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There is a growing movement for the bestowing certain non-human species with legal rights of a person. What might be some of the most significant or important philosophical arguments in favor of such a policy?

My understanding of the problem is that the growing body of scientific evidence about non-human intelligence and social development of animals is pushing the scales towards granting some animals some rights until now reserved only to humans (for example, banning the catching, confining or hunting of cetaceans). Moreover, these bans would not be put in place for ethical reasons only (for the cetaceans' welfare) but because of the cetaceans' status (== cetaceans are kind of like us, so we can't do to them what we wouldn't do to humans). One could say that it's still an ethical problem, but at least an already solved ethical problem (we have almost universally decided that human slavery is wrong some time ago).

I think this is a more narrow version of the argument ("they're like us, so we have to treat them like us") as opposed to the more broader one ("they can feel pain, so we can't hurt them").

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    Could you narrow down the subject a little? There's an enormous body of literature on the subject, and a multitude of arguments. Which have you read so far in your studies? – Michael Dorfman Mar 26 '12 at 13:29
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    Go read some Peter Singer, he's written plenty on the subject – so12311 Mar 26 '12 at 15:07
  • youtube.com/watch?v=C1nxaQhsaaw – Chris S Mar 26 '12 at 20:28
  • I have tried to sharpen the question-line somewhat, and added the 'ethics' tag. In passing I would encourage you to tell us a bit more about your context and motivations -- for instance, you might tell us a little more about what you might have found out already, or about what might have made this question or concern a particularly interesting or important one for you. (Welcome to Philosophy.SE, by the way!) – Joseph Weissman Mar 26 '12 at 23:01
  • Is it really about ethics? Ethics is what WE should or should not do towards animals -- could be regulated entirely by animal welfare laws. Legal status of animals is who THEY are. I think it's more than just an ethical question. – quant_dev Mar 26 '12 at 23:16
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There is a large debate about the moral status of animals that is enlarged by the way philosophers have positioned the dialogue. Generally, the debate may be reorganized along the following lines: is there something unique or distinctive about humans that allows humans to have moral rights that are denied to nonhumans based on that distinction?

As several comments have already pointed out, the literature on this is vast, as it encompasses not merely arguments on the moral rights of animals, but arguments on the moral rights of nonhumans in general (does 'the world' have rights? will A.I. have rights? etc.), as well as arguments on consciousness (with this question in mind), and what makes a human moral (again, with this question in mind). Each of these approaches has different pertinent arguments for and against the moral status of animals.

Consequently, no complete answer may be given to your question at the moment. What I'd prefer to do is to recommend starting here. A concise and intelligent summary (much better than I could do) of several current positions is provided for you, at the bottom of which a bibliography taunts you to investigate further.

In brief, one well known position (Peter Singer's) for animal rights states that all beings capable of suffering within a utilitarian view of ethical conduct ought to be given equal ethical consideration based on that fact. To not do so is "speciesism", a form of discrimination no more justifiable than discrimination based on skin color. In this position, the relative intelligence of a species is unimportant; the capacity to suffer is an overriding feature for ethical consideration.

This position has its difficulties, critiques, and expansions which has produced a large body of literature. The main feature philosophers have found contention with is the assumption that the utilitarian view point is the best or right one to use - so the debate can regress to a foundational debate on ethics in general.

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Rights are reciprocal, so although I may give a lion or a shark the right not to be eaten I do not get the same right in return - to suggest that animals have rights is really just a form of politeness or wanting to feel good in that one is being moral. That is we bestow human characteristics on the animals (much like Disney) because it helps us to identify with them, but it is just something we do and not anything intrinsically inherent in the animal. Simba the lion would most certainly have eaten Puumba and Timon.

Yes the natural world is brutish and savage, but to give the warthog the right not to be eaten is to deny the lion the right to eat and this is different to giving someone the right to speak freely because although the audience might not like the speakers message it does not, in itself, take away any of their rights. They are free to leave and stop listening if they don't like the topic, the warthog however is not allowed to leave or stop participating in the shared event.

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    Are all rights reciprocal? Child's right to parental care isn't. – quant_dev May 20 '12 at 15:15
  • I don't think a child necessarily has a right to parental care. They may (reasonably) expect to be cared for, but there is no moral imperative to care for them. Obviously in the Darwinian sense it makes no sense to not care for your children, but that's a different question. This highlights the subject of mental capacity though I think it's reasonable to say that children have less capacity to comprehend the concepts... much as a lion or shark has no capacity to understand the concepts. If praise and blame can only make sense in the scope of comprehension and intent then the same's true here – Simon Martin May 20 '12 at 16:11
  • "much as a lion or shark has no capacity to understand the concepts" - how do you know that? – quant_dev May 20 '12 at 17:35
  • Besides the common-sense argument there is no empirical evidence to suggest lions have an understanding of the concept of fairness, justice or rights. I cannot know that a lion or shark has no capacity with absolute certainty, but I think there's little to be gained from that line of questioning (unless we pickup Descartes or Kant). AJ Ayer would ask for a meaningful way that we could test that and I don't think the is any way. You can infer a dislike for pain by observing avoidance behaviours, but an understanding of rights, there's no physical structure in their brain to deal with it. – Simon Martin May 20 '12 at 18:22
  • What physical structure deals with it in human brain? – quant_dev May 20 '12 at 22:07

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