Arguably, the fundamental right of any entity that has rights is the right to have its interests taken into consideration. That is the rational basis for the Harm Principle (described recently). Entities with interests that we consider morally irrelevant do not have any other rights. For instance, we don’t feel the need to take the interests of a hammer or a clump of dirt seriously when making moral choices. At the same time, it is the right to consideration borne by some entities that forms the foundation upon which claims to any other rights (rights of free speech, to possess property, etc) are based. In order to treat an entity according to a higher-level moral principle such as fairness, it is necessary first to recognize that they bear the right to have their interests considered at all.
Humans as rights-bearers
Generally speaking, humanity grants the right to consideration to all humans. Exactly what that consideration requires can be hotly contested. For instance, someone who is unable to communicate but suffering terribly from a terminal illness might be granted consideration in radically different ways – some people would advocate doing everything possible to keep them alive, despite their suffering. Others might say that the way their interests can be best served is to let them die. Either way, the interests of the person themselves are part of the discussion.
It is also possible that there are objects that are human beings in a certain technical sense, but which do not deserve to have their interests taken into consideration. For instance, this category could include embryos at an early stage of development (or even perhaps at any stage), living bodies that have had their brains completely destroyed, or even frozen corpses at some future time when their re-animation is technically possible.
Non-humans as rights-bearers
We do not apply such a right of consideration to all living things. Rather, we treat many of them simply as means for serving the ends of entities that we do consider to be bearers of rights. In some cases, that is unobjectionable. Nobody can reasonably object to a person shaping a piece of stone into an axe head, without giving any consideration to the piece of stone. Similarly, we have no reason to think that people are unethical when they fail to take the interests of carrots or lettuce into consideration when deciding how to treat them.
When it comes to animals with rich mental lives, however, I think it is quite possible that human beings have inappropriately ignored the right they have to consideration. In slaughtering whales or putting gorillas into cruel circuses, we are behaving extremely callously toward animals that quite possibly have mental lives that possess a similar richness to our own. Arguably, we are also failing to recognize a legitimate right to consideration on the part of animals like pigs, when we pack them together into astonishingly cruel factory farms.
Being a rights-bearer just starts the moral discussion
To be a bearer of rights is to have a claim to consideration recognized by the entities around you that undertake moral reasoning. As such, the question of which entities rights are accorded to says more about the level of ethical conduct of the reasoners than of the subjects. We can choose to ignore what we know about the common characteristics of physical and mental life among animals, and thus treat pigs and gorillas and whales like we treat carrots or stones. In so doing, however, we might be revealing ourselves to be seriously lacking in moral character.
The science fiction author Orson Scott Card describes a moral hierarchy that distinguishes between ‘ramen’ with whom communication is possible and ‘varelse’ with whom it is impossible. While it can certainly be questioned whether communication potential is really the most important factor distinguishing between the ethical status of different beings, he does usefully recognize how the level of consideration accorded to a being may reflect the level of ethical sophistication of the being making the choice, rather than the subject of that choice:
The difference between ramen and varelse is not in the creature judged, but in the creature judging. When we declare an alien species to be ramen, it does not mean that they have passed a threshold of moral maturity. It means that we have.
That said, it does not follow that the most ethical course is to grant moral standing to everything in the universe, from dust mites to clouds of interstellar gas. For one thing, there are very often conflicts between the legitimate interests of rights-bearers. If we inappropriately accord a right to consideration to an entity that really doesn’t deserve it, we may force legitimate rights-bearers to needlessly sacrifice their own interests, in order to protect the meaningless or non-existent interests of that entity. That said, we should be cautious in saying that an entity has no rights whatsoever. Acknowledging that an entity is owed a duty of consideration is not the same thing as saying that it deserves any particular form of treatment, or that its interests should always be favoured.
Just as the ethical conclusions flowing from recognizing a human as rights-bearing can be hotly contested, so too are those for animals. It is possible that we can take the interests of animals seriously and still do things like kill them, experiment on them, eat their corpses, and even make them fight one another for our amusement. We take the interests of human beings seriously, but it is nonetheless potentially defensible in some circumstances to do all of these things: kill them, experiment on them, eat their corpses (say, when they have died naturally and as an alternative to death by starvation), and enjoy watching them fight. Whether the subject in question is human or not, recognition that they bear the right to some sort of consideration does not automatically mean that they must be treated in a particular way – it just starts the conversation about what the ethical way to behave toward them is. It establishes them as part of the moral universe, such as we understand it.