Robert Nozick on Animal Rights

September 17th, 2010

One of my favorite sections of Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia is an extended discussion of animal rights, which Nozick uses to illustrate why utilitarianism is a poor philosophy to base society on. An animal rights website has posted an excerpt of it:

Animals count for something. Some higher animals, at least, ought to be given some weight in people’s deliberations about what to do. It is difficult to prove this. (It is also difficult to prove that people count for something!) We first shall adduce particular examples, and then arguments. If you felt like snapping your fingers, perhaps to the beat of some music, and you knew that by some strange causal connection your snapping your fingers would cause 10,000 contented, unowned cows to die after great pain and suffering, or even painlessly and instantaneously, would it be perfectly all right to snap your fingers? Is there some reason why it would be morally wrong to do so?

I absolutely recommend reading it. It’s unfortunate that they did not include the full section; the rest of the section is just as illuminating. As it stands, I haven’t answered the basic question Nozick asks: what is unique about humans, as opposed to animals, that allows us to have rights that cannot be violated? If it is because we are mentally superior (e.g. we have sentience and can reason), what if a race of aliens came to earth and argued that because they are mentally superior, they can use us for their benefit?

It’s difficult to conclude after reading it that raising and slaughtering animals for meat is moral.