Small Justice: The Rights of the Other Animal

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Abstract

[Extract] We owe things to animals. I mean: we have duties toward them. Animals, for their part, have rights with respect to us. This kind of language is a straightforward and compelling way of talking about our ethical relationship to animals. However, it invites two common objections. First, it is sometimes argued that since animals are incapable of engaging in moral discourse or holding duties with regard to other beings, they should not be regarded as bearers of rights. The right-duty relationship, in this view, is necessarily reciprocal. Animals cannot show moral concern toward others, so they do not belong to the moral community.
A second objection concerns the relationship between ethics and justice. Ethics, it is sometimes thought, is concerned with interpersonal relationships, whereas justice considers institutions: duties, rights, and so on belong to the latter realm. Furthermore, in this view, the topics must be distinguished. A theory of justice cannot simply restate the demands of ethics. It must make a place for nonideal theory, asking what institutions we should adopt on the assumption that people will not always behave well. One question is what people owe to others, ethically speaking, but the issue of what rights and duties people hold is a separate issue.
I want to argue that these two worries rest on a common mistake. The mistake concerns the way they understand the moral community and its relationship to institutional justice. The mistake does not lie in thinking that people sometimes act unethically; this is indubitably true. Rather, the mistake lies in thinking that ethical and institutional questions can and should be separated. Interpersonal ethics, I will argue, supplies the basis for community and therefore for justice and law. Justice, then, is subsidiary to ethics; interpersonal relationships supply the foundations for just institutions. We must begin imagining justice on a small scale. The ethical theory of Emmanuel Levinas shows us how this might be done.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationFace-to-Face with Animals: Levinas and the Animal Question
EditorsPeter Atterton, Tamra Wright
Place of PublicationAlbany
PublisherState University of New York Press
Chapter6
Pages109-120
Number of pages12
ISBN (Print)978-1-4384-7409-0
Publication statusPublished - May 2019

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