Korsgaard’s third lecture: Legal Rights for Animals

Claim: Animals have the right to be treated only in ways that are compatible with their good.

Galloping horse

Galloping horse

Q: Why do animals have this right?

A: Because animals co-own the world with us. Like us they have the right to ‘be where they are’.

Q: What sort of right is it that animals have?

A: It is imperfect and provisional

Q: What is it for a right to be imperfect?

A: Imperfect rights are not held against individuals, but against humanity collectively.

For example: humans have imperfect rights to assistance when in need: this is not a right against any particular person, it is a right against humanity in general.

Ambulance racing through street

Ambulance racing through street

Imperfect rights are such that respect for them is generally managed politically – e.g. in the UK we have the ‘999’ system for persons in need of immediate assistance, the welfare system to help those who fall on hard times….

Individuals have duties only to ensure the political system upholds the imperfect rights of all who have them.

Q: What is it for a right to be provisional

A provisional right is a right that is not currently upheld by the political system.

State of Nature

State of Nature

For example in the State of Nature human beings had the right to life, but this right wasn’t respected by others or upheld by anything. The only way we could secure this right was to fight for it.

At the moment animals have the right to be treated compatibly with their own good, but this right isn’t respected or upheld quite generally. In many cases the only way animals can secure this right is to fight for it.

Rights are made conclusive only when they are upheld by a political system that insists they are respected, and that sanctions those who do not respect them.

Analogy with the imperfect, provisional rights of the world’s poor:

All persons have the right to be where they are, therefore, they co-own the world with us and have the right to a fair share of the world’s resources.

Starving children

Starving children

This right is imperfect: the poor do not have claims against individual rich people

It is also provisional: there is currently no obligation to respect the rights of the poor to their fair share of resources.

But poor people nonetheless have this right, and they hold it against humanity collectively.

This means that rich people have a duty, collectively, to fight for a political system that gives a fair share to the poor: this should not be seen as a kindness, but as righting a wrong.

In the same way human beings have a duty, collectively, to fight for a political system that requires animals to be treated in a manner compatible with their own good.


  1. Animals cannot share control over the world and will always remain subject to our will – this is why their rights are against us and not each other (mice have no rights against cats).
  2. Animals’ rights protect their good not their freedom (they are not, like human beings capable of rational choice).

Korsgaard: A commitment to upholding the rights of animals (by fighting to change the political system to make sure that we collectively treat them in ways compatible with their good) is implicit in our own claims to have rights. We justify our own claims to have our good (and our freedom) protected on the basis of our belief that we have the right to be where we are, and the consequent claim that we co-own the world. How can we deny this to animals?

So what do you think? Are you convinced by Korsgaard’s arguments? Will they change your behaviour? Will you fight for the political system to change so that it respects the right of animals to be treated only in ways that are compatible with their own good? Let me know.


About Marianne

Marianne is Director of Studies in Philosophy at Oxford University's Department for Continuing Education
This entry was posted in Blogs, Reflections and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Korsgaard’s third lecture: Legal Rights for Animals

  1. hughmillar says:

    Can’t agree with much of this. The word ‘right’ doesn’t point to anything in the real world, it’s just a shorthand way to talk about moral consensus. Your right to life just means we all agree it would be wrong to kill you (save in highly prescribed circumstances), and undertake to act protectively and/or retributively should your life be threatened or taken. We call that ‘respecting your right to life’, but it’s a social construction, not an intrinsic property of human beings.

    The Romans fed people to lions and would presumably have scoffed at the idea of a right to life, yet they provided the underpinnings of our civilisation. K doesn’t provide any argument for rights in this passage, he simply asserts their existence. Not very philosophical!


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