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Book Review: Animal Rights without Liberation by Alasdair Cochrane

John Hadley - 23rd January 2013
Book Review: Animal Rights without Liberation by Alasdair Cochrane

Animal Rights without Liberation by Alasdair Cochrane. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012. 246 pp £20.50 (paperback), 978 0231158275.

Readers unfamiliar with animal rights may find the very idea perplexing. Aren’t rights reserved for human beings only? Come to think of it, aren't rights reserved for only certain kinds of human beings, namely, persons—people who possess sophisticated psychological capacities?

Animal rights philosophers like Alasdair Cochrane (Department of Politics, Sheffield University) are in the business of challenging the orthodox view about rights. In Animal Rights without Liberation he offers a qualified position—animals have a right not to suffer and a right not to be killed but they do not have a right to liberty. In other words, people may continue to own and use animals so long as they do not kill them or cause too much pain in the process.

Following legal theorist Joel Feinberg, Cochrane argues that having interests ought to be the basis for rights. What does he mean by ‘interests’?

Cochrane identifies interests with individual well-being. His concern is for the well-being of sentient animals, that is, animals with the capacity to experience pleasure and pain. Indeed, in a recent article in Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, Cochrane argues that we should do away with the notion of human rights and adopt a system of sentient rights.

Interests are those things that when satisfied make lives go well; and when frustrated make lives go badly. Understanding interests in this way means that a lot of things can be in one’s interests. Not being tortured is in my interest; the bus running on time is in my interest. Does this mean I automatically have a right to such things?

Cochrane says not. Applying a standard laid down by Joseph Raz, he says we should only bestow rights when the relevant interests are ‘sufficiently important to impose a duty on others’ (p. 9). This extension of a Razian criterion for rights to animals is the most distinctive and important aspect of Cochrane’s theory.

In a balanced and thoughtful discussion about animal experimentation, Cochrane argues that animals have two interests that meet the Razian standard— the interest in not suffering and the interest in continuing to live. Such a judgment has far reaching implications and readers wary of philosophical method will no doubt raise their eyebrows. But, assuming that one takes philosophical reasoning seriously, there is little to take issue with in Cochrane’s analysis.

Beyond a right not to suffer and a right not to be killed, do we owe animals anything else?

It is Cochrane’s answer to this question that sets his theory apart from orthodox approaches to animal rights. He self-consciously distances himself from the avowedly anti-utilitarian theories of Tom Regan and Gary Francione (pp. 7-14). Indeed, Cochrane claims that orthodox animal rights theory arose as a response to perceived shortcomings in Peter Singer’s utilitarianism (p. 208).

For Regan and Francione, Singer’s utilitarianism does not go far enough because it does not logically preclude humans owning or using animals. In theory, utilitarianism will only entail liberating animals in circumstances when doing so is the means to maximising utility.

By any reasonable application of the utility calculus, however, utilitarianism will mandate radical improvements in the lives of hundreds of millions of animals enduring harsh confinement in intensive production systems. Nonetheless, it is true that within utilitarian theory there is no logical basis for in principle opposition to humans owning or using animals. Hence, the animal rights orthodoxy that so long as animals have the status of chattel, there cannot be any serious across the board improvement in their lot—animals will always be prey to the whim and caprice of their masters.

At this point, the parallel with the treatment of animals and human slavery comes into view. Orthodox animal rights theorists argue that just as stopping the myriad harms to individual slaves required the abolition of human chattel; we will not stop humans harming animals without abolishing the institution of animal ownership. And, the primary means to do this in ethical, legal and political theory, no less than actual liberal democracies, is via the attribution of liberty rights.

Cochrane, however, rejects the view that animals have a right to liberty. He claims that because most animals, great apes and cetaceans aside, are not psychologically sophisticated enough, their interest in liberty is not sufficiently strong to impose a duty on others. Indeed, Cochrane claims animals have no intrinsic interest in being set free; instead, liberty is only good for them instrumentally when it makes them feel better.

This qualified conclusion is entirely consistent with the two-fold test for determining the strength of an interest which does the lion’s share of reasoning in the distinctly Razian part of Cochrane's theory. For him, two factors determine whether an interest is sufficiently important to impose a duty on others: ‘the value of the good to the well-being of the individual; and the level of psychological continuity between the individual now and when the good or goods will occur‘(p. 52).

As far as it goes, this seems fair enough. Assuming they are being treated well and given that they cannot look into the future, there are good grounds for thinking the animal interest in liberty is indeed weak. As Cochrane points out, unlike persons, animals are not self-conscious and cannot 'devise and revise a conception of the good life’ (p. 26). While they may be harmed by confinement if it involves suffering and they may benefit from freedom if it means they feel better, it is unlikely that freedom itself is on their radar.

However, isn’t animal rights the idea that psychological sophistication shouldn’t matter all that much? Recall that the very idea of animal rights stands as a challenge to the orthodoxy that only persons should have rights. Recall also Bentham's famous person-debunking clarion call: "it is not Can they reason? But Can they suffer?"

Cochrane’s theory like most animal rights theories is beset with a fundamental tension. At once, the emancipatory potential of sentience is advanced but then reigned in. Well-being qualifies animals for entry to the moral community but ultimately their well-being is regarded as second rate.

Such theoretical ambivalence has been a carefully veiled feature of most theories of animal rights since Mill famously ridiculed Bentham’s thoroughgoing sentience-based version of utilitarianism as a philosophy fit for pigs. Indeed, only theories that have no truck with commonsense intuitions at all, like Bentham’s, are really in a position to place humans and animals on a genuinely equal moral plain. The rest, arguably, are more or less disguised versions of the person-centred orthodoxy masked by rhetorical appeals to cross-species equality.

The fact Cochrane's theory might pull in opposite directions, however, ought to give no comfort to opponents of animal rights. His reasoning, assuming you accept animals matter at all, is as uncontroversial as his writing is accessible. Major reform to animal user industries follows from it. Most forms of animal agriculture and animal-based biomedical research would need to be banned. The use of animals for entertainment and in cultural practices would be seriously curtailed. Contraception would be the only acceptable means of managing free-roaming animal populations.

Indeed, most practices in which animals are killed or made to suffer are at least prima facie wrong—so Cochrane’s theory implies.

Cochrane might respond that I am overstating things because his conclusions are tempered by their provisional character. Another distinctive aspect of his theory is “democratic under-labouring”, a concept he attributes to Adam Swift and Stuart White. Democratic under-labouring works to qualify the implications of his theory by allowing the ‘values and wishes’ (p. 44) of existing political communities a kind of veto over any specific rights claims.

In the bigger theoretical scheme of things, however, democratic under-labouring concerns the implementation of Cochrane's theory and does not alter the substantive philosophical basis for the conclusions therein. Given that so much of his theory is the product of abstract reasoning about human impacts upon animal well-being, the concept of democratic under-labouring is, arguably, an idle wheel.

The book’s title ‘Animal Rights without Liberation’ is indeed apt. For Cochrane, in line with orthodox animal rights theory, animals are owed some utility-trumping rights—a right not to suffer and a right not to be killed; but, in line with utilitarianism, he wants to promote well-being without giving animals a right to liberty in the sense of outright protection from ownership and use by humans. Cochrane thus successfully ‘decouples’ the rights-utilitarian dichotomy and locates his theory in the middle ground between the two. You might say he gives with one hand while taking away with the other.

Dr John Hadley is Research Lecturer in Philosophy in the School of Humanities and Communication Arts, University of Western Sydney.