September/October NFL LD Topic Overview

Resolved: Justice requires the recognition of animal rights

While at first glance, this topic may seem foreign to many of the LD topics over the past few years, it has its roots in many of the same moral and philosophical concepts that we see over and over again. Specifically, this topic raises the question of what it means to be deserving of rights, and what it is about humans that make us believe that we deserve these special privileges.
Clearly, the evaluative term in the resolution is “justice”, which implies that we should evaluate these questions with a value of justice. It is important to consider what it means, under justice, to “recognize” something – can we recognize something by acknowledging that it is valid but not protecting it, or must we be proactive to truly give something our recognition? Further, if being proactive is necessary, we must consider who is obligated to act; the resolution doesn’t include an actor, so you should think about who can act to recognize animal rights.
You should clearly define what it means to respect animal rights. Beyond concern for what it means to recognize something, there is also no consensus on what the phrase “animal rights” refers to. Some authors argue that it simply means not harming animals. Others argue that we can not harm animals for reasons other than rights, and that giving animals “rights” would entail giving them duties and obligations. As you can see, there are many definitions of “animal rights”, so you should clearly identify which one you defend.

Values and Criteria

Much of this debate will focus on the standards level. This is because the resolution begs of the question of who (or what) ought to be included in the systems of rights that we discuss. Thus, there will not be a clear line between standards-level and contention-level arguments: the two will almost certainly blend in to one another. It’s important to make sure that, regardless of where you decide to stop your framework and being your contention(s), it’s a logical transition point. Also, keep in mind that because this topic is both very similar and very different from older LD topics, you must be very careful if you decide to reuse any arguments from old framework or cases. While the arguments may apply, if they presuppose that we only care about humans (or that we should care about animals), they are probably not appropriate for this topic.

A lot of the topic literature is about whether or not animals are conscious and/or sentient beings. While it is difficult to claim that animals aren’t conscious (meaning that they can feel pain, know when they are in danger, etc.), some older authors like Immanuel Kant and René  Descartes make this argument. More contemporary authors tend to deal more with the question of rationality. What does it mean to be rational, and can animals be rational? Must they be rational to deserve rights? Some authors, like Christine Korsgaard , argue that animals are not rational and don’t deserve rights, but still must be protected. You should think about whether “merely” protecting animals counts as affirmative or negative ground. Negatives may find it advantageous to make arguments for why rationality is a necessary feature for morality, but affirmatives should focus on why consciousness/sentience is sufficient: even the strongest proponents of animal rights do not argue that animals are truly rational.

Finally, it is important to consider what all arguments on this topic mean in terms of rights for infants and the mentally handicapped. These groups are referred to in the topic literature as “marginal humans” or “marginal cases”. Some authors claim that the only way we can protect the rights of these humans is if we also concede to respecting animal rights; some claim that there are feature that make these humans distinct from animals; others argue that it is acceptable, once it is proven that animals do not have rights, to say that these humans do not have rights either. Knowing how your arguments about animals interact with arguments about these “marginal cases” of humans is very important to make sure that you have a consistent moral theory.

Affirmative Positions

A good place to start affirmative research would be to read some works by Tom Regan . Regan is a strong defender of animal rights because animals are conscious beings. He argues that animals can feel pain, suffer, thrive, feel happiness, and ultimately, die. It is these similarities among humans that make all humans worth protecting, and because animals share the same qualities, they are also worthy of protection. Without a doubt, the argument that animals can suffer and feel pain will be the basis of many affirmative positions. Another important author is Bernard Rollin . Rollin argues that the protection of animal rights is absolutely necessary based on the conceptions of morality that humans follow. Rollin and Frey are two of the premiere advocates of animal rights.

Another common affirmative position will focus on the harms that come from preferring humans. Most of these arguments are about specieism, and compare the arbitrary preference of humans over other species to the arbitrary preference of any race over other races. A similar vein of argumentation says that specieism is akin to sexism, and that human domination of other species parallels and justifies patriarchy. These sorts of arguments claim that the subjugation of animals makes it easier for us to demote the status of other humans and treat them without their due respect.

Finally, many affirmatives will run what can be called “equality” positions – that is to say, they will argue that animals and humans have some feature in common, and that feature justifies recognizing their rights. I already touched on this a bit with the capacity for pain or rationality, but some other similarities discussed in the literature are socializability (animals form social ties with one another, and often with humans if trained), communication skills and ability to communicate pain, cooperation with one another and with humans, vulnerability, etc. These positions will develop justifications in the framework for why a particular features determines whether or not a being is deserving of rights, then use the contention level to argue that animals have that capacity.

Negative Positions

As can be predicted from the above affirmative positions, some of the most common negative arguments will also focus on rationality and suffering. Some authors argue that, while animals are able to feel pain, they do not truly suffer because they are unable to understand what they are losing. That is, animals lack the cognitive abilities to plan for the future or consider long-term benefits and harms, so killing an animal simply occurs in that moment – while killing a human takes away his/her planned future and thus has continuous effects. Other authors, such as Immanuel Kant , René  Descartes , and John Locke  argue more simply that animals are not rational and thus do not deserve rights because rights presuppose that actors have intent for acting and can analyze those intents and actions as well as respect the rights of others. Because animals can not do so, they are not worthy of rights. In particular, Kant argues that we should respect animals because treating them poorly could have bad effects for humans, but ultimately, it is only humans who are morally relevant and have rights.

Another argument for the negative is that animals do matter, and we should protect them, but they only have secondary status to humans. This is Kant’s belief, as well as that of R.G. Frey . This means that we should not torture animals for fun, but it is acceptable to kill them for nourishment or to protect other humans or to build habitats for ourselves. According to this argument, protecting animals is a good and desirable thing that we should do, but it is not obligatory. Frey argues that animals have limited moral standing, and that traditional arguments regarding animal welfare fail. Be careful with these types of arguments: while they are by far the most common in the topic literature, they get into the difficult question as to what counts as affirmative ground and what counts as negative ground.

A different negative argument will be a contractarian position. A common version of this argument says that the reason that beings are due rights because they set limits on state action when they create agreements to form a state and obey its rules. Animals do not and can not make the sacrifices of obedience because they are unable to rationally make the choice to, for instance, follow laws. Even if they do happen to not break any laws, it is not because they are trying to be good citizens, but rather because of mere coincidence: again, animals can not analyze their actions and intentions. Further, because animals don’t participate in the formation of the contract and the limits it creates, they are not party to its benefits. Thus, because animals do not take part in this social contract, they are not due rights.

Finally, it is important to discuss Peter Singer. Singer is a famous defender of protecting animals; however, he does not defend animal rights. Singer is a strict utilitarian, meaning that he does not believe that animals – or anyone else – have rights; rather, he argues that we should only be concerned with minimizing pain to sentient beings. This pain minimization is not a defense of rights because rights suggest an obligation for absolute protection, while for Singer, there are no moral absolutes. While at first glance, Singer may appear to be an affirmative author, his defense is merely of minimizing pain, not recognizing or protecting rights.

This topic analysis was written by National Champion Karlyn Gorski and peer-reviewed by several fellows at the National Center for Policy Analysis.



About Lauren Sabino

Lauren Sabino is the Director of Youth Programs at the National Center for Policy Analysis. She currently administrates Debate Central, the largest free online debate resource.
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