Animal Rights and the Duty to Harm

When to be a Harm Causing Deontologist


An adequate theory of rights ought to forbid the harming of animals (human or nonhuman) to promote trivial interests of humans, as is often done in the animal-user industries. But what should the rights view say about situations in which harming some animals is necessary to prevent intolerable injustices to other animals? I develop an account of respectful treatment on which, under certain conditions, it’s justified to intentionally harm some individuals to prevent serious harm to others. This can be compatible with recognizing the inherent value of the ones who are harmed. My theory has important implications for contemporary moral issues in nonhuman animal ethics, such as the development of cultured meat and animal research.

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  1. 1.

    Essentially, I am concerned with this theoretical question: If product X will prevent or significantly reduce serious harm to farmed animals and X must be tested on animals, is it ever permissible, on the rights view, to test product X on animals?.

  2. 2.

    According to Impossible Foods (2018), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) required that heme be tested on rats before the Impossible Burger could receive Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) status. GRAS status allegedly is required for Impossible Foods to sell their burgers in larger restaurants and grocery stores.

  3. 3.

    I am concerned primarily with the duty to prevent factory farmed animals from coming into existence (or the duty to reduce the number of factory farmed animals that come into existence), and not with preventing harm to currently existing animals. I assume that intensively raised farmed animals, if they came into existence, would not have lives worth living, and thus preventing factory famed animals from coming into existence prevents serious harm.

  4. 4.

    David Boonin (2003) argues that Regan’s theory ought to be “curtailed” such that it can explain why it’s justified to impose relatively minor harms on some to produce great benefits for others. In my development of animal rights theory, I don’t “curtail” Regan’s view; rather, I show how there are resources within Regan’s rights view, just as it is, that can be used to get this result.

  5. 5.

    When I use the word “individuals,” I refer to individuals with inherent value.

  6. 6.

    There is a sense in which the rights view agrees with Jamie Mayerfeld (1999) that the prevention of suffering is more important than the promotion of happiness, as the rights view doesn’t recognize a justice-based duty to promote happiness. But it does recognize a justice-based duty to prevent the suffering of those who are treated unjustly.

  7. 7.

    Gary Steiner (2008), Corey Wrenn (2016), and Alasdair Cochrane (2007) argue that animals have rights because they are sentient. Kenneth Goodpaster (1978) and Paul Taylor (1986) argue that all living organisms, animals included, have inherent value simply because they are alive. I assume that a sufficient condition for having inherent value is being an ESOL, which includes at least mammals and birds. So, throughout this paper, when I say ‘animals,’ I refer specifically to mammals and birds.

  8. 8.

    I am concerned only with harm that is caused intentionally.

  9. 9.

    I take harm to be either the infliction of some unpleasant state (such as pain or suffering) or the loss of opportunities for satisfaction. To be in a state of pain is to be harmed, even if the pain is instrumental to achieving some better state. One is all-things-considered harmed if the bad state causes her to be worse-off than she otherwise would have been had she not been in this state. One is all-things-considered benefitted if the bad state causes her to be better-off than she otherwise would have been had she not been in this state. So, a child who receives a painful injection is harmed, but she is all-things-considered benefitted by this harm (assuming the injection makes her better off than she would have been had she not received it).

  10. 10.

    Rights bearers can waive and forfeit certain rights. Thus, the rights view can explain why it’s permissible to kill a culpable threat in self-defense, despite that this is a case of “harming one to benefit another.” Relatedly, some argue that animals can be killed if doing so is necessary for humans to eat. See Demetriou and Fischer (2018), Hanna (2016), and Rowlands (2002) for important discussions about the implications of the rights view for subsistence hunting.

  11. 11.

    The headaches example was inspired by Alastair Norcross’s paper (1997).

  12. 12.

    For a more thorough description of what animals endure on factory farms, see Rachels (2011).

  13. 13.

    The AWA, which is the only federal law that regulates the use of animals in research, denies that mice, rats, and birds are animals under the AWA. Mice, rats, and birds make up over 90% of animals used in research.

  14. 14.

    Although animal-abusing behavior doesn’t occur in every animal research facility, violations of the AWA are frequently reported, and such violations are paradigmatic instances of treating animals like resources.

  15. 15.

    Perhaps some factory farmers do, to some extent, consider the interests of the animals they farm, but they just radically discount these interests. For instance, perhaps farmers assign some weight to the basic interests of animals, but they assign even greater weight to the trivial interests of humans. In such cases, the animals certainly are victims of disrespect, but they are treated more like mere receptacles than resources. There are thus two ways to treat animals like mere receptacles: (1) by giving equal consideration to the interests of animals, but allowing their interests to be trumped by the aggregate good, and (2) by giving some, but unequal, consideration to the interests of animals, for instance, by allowing the trivial interests of humans to trump the basic interests of animals.

  16. 16.

    Singer’s account of interests is criticized for being oversimplified and for failing to account for the special importance of human relationships and meaningful projects (Emmerman 2019; Slicer 1991).

  17. 17.

    Although I focus on only three categories of interests, I acknowledge that there surely are others. Because the fundamental moral problem taken up in this article can be sufficiently addressed by drawing distinctions between just three different kinds of interests, I don’t develop my account further.

  18. 18.

    I borrow this terminology from VanDeVeer (1979), while providing a distinct account of what it means to function in a minimally adequate way.

  19. 19.

    VanDeVeer (1979) likewise draws a distinction between two nonbasic interests: serious interests and peripheral interests.

  20. 20.

    Drawing a distinction between basic harms, serious nonbasic harms, and trivial nonbasic harms guards against Alastair Norcross’s (2002) objection to Thomas Scanlon’s (1998) account of limited aggregation, which has features in common with my theory. Scanlon employs the notion of moral relevance in his account in order to argue that because trivial harms are not relevant to serious harms, it’s never permissible to cause serious harm in order to prevent any number of trivial harms. Norcross (2002, 307) argues that the notion of moral relevance cannot obey strict transitivity, insofar as “[t]ransitivity and continuity together entail that the most trivial harm is relevant to the most serious harm, precisely the result that the notion of moral relevance is intended to avoid.” By drawing sharp lines between three distinct kinds of harms, I present a break in the scale between two harms, thereby rejecting continuity, which is what is needed to avoid Norcross’s transitivity objection.

  21. 21.

    Despite that not every instance of killing constitutes a basic harm, we should still act as though most instances of killing do. Usually, we simply don’t know the length of another’s future.

  22. 22.

    And as G. Owen Schaefer and Julian Savulescu (2014) note, cultured meat avoids the environmental problems associated with animal agriculture.

  23. 23.

    When I claim that producing the Impossible Burger and Cultured Meat is necessary to prevent great harm to farmed animals, I mean this: given that people won’t switch to meat without an excellent alternative to animal flesh, something like the Impossible Burger or Cultured Meat is necessary to reduce great harm to farmed animals now (or in the very near future). Although one might argue that it’s not necessary to produce Impossible Burgers to prevent harm to farmed animals because we could instead outlaw factory farming, we must be mindful that the goal of outlawing factory farming is unlikely to be realized in the near future.

  24. 24.

    The EHP also entails that Strong Harming Principle 2: We ought to cause serious, nonbasic harm to an individual when doing so is necessary to prevent serious, nonbasic harm from befalling two or more individuals.

  25. 25.

    One might wonder whether this account of rights entails that we ought to cause one trivial harm to prevent ten trivial harms. I leave this an open question. My intuition is that morality isn’t concerned with the prevention of trivial harms. And perhaps, as Voorhoeve (2014) proposes, while larger harms aggregate, small harms are non-aggregative.


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The author thanks David Boonin, David DeGrazia, Iskra Fileva, Michael Huemer, Alastair Norcross, Geoff Sayre-McCord, Danny Shahar, and the graduate students at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill for their instructive feedback on a previous draft of this paper. She is also grateful to two anonymous reviewers from the Journal of Ethics and Moral Philosophy for their helpful recommendations.

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Correspondence to C.E. Abbate.

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Abbate, C. Animal Rights and the Duty to Harm. ZEMO 3, 5–26 (2020).

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  • Animal ethics
  • deontology
  • harming
  • rights