BOOKS: Animal Rights Without Liberation: Applied Ethics and Human Obligations

From ANIMAL PEOPLE,  January/February 2013:

Animal Rights Without Liberation:  Applied Ethics and Human Obligations  
by Alasdair Cochrane
Columbia University Press (61 West 62nd St.,  New York,  NY  10023),  2012.  Paper,  256 pages,  $29.50.

University of Sheffield political theorist Alasdair Cochrane in Animal Rights Without Liberation advances a case for what might be described as pragmatic vegetarianism.  Though Cochrane reaches some of the same conclusions as “welfarist” philosophers,  he passes through on a different road,  and arrives at quite a different place.

Cochrane argues that there was an overlooked fork in conceptualizing animal rights between the precepts that Peter Singer outlined in Animal Liberation (1975) and those that Tom Regan elaborated in The Case for Animal Rights (1983). Post-Regan,  Cochrane observes,  most arguments for “animal rights” and “animal liberation” have tended to suppose that Singer’s ideas led necessarily toward Regan’s,  though Regan expressed some significant disagreements with Singer.

Other philosophers,  notably Bernard Rollin,  have used Animal Liberation as a foil in advancing animal welfare while limiting the notion of animal rights.

Cochrane might be seen as a “welfarist” and aligned with Rollin in making his argument that,  “We can respect the rights of animals––while still using,  owning,  and exploiting animals for certain purposes.”  This,  Cochrane hastens to add,  “is obviously not to condone all uses of animals–many of which cause them severe forms of suffering and result in their death–but simply to recognize that it is the suffering and killing that are harmful in such instances,  not the use itself.”

Rollin would agree.  But Rollin would stop well short of the view Cochrane reaches that animals should possess rights which “impose extremely strict limits on what we can do to animals in experimentation,  agriculture, genetic engineering,  and entertainment;  in relation to the environment;  and in cultural practices.  If these rights were institutionalized and established as legal rights,”  Cochrane explains,  “The vast majority of animal experimentation would have to stop.  The meat industry would have to shut down,  with farmers limited to raising crops,  along with reduced free-range egg and dairy production.

The genetic engineering of animals would be prohibited unless it could be shown that the engineered animals would not lead lives of intolerable suffering…Pet keeping would be permitted only when the well-being of the animal and any offspring were guaranteed.  Zoos would have to expand in size and provide sufficient stimulation in order to permissibly display animals.  Circuses would likely have to stop using most species of animal altogether.  Routine deforestation and other forms of habitat destruction would have to be curbed for the sake of animals…Therapeutic hunting [i.e. hunting to thin wildlife populations] would have to stop,  and investment in the development of effective contraceptive treatments for wild animals would be required.  Finally,  cultural practices that are harmful to animals,  such as bullfighting,  jallikattu,  whaling,  hunting,  animal sacrifice,  and religious slaughter,  would have to end.”

In all of this,  Cochrane comes out closer to Regan.

Chapters of Animal Rights Without Liberation examine at greater length animal use in research,  animal agriculture, animals and genetic engineering,  animal entertainment, animals and the environment,  and animals and cultural practices.

In reviewing the arguments for and against animal agriculture,  Cochrane takes into account the contention of meat industry defenders that because raising crops occupies habitat,  more animals would be harmed if the world adopted a vegetarian diet than now suffer in being sent to slaughter.

“While we cannot prevent any harm to animals being caused by our agricultural practices,  we do have the power to reduce the harm to animals caused by our agricultural practices,” Cochrane agrees.  “Since field and livestock animals have compelling interests in continued life,  it is evident that we should do as much as is reasonable to respect those interests.  What we need to determine is the agricultural policy that will cause the least harm–the policy that will result in the fewest deaths of animals.”

Cochrane then demonstrates that even if the meat industry claims are taken at face value,  far more crops are raised to feed livestock than would be needed to feed a vegetarian world,  and that therefore raising crops for human consumption kills and otherwise harms the fewest animals of all food production options.

Cochrane’s case would tend to favor veganism over vegetarianism,  except that Cochrane believes that in theory humans could produce dairy products and eggs without actually harming animals,  albeit that the volume of production would be much lower than present consumer demand,  and that the costs of production would be relatively high.

While accepting pet-keeping and even pet-breeding,  to a limited extent,  Cochrane points out that,  “The animal interest is avoiding suffering is strong and compelling.  The human interest in maintaining a suffering breed, on the other hand,  can only be described as trivial..While not ruling out all forms of animal breeding,  this conclusion does require the end of breeding that creates animals who are more vulnerable to suffering than ordinary members of their species.  This conclusion thus implies the loss of certain breeds of pet animals.”

Cochrane never mentions pit bulls,  but his argument is in effect an case for prohibiting pit bull breeding:  pit bulls have never been more than 5% of the U.S. dog population,  but are 20% of the dogs impounded in cruelty and neglect cases.

Cochrane also addresses conservationist arguments for the extermination of non-native species.

“The first thing to consider,”  Cochrane suggests,  “is whether the premise that non-native species cause harm is accurate…Claims that invoke the ‘natural’ by way of explanation are dubious in the extreme,”  Cochrane continues, having earlier explored the considerable evolution of concepts of “natural” human and animal rights.  “It is not clear,”  Cochrane concludes,  “why these animals should be denied the right to life simply because they are non-native.  Their interests in continued life are pressing and should be given due onsideration,  just like those of any other sentient animal.”

   ––Merritt Clifton

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