A right is an entitlement (to something) on moral or legal grounds. So, a being has a right to something if its entitlement to that something can be morally or legally justified.
I believe that the conditions that animals in factory farms are subject to are morally unjustified and are a violation of their rights. This belief is based on the following logical progression:
(1) Inflicting unnecessary pain on sentient beings is morally unjustified.
(2) Animals are sentient beings.
(3) Inflicting unnecessary pain on animals is morally unjustified, by (1) and (2).
(4) Animals are entitled to protection from unnecessary pain on moral grounds, by (3).
(5) Animals have a right to protection from unnecessary pain, by (4) and the definition of a right.
(6) Factory farms inflict unnecessary pain on animals.
(7) Factory farms violate animal rights, by (5) and (6).
I will begin by showing that inflicting unnecessary pain on animals is unjustified. Here, ‘unnecessary pain’ refers to pain that is not backed by sufficient reason. A sentient being has the ability to feel pain and so it has the ability to suffer, which means that it has an interest not to feel pain. It follows from this that inflicting pain on a being, that is capable of feeling it, without sufficient reason is morally wrong.
Since animals can feel, they have the ability to suffer, thus they qualify as sentient beings. Therefore, it follows from this that inflicting unnecessary pain on animals (sentient beings) is morally unjustified.
According to Carl Cohen, animals lack the capacity of free moral judgment and so, are not moral agents. Therefore, they cannot have rights. He does acknowledge that human beings have a moral obligation to treat animals in a decent manner, having concerns for their interests, but at the same time not treating them as completely equal to human beings.
Cohen also states that “Rights and obligations are not reciprocals of one another” and that just because we are obligated to treat animals a certain way does not mean that they are entitled to that sort of treatment. It follows from this that that pain inflicted on animals in factory farms does not violate animal rights, as they have none, and is therefore, allowed.
In objection to Cohen, Scott Wilson presents the argument for marginal cases, declaring that “attempts to demonstrate that if animals do not have direct moral status, then neither do such human beings as infants, the senile, the severely cognitively disabled, and other such ‘marginal cases’ of humanity.”
According to this argument, if we deny moral status to animals on the grounds that they lack the capacity of free moral judgment and rationality, then we must also deny moral status to marginal cases, as they are no more rational or morally capable than animals. Cohen responds to this objection by claiming that these marginal cases are mere exceptions to the norm and that animals never had these capabilities to begin with.
Naturally, humans have moral and rational capacities, whereas all nonhuman animals do not. Marginal cases are mere exceptions and should not be compared with animals. Stanley Benn also has a similar argument in his analogy of imbeciles and dogs. He claims, “…we respect the interests of men and give them priority over dogs not insofar as they are rational, but because rationality is the human norm.”
Peter Singer responds by arguing that we are “preferring the interests of members of our own species because they are members of our own species.” Cohen and Benn produce a very speciesist response to the argument of marginal cases that does not warrant any moral justification. It is not morally correct to prioritize the interests of one being over the interest of another being simply because they belong to a particular species.
Singer argues for the principle of equal consideration of interests as a basic moral principle and says that this principle applies to all beings, regardless of what species they belong to. He cites Jeremy Bentham in saying that when determining what beings qualify for having the right to equal consideration of interests “The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?” Singer says that the principle of equality requires that the interest of that being not to suffer receives equal consideration when compared to similar interests of another being.
Since all sentient beings can suffer, it follows that all sentient beings have the right to equal consideration of interests. This ensures that animals and the marginal cases are protected by rights. That is, they are entitled to equal consideration of interests on moral grounds.
Since unnecessary pain is morally unjustified and humans are moral beings, they owe animals protection from acts that inflict unnecessary pain on them. Animals are entitled to this protection on moral grounds: they have a right to be protected from unnecessary pain.
According to ‘Glass Walls,’ a documentary by PETA UK, animals raised in factory farms go through immense pain and suffering. The documentary shows that chickens and turkeys are “[…] crowded into filthy sheds by the tens or thousands and forced to live in their own excrement.”
They are reared to grow faster and larger than natural, which causes them to die or even, be “crippled under their own weight.” Hens are exploited for their eggs and are forced to live in cramped cages that are so small that “they cannot even spread a single wing.” Even pigs and cows are similarly mistreated and forced to undergo unimaginable suffering before they are killed.
The pain that animals are forced to experience does not affect the quality of meat produced and so, it can be concluded that this pain is unnecessary pain as there is no justification for putting animals through this process. Therefore, the pain inflicted on animals in factory farms is unnecessary and so it is morally unjustified.
As moral agents, humans must protect animals’ rights and either give up or drastically alter the processes involved in the production of meat. As PETA UK rightfully says, “If slaughter houses had glass walls, everybody would be vegetarian.”