But people - including politicians and moral philosophers - misunderstand the idea. None of us is born with rights. They are not a property of flesh. We need not suppose that they are "God given" and it is difficult to argue that they are "inalienable". Rights are a convenience, a social device, that makes it easier for us to live with each other. I don't want you to invade my space: take up residence in my house, borrow my socks, send my children on errands. In exchange I agree without demur to treat you and yours with equal grace. You should respect whatever I care about, and in exchange I will respect whatever you care about (if there is any clash, we can argue about it).
But it is boring for humans to list all the things they care about every time they encounter each other. It is quicker and easier to include everything that each of us holds to be sacred or important under one blanket term "rights". None of us "possess" rights. But I am willing to pretend that you have rights, provided you adopt the same pretence. Existentialists and relativists might say that whatever we choose to pretend becomes reality, for that is all the reality there is. Or we can admit that "rights" is a term of convenience. The philosophical superstructure is malleable; but "rights" remains an unimprovably convenient social device. Once the concept is in place, we need not bother to think about the details.
But should we accord rights only to other humans? Some aboriginal peoples believe that rocks and rivers have rights. Why not? The socially convenient device that protects us from each other can serve to protect our surroundings. The all-embracing concept of rights will help us to respect the things we value, whatever those things might be.
To the broad concept of "rights", sophisticates have added three conditional clauses: commensurability, responsibility, and sensibility. Fail any one of the three and - no rights. Jolly bad luck, but there you go. Animals seem to fail on at least two counts and, until the last few years, were deemed in most scientific circles to fail in the third as well.
Commensurability in this context means tit for tat. I credit you with "rights" so long as you respect mine. But suppose you have no power to invade my space? Why should I care? So the notion has arisen that rights are proportional to power; the most powerful are the most able to encroach on others and must be placated accordingly. The rich have more "rights" than the poor. Animals have no effective power, so it seems silly to grant them "rights". But this sounds callous, uncivilised. So we dress it up a little: people earn rights insofar as they have and accept responsibility. Cows and pigs accept no responsibility and certainly not towards us. Therefore they have no rights.
Of course, this argument quickly runs into trouble. Do babies have responsibility? What of people with Alzheimer's, or in a coma? We can get around this with a little pragmatism: we were all babies once, and if babies were not granted rights then none would get to be adults. Any of us might be struck down so we should grant rights to the unfortunate. None of us will be chickens, however, so again, the notion of "rights" does not apply.
But is it ineluctably the case that rights and responsibilities should go together? This is an arbitrary codicil; as arbitrary as the concept of "rights" itself. Rights is a device for safeguarding respect. If we think animals are worthy of respect then we should credit them with rights irrespective of any feelings that they might have for us.
What of sentience? One of the least attractive contributions of science in this century has proved to be that of behaviourism, initiated before World War I in part by Ivan Pavlov but primarily by the American J B Watson. The aim was laudable enough - to make animal psychology a true science; and Watson and his colleagues argued, in positivist vein, that nothing can be a science that is not based exclusively on qualities that can be directly observed and quantified. Thought and feelings cannot be measured, and so were left out of account. All that could actually be measured was behaviour. Hence "behaviourism".
Thus stated, the approach was sensible. The behaviourists were acknowledging Sir Peter Medawar's adage - that "science is the art of the soluble". Ask questions about behaviour, and they could be answered. Ask about the goings-on in an animal's head, and you were reduced to arm waving. Ergo, stick to behaviour. In effect, the behaviourists regarded animals as if they were machines, like alarm clocks. The alarm clock (metaphorically speaking) became the "model" to which animals were compared.
However, most of the behaviourists and their followers then made a huge mistake. It was fair enough to leave thoughts and feelings out of account as an experimental convenience, it does not make sense to begin with what is simple and measurable, and expand the horizons if and when this proves necessary. But the behaviourists forgot that the alarm clock was a model. Soon they were arguing effectively as a matter of dogma that animals are machines. Any suggestion that they think, or can be conscious, or feel, or indeed can be stressed (except in so far as a machine can be "stressed" by wear and tear) was ridiculed. The suggestion that a mother seal feels grief when her pup is battered to death before her eyes was dismissed as senti- mental "anthropomorphism": ascribing human attributes to non-humans. However human their moans and anxiety might seem, the dogma said the seals were machines, and therefore felt no- thing. A chicken might look distressed when rammed in a small wire box with three others, but that was an illusion. Chickens are machines. Only their behaviour is measurable.
In practice, observations of animals throughout this century have defied behaviourist interpre- tation. The wild chimpanzees that Jane Goodall observed in the Sixties cannot sensibly be compared to any machine; and over the past few decades the study first of animals' thinking and then of their emotions have again become respectable. Accordingly, the old spectre of anthropomorphism has taken a new turn. Since the alarm-clock model of animals has proved inadequate, psychologists need a new model, and the human being is not a bad point of comparison since we are appropriately complex and yet we do have a privileged insight into our own psychology.
So all in all, respectable science has now caught up with the animal- lovers, now it is clearly perverse not to perceive animals as sentient beings, who register their emotional responses with varying degrees of consciousness. It seems impossible to know precisely what animals feel, but impossible to deny that they do feel. This does not mean that we have to grant them rights, but the last traditional excuse for denying them rights is gone. No one sensible can support the view that a pig or a cow is not sentient. But if we do acknowledge that animals have rights, how should we treat them?
There are various answers, all with an arbitrary feel because that is the nature of moral philosophy. One is that our prime responsibility should be to our own species no matter how much respect we accord to others. This is arguable but reasonable, and other animals would surely feel the same if they could discuss the matter. Our physiology is such that we cannot easily survive as out-and-out vegans - not unless we have access to a health-food shop and can afford its refinements. We do not need much meat, but we tend to languish if we don't have any, or milk, fish and eggs. The vegetarian argument, that we could feed many more people if we did not raise livestock for meat, is true only up to a point. It is profligate to do as the western world does, and feed at least half of the home-grown grain to livestock. Yet an agriculture based entirely on plants would be less productive than one which included animals as well. The Indian sacred cow looks like a terrible waste, and in some circumstances might be, but it lives on rubbish and produces calves in passing, and without the oxen that those calves become, village India would come to a stop. It would, in short, be hugely irresponsible to advocate universal veganism. So it is not an option to abandon livestock all together and the moral challenge is to raise farm animals, but to respect them. The point is to keep them in ways that let them to do things, physical and social, they would do in the wild and to slaughter them as untraumatically as possible.
In conservation the moral principle is that of noblesse oblige. Humans have messed up the world so much that other animals - what is left of them - cannot survive unless we now take their affairs in hand. The best that we do for creatures is provide national parks, but these are rarely adequate. Third World national parks commonly contain more domestic cattle than wildlife. Britain's are overwhelmingly in uplands where intensive agriculture is too difficult, and, outside Alaska, even the biggest in the US - Yellowstone - is probably too small for grizzly bears. Unless we supplement the wild populations by captive breeding, and cull those populations that out-grow their reserves, then over the next century we can say goodbye to most of the world's largest terrestrial mammals.
Is it possible, though, to raise farm animals humanely? In practice, common sense is not a bad guide to husbandry. It is obviously not kind to keep a pig up to its belly in freezing mud, as often happened in the past, but not kind either to keep a sow in an iron crate where she can barely stand and lie, let alone turn round, while her piglets suckle through the bars. It is perverse to suggest that four hens in a wire cage, their eyes dilated in what looks very like fear, their bones so weakened by too much laying that they break if the bird is handled, are enjoying life. We could not suppose that this was acceptable unless we were either indifferent, or gulled into the behaviourist belief that an animal is a machine and machines cannot feel.
Yet we should not be casually anthropomorphic. We should not assume that whatever pleases us would also please a chicken or a pig. If we want to devise husbandry that is truly king, then we should try to understand what each kind of creature wants. In the Eighties at Edinburgh University, the late David Woodgush adopted an ethological approach; attempting to base the husbandry of pigs upon their behaviour in the wild. He gave them carte blanche in a variety of environments and effectively invited them to demonstrate what it is they like to do - and found for example that sows, given the chance, build nests out of straw for their offspring; that if they are not stressed they do not lie on them and crush them; and that un-stressed boars can be left with the sow and piglets. His successors are trying to find out how important each item of natural behaviour is to the animal. Thus at Oxford University Dr Marian Stamp Dawkins seeks to quantify the effort that hens are prepared to make to achieve particular goals. She has found they will work hard to find their way to a nest-box to lay eggs.
But wouldn't it be ridiculously expensive to allow sows and hens to build their own nests? There are many answers to this. First, humane and more relaxed husbandry is dearer than the factory kind, but not outlandishly so. In principle, too, humane husbandry can be combined with other pursuits; pigs are woodland animals, for example, and were traditionally raised in forests, so there was no need to build expensive pens. If humane husbandry was universal, we would produce less meat and eggs than now - but nutritionally and gastronomically, that would be a good thing. Westerners eat more meat and dairy products than are good for us and the fundamental reason is not that we have a innate desire to do so (we are omnivores, not carnivores) but that agriculture is most profitable when it produces lots of livestock (livestock is the key to value-adding), and to some degree we have become compliant consumers.
The final argument - that meat should be cheap so that poor people can afford it - is the last recourse of scoundrels, hypocrisy at its most flagrant. In truth, meat should be expensive. It is ludicrous to pay less than pounds 5 a pound for turkey. It is sold at giveaway prices only because the birds are raised under conditions of extreme hideousness. If people cannot afford expensive meat, it is because our economy is designed to ensure that some people are extremely poor, while others are ridiculously rich. Cheap meat serves the same purposes in our own gruesome society as bread and circuses in ancient Rome: a sop to the masses. Again it is a matter of pecking order. The poor stay poor so that the rich can be rich, but beneath the poor are the animals, who make their lot tolerable.
Farm animals, in short, are the fall-guys, who make it possible to sustain inequity. These two massive wrongs do not make a right.
! Colin Tudge is a visiting research fellow at the Centre for Philosophy at the London School of Economics. Dr Marian Stamp Dawkins will be speaking at an LSE Biology and Society Forum on 'The Great Divide? Humans and Other Animals' on Thursday, 20 March.Reuse content