January 22, 2018 | Rome, Italy | °C

Sentient beings

By Shaula Villadoniga*
Published: 2016-11-27

From that perspective, it seems that the reworking of identity is in order. Absolutely. And to make matters more complicated, it's not just a national identity that is at stake here. Bullfighting and related events, like the running with the bulls in Pamplona, are highly gendered. They propagate a certain construction of "masculinity" — and as an aside, it may not come as a surprise that the San Fermin [running of the bulls] festival is marred by sexual violence against women.

Religion plays a part. Many religious festivals in Spain are linked to certain practices of torturing, defeating and killing animals, arguably to confirm man's superior status within God's creation vis-a-vis the animal kingdom. But complexity should not deter us from reworking those identities and redefining what is meant by "culture." I like the slogan of the Spanish animal rights movement in that respect: "torture is not culture."

You've just published a book on animal rights in The Netherlands. But the concept of "rights" seems to belong to the human sphere. Rights come with duties, and animals are not able to fulfill those duties. How could they have rights? That is a very apt question, invoking different responses. For one, from an empirical perspective one could argue that, at least in some countries, it is simply a matter of fact. In The Netherlands for example, the intrinsic value of animals is recognized within the law and forms the basis for legislation that grants a certain level of protection to animals. Animals are, to a limited degree, subjects of law. You could well argue that this constitutes rights for the animals. Surely, it is also possible to maintain that these are not "rights," but just "entitlements." Yet that's already getting quite semantic. That animals cannot fulfill the corresponding duties is something very common within human rights too. No doubt children have rights, but they cannot be held accountable. Why could that not be the case for animals?

Digging a little deeper, the question is what is this thing that we call "a right." Are rights God-given? Are they somehow intrinsic to Nature? If so, we will need to deduce from "the word of God" or "the Book of Nature" whether animals bear rights. In fact, you could make a pretty strong argument that they do for many religious traditions. In the Islamic tradition for example, animals have the right to have access to drinking water. Or are rights human constructions to regulate a just society? In the latter case there is nothing categorical that would prevent us from granting animals — or certain animals — rights.

The next question would be, Why should we? I think the answer lies in the fact that animals, like we human animals, can experience the world, can feel pain, can suffer — but can also enjoy being alive. Like us, they have an interest in not being harmed, an interest in flourishing.

They are, as philosopher Tom Regan put it, "subject-of-a-life." So if we, as citizen, as society, are concerned with justice, we need to pay full regard to their interests. And if the right not to be tortured is grounded in the fact that torture causes pain, one cannot deny this right to an animal simply because it belongs to a different species.

What about killing animals for food? That's a trickier issue. It depends. Personally, I think we should not mince words: to kill an animal is to harm it. You deny the creature to experience a continued life. You thwart any future-directed plans the animal may have had, even if that future was quite immediate. You go against the strong, primal impulse of the animal to live. But even if animals have a prima facie right to live, that does not mean it is always morally wrong to kill them for food: rights can collide and then it needs to be determined which right will override the other.

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