Norm is talking about bullfighting, and he says this:
I concentrate, therefore, on Fiske-Harrison’s dismissal of the idea that animals could have rights. He bases this on the argument that having rights must entail having duties. But this is true only on some accounts of what rights are, and not on others. If rights are based on the fundamental interests of the being that has them, then animals can have rights, because they have interests. It is also worth noting one of the consequences of insisting that only a responsible agent – that is, one capable of having and fulfilling duties – can have rights: this is that infants and very young children would have no rights, and neither would people suffering from senile dementia. It also doesn’t follow from thinking animals have rights that we are duty bound to make interventions of an impossible kind into the interactions between other species. We can only do what we can do.
We do seem to take our obligations in respect of animals seriously.
The reason we think it is wrong to torture animals, and why some people don’t eat them, is because we recognise that it is cruel. Ordinarily, therefore, we try to avoid begin cruel and think badly of those who are. As Norm puts it:
I find the idea that deliberate cruelty, in this case the infliction of avoidable suffering, might be justified by the consideration that it yields aesthetic pleasure particularly revolting.
Anybody who deplores cruelty to animals must recognise that animals have some interests. Specifically, the concept of cruelty involves appreciating that animals have an interest in not being harmed or killed.
You could argue the duties that we have to animals both arise from their interests, and therefore create rights of sorts. However, I do think it is notable that no legal system of which I’ve heard allow animals to enforce “their” rights. Instead, deal with the issues by criminalising or regulating the treatment of animals. The state, not the animal, enforces that law. Perhaps we are attempting to protect animal-torturers from moral self-harm. Perhaps the state acts as the guardian of the animal’s rights, which it is incapable of enforcing itself. Alternatively, it might be that animals bear moral-only rights only at present: but as our culture develops, these rights may achieve legal recognition, as the rights of higher apes may one day be.
Whatever the nature of our moral relationship to animals, the cultural context of it is often complex. If you’ll excuse a little cod anthropology, it is notable that so many cultures have developed rituals and a mythology around harming animals: be it the sanctity of Temple sacrifices, the ceremonial nature of bullfighting, or even the multitude of regulations which we have constructed around animal experimentation and slaughterhouses. Killing animals is an every day event: but we do then invest it with moral significance, at least some of the time. Notably, however, the killing of vermin in this society is relatively uncontroversial, unless people are having fun doing it.
Where does this leave infants and the senile. An infant or a foetus usually has an interest in not suffering, and also in his or her life to come: except perhaps if very handicapped and likely to live a life which on balance, will be utterly miserable. We might decide that because a foetus or perhaps even a very young child is not self-aware, it is less bad to kill it painlessly, in certain prescribed circumstances, then it would be to kill an older child. That might sound a shocking thing to say in relation to children in this country and this day and age: but many legal systems punish infanticide less harshly, or have extensively practiced “exposure”.
A senile person who is no longer self aware may have few interests; and certainly not an interest in his or her life to come: except in a mystical and religious sense. Euthanasia is widely practiced: although it is sometimes dressed up in legal and medical euphemism. We might talk about such a person having a right to a dignified death. However, after a certain point of degeneration, I don’t think that a human can meaningfully be said to have rights.