The Claims of Animals and the Needs of Strangers: Two Cases of Imperfect Right

Journal of Practical Ethics 6 (1):19-51 (2018)
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This paper argues for a conception of the natural rights of non-human animals grounded in Kant’s explanation of the foundation of human rights. The rights in question are rights that are in the first instance held against humanity collectively speaking—against our species conceived as an organized body capable of collective action. The argument proceeds by first developing a similar case for the right of every human individual who is in need of aid to get it, and then showing why the situation of animals is similar. I first review some of the reasons why people are resistant to the idea that animals might have rights. I then explain Kant’s conception of natural rights. I challenge the idea that duties of aid and duties of kindness to animals fit the traditional category of “imperfect duties” and argue that they are instead cases of “imperfect right.” I explain how you can hold a right against a group, and why it is legitimate to conceive of humanity as such a group. I then argue that Kant’s account of the foundation of property rights is grounded in a conception of the common possession of the Earth that grounds a right to aid and the rights of animals to be treated in ways that are consistent with their good. Finally, I return to the objections to the idea that animals have rights and offer some responses to them.

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