The Legal and Moral Bases of Animal Rights
It is impossible to discuss the legal status of animals without discussing their moral status, that is, without discussing the ethical position that we hold towards them, because the laws of a society are ultimately dependent on its morality. In one sense, this is very obvious. Our laws concerning prostitution, pornography, obscenity, drugs, and so forth clearly grow out of what the public thinks is right and wrong. That is, as these attitudes change, the law changes. And laws, in turn, influence public morality; witness the 55 mile per hour speed limit. But the connection between law and morality is often said to be even deeper and more basic than that: In fact, according to this view, moral notions and ideals are an inseparable part of the law, that is, we cannot explain what law is without making reference to morality. This view that law in society is based on unchanging and absolute notions of right and wrong is very old—it goes back to the ancient Greeks (Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics), and is called natural law theory. On this view, if a statute violates these basic rights it is not law. This view reappeared recently after the Nazi era, when discussions of Nazi law and morality were rife. Connected to this view is the idea of natural rights—that is, the idea that people have by nature certain rights that no laws can violate. This theory is of course the basis of the American constitution.
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