesn’t abolish all use of animals by humans, is an argument in need of some compelling reasons why all use of animals by humans is wrong without recourse to the arbitrary assignment of inherent value.
The Case for Animal Rights goes some way to arguing why animals ought to be treated as more than means for human ends, but its way of getting here (by arguing that animals have inherent value) leaves itself open to attack: if commercial animal agriculture is to be abolished, justifiable reasons must be given for why it ought to be abolished.