Inside the Mind of an Anti-Animal Rights Philosopher


Listen to the full debate

Gary Francione: I would suggest that our use of animals for the production of food involves torture.

Jan Narveson: I want to claim that the torture is justified. You want to claim it’s not.

The question is, is our interest in the taste of animal flesh such as to justify doing the things we do to them to get them into the frying pan? My answer is, yes.

Last month libertarian philosopher Jan Narveson debated vegan abolitionist Gary Francione about animal rights. Narveson’s view is that humans have no moral obligation to animals. He argues that it is morally acceptable for animals to suffer, even horribly, as long as it in is in our interests to use them. He also claims that torturing animals pointlessly or for entertainment is “weird” but of trivial significance morally.

For those who have been following the Twitter debates with @mattbramanti, his views seem to be quite similar to Narveson’s.

I thought there were two encouraging things that came out of this. One is that Francione said that there are still many people who honestly believe it is necessary for human health to eat meat. It makes me hopeful that, for some omnivores at least, changing their minds about that could lead to them considering a vegan lifestyle. The other thing Francione said was that the abolitionist position hasn’t “really hit the radar screen yet of a lot of people. But there is clearly a change occurring. It’s happening here in North America. It’s happening in Europe. The thinking about this issue is clearly in transition.”

Here are some some excerpts from the conversation. To listen to the full debate, click on the link above.

Jan Narveson: What morality is, is a uniform set of rules to be imposed by everybody on everybody. These amount to something like a social contract in the sense that we’ve got all these people that we’re relating to. Animals, on the other hand, are not part of this, because they can’t communicate with us. They’re not moral agents in the sense in which we are. And the question is, what is there about animals which makes us, who are moral agents, morally compelled to recognize rights on their part? And the trouble is that the answer to this seems to be: virtually nothing.

Interviewer: Are you saying that humans have morality and animals don’t?

JN: We’re talking about moral agency, not morality.

Gary Francione: But Jan, don’t we recognize that humans that don’t have moral agency are still members of the moral community? I think that is a generally accepted view.

JN: This is what I call the argument from marginal cases. Hardly anyone is like that. Children, of course, are, and they don’t have full rights. They grow up and they become people with full rights, and they’re very important to us, obviously, for that reason.

GF: Jan, do you accept that it’s morally wrong to inflict unecessary suffering or death on sentient nonhumans?

Do you think that there is no moral prohibition on that activity?

JN: That’s right.

Interviewer: Jan, if you believe that animals belong in a separate moral category from humans, what is to stop us from being very cruel to them?

JN: Well, what’s the point, in the first place? And in the second place, I agree with the general psychological perception that a habit of being cruel to animals could very well lead to a similar habit in regard to humans, and that’s serious. By the way, there is another general point to make here and that is, we’re talking indiscriminately about animals, but in fact, all the animals that you and I ever relate to, unless we’re hunters, are actually tame animals. They’re somebody’s property. And we do not have the right to inflict damage on other people’s property, pets nor domestic farm animals, etc. They all belong to somebody. They’re not ours. We can’t do whatever we want to with them. But that’s not because they have intrinsic rights. It’s only because their owners do.

Interviewer: But Gary, you don’t believe that animals are property.

GF: Of course they’re property. As an empirical matter, they’re property. I don’t believe they ought to be. When I use the expression “animal rights,” I mean one right: the right not be treated as property. But once we recognize that animals have the right not to be treated as property, once we recognize that their interest in not being treated as commodities, and at having their interests valued at zero depending on what our whim is or our desire is, we have to abolish institutionalized exploitation of animals.

JN: Notice that Gary doesn’t count the sentiment in favor of animals as a whim. I can easily imagine many people in many cultures regarding it as precisely that. Who are these crazy people who like animals?

GF: I think you’re misunderstanding my position if you think that I think we should use the law to impose this view on people. I think that would be crazy. It would never work. I think we need to think differently about the way we deal with animals, and I believe the revolution has to be one of the heart, and it has to be an ethical revolution.

If I like torturing animals, but I’m otherwise a nice guy… Your argument is that my torturing animals is only a problem if it’s going to lead me to be a nasty person otherwise. But as long as I’m not a nasty person otherwise — and there are plenty of people in this world who do all sorts of horrible things to animals, yet most people don’t regard them as horrible people. So in your view, the moral obligation is non-existent. As long as people are nice people otherwise to other humans, there is nothing wrong with people torturing animals if they get a charge out of that. If they like dog fighting, they like cock fighting, they like all sorts of things like that, then that’s fine. That’s fine for them to do. That’s your position, is it not?

JN: Well, when you say “fine,” you’re talking in a different kind of language…

GF: Is it morally acceptable? Is it morally acceptable for people to engage in dog fighting?

JF: In my view, there are two major general parts of morality. One part is the strict part having to do with rights, which is what I took you to be talking about originally, though I’m not so sure any more. And the other part has to do with how we ought to live and what kind of people we ought to be. On that front, I think torturing animals is pointless and weird, but the claim that it is morally wrong in anything like the first sense is, I think, not true.

It’s such a marginal case. Why are we even talking about it? Because the main use of animals, from our point of view, is first, for food and secondly, for medical research.

GF: I would suggest that our use of animals for the production of food involves torture.

JN: I want to claim that the torture is justified. You want to claim it’s not.

GF: We have no justification for eating nonhuman animals. It’s not necessary for us to eat them for health purposes. And animal based agriculture is an environmental disaster. So the question becomes: how do we justify killing 53 billion animals globally for food every year, not counting aquatic animals? How do we justify that if we take at all seriously the notion that we ought not to inflict unnecessary pain, suffering and death on animals? What possible justification could we have, and how is that any different from dog fighting? Some people like to sit around and watch dogs fight, and some people like to sit around a barbecue pit roasting animals that have been tortured every bit as much as the dogs used in dog fighting.

JN: You’re arguing from a marginal, weird case — the guy who tortures animals for its own sake — to the conclusion that people who eat hamburgers, like me, are malevolent torturers. I just don’t accept this.

Gary runs together two very different issues about this “unnecessary” business. We don’t need to justify our treatment of animals by claiming that they are in some serious sense necessary, like we would die if we didn’t eat animals. That’s not necessary at all. The fact is, if you like meat, then you’re justified in killing animals for the sake of eating meat.

GF: I think there’s a lot of confusion. I’ve spent a lot of time going around and lecturing to various groups, and it’s clear to me, that even though it’s 2009, a lot of people really believe that they need to eat animal products to lead an optimally healthy life. That is empirically not true. But a lot of people still believe it. And I think that has a role to play in it. But I also think we live in a society in which the casual infliction of death on animals is so widely accepted as sort of a default position. In a sense, it hasn’t really hit the radar screen yet of a lot of people. But there is clearly a change occurring. It’s happening here in North America. It’s happening in Europe. The thinking about this issue is clearly in transition.

Interviewer: Gary, what would it take for Jan to convince you that you are wrong?

GF: I don’t think he could. I’m familiar with Jan’s general political philosophy, and his libertarianism, and his notion of contractualism as a basis for morality. I reject that. I do not believe that that’s a good argument. This notion that human beings make a contract or that there’s anything like a social contract, I think that’s completely fiction. I think these are devices which philosophers use. There’s no social contract. I didn’t make a contract. You didn’t make a contract, there ain’t no social contract.

The notion that the members of the community are those who are capable of making moral contracts, or who are moral agents, is just a fundamental premise I don’t accept and I don’t think it can be justified and I don’t think is reflected in the conventional moral thinking of most people. So I don’t think he could convince me.

What I find curious about some of the comments he’s made, is when he said that torturing animals is morally permissible, but that it’s weird. So if I leave my house today and I’m on my way to the university and I encounter somebody who is about to blow-torch a dog because he enjoys torturing dogs, I can say to him what? “This is weird what you’re doing? It’s morally permissible, it’s quite all right for you to do it, but morally I can’t really tell you that you ought not to do it. All I can tell you is, ‘it’s weird.'”

Jan, I don’t understand what that means.

JN: You can tell anybody that he ought or ought not to do anything. People do it all the time. The question is, what kind of fundamental reason do we have for doing this?

In the case of torturing animals, other people see it and they’re shocked. They don’t like to see this kind of thing being done.

Interviewer: Jan, is it unpleasant to you? If you walked down the street, and you saw a man putting a blow torch to a dog, what would you do?

JN: I would ask him what on earth he was doing.

Interviewer: Would you stop him?

JN: Probably not.

Narveson goes on to insist that “Gary’s claim that they are being tortured is a wild exaggeration… de-horning a cow is not torture.”

Francione describes his visits to slaughterhouses and how he observed that 30-40% of the pigs were improperly stunned and were still conscious when they were cut up. “The things that I have seen give me nightmares.”

Narveson responded, “Well, they don’t give me nightmares, and I’m sure they don’t give the people who work in the slaughterhouses nightmares. Is this not, in some serious sense, a matter of taste?”

Narveson explained that he does not accept that “the claim that some sentient being suffers as a result of something that we do is a sufficient reason why we shouldn’t do it, or at least  is a very strong reason why we shouldn’t do it, one that would not be counterbalanced by the fact that it is otherwise very much in our interests to do it. The standard example is eating animals. The question is, is our interest in the taste of animal flesh such as to justify doing the things we do to them to get them into the frying pan? My answer is, yes.

“Because I don’t think animals count in the sense that humans do. I think it’s perfectly reasonable and justified to ‘enslave’ and, in Gary’s sense, ‘torture’ animals for these purposes.”

Francione responded, “This is what morality is about. There are things we wish to do, there are things that may make us happy, that are wrong.”

Gary L. Francione is a philosopher and law professor at Rutger’s University in New Jersey.

Jan Narveson is a philosophy professor at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada.

Listen to the full debate

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39 Responses to “Inside the Mind of an Anti-Animal Rights Philosopher”

  • Lindsey Says:

    Wow. This JN guy is super stubborn and is grasping at every thread to justify his meat habit. Good thing he looks like a heartless bitch. I have understanding for people who have been brought up eating meat and don’t know how to stop or even the people who have some kind of good intentions in wanting humane meat, but this guy goes so far as to say it’s OK to torture an innocent being for its whole life even when it’s completely unnecessary??! Disgusting. All I have to say is this guy will have some seriously bad karma for not caring one bit about innocent creatures.
    I’m all for getting intellectual and philosophical, but to use intellect and philosophy with the exclusion of any compassion or empathy is atrocious. I love his dumb “moral” excuses – like the animals can’t communicate to us. Bullshit they can’t communicate to us! What about their cries and their facial expressions and movements?
    I have nothing else to say because someone like that is beyond hope.


    Chu-hua Zhu Reply:

    First of all, Narveson is a rationalist which means he will not accept your intuitional, bullshit appeals to emotional justification. The fact that something is weird or even offensive does not make it actionable. You can dislike animal torture, David Duke can dislike black people; and as long as both of you weirdoes mind your own business it’s none of mine. Your whims and taste are not fit for the foundation of law.

    Furthermore, making noises (signaling) is not the same as communicating. Communication means rational, conceptual exchanges both coming and going. Animals get ‘rights’ as soon as they either petition for them or shoot back. The only reason severely retarded people have ‘rights’ is because they are prima facie human.

    Morality is a human construction, and like anything else, can have no justification unless it is through reason and self-interest. Anything else is bogus mystical bullshit.


    Michelle Candaras Reply:

    What are you? Where did you come from?

    You come on here with your little witch hunt and proceed to thrash anyone who exhibits an ounce of human emotion and then tell us all we are “weirdoes” and not fit for the foundation of law? You, my friend, are not fit for the foundation of humanity (which, by the way, is what law is based upon, so take a step back, huh). Why don’t you and JN go screw each other, I’m sure he’s “man enough” for you.


  • What It Should Really Mean To Be Libertarian (*Ahem,* Jan Narveson) | Veganise Me Says:

    […] recently posted a debate between animals-as-property abolitionist Gary Francione and libertarian philosopher Jan Narveson. I […]

  • Trishula Says:

    What I never understand about the arguments provided by Jan Narvenson kind of people is that, they suggest that an animal has no right to life, or that it’s interest towards the quality of its life is immaterial for the only reason that they aren’t moral agents. They claim that rights can be enjoyed by only those beings that can respect and reciprocate to such rights. According to them, Now since animals aren’t capable of making moral judgments / decisions nor can they understand or respect the rights of humans, they automatically lose their chances of enjoying any such rights or be able to pursue their lives. Now this is a defected argument I feel. This is what is speciesim and a clear showcase of moral and intellectual superiority. A simple reason for why animals shouldn’t be subjected to torture or be treated as a property of the humans is for the fact that they are capable of mental and physical suffering, and that many animals do infact have a concern over the quality of their lives and sometimes even a pursuit of lives. This is beyond just an instinctive survival. Although animals aren’t (atleast so far) capable of building rockets and sky scrapers, they do possess minimal and sometimes impressive intelligence..and upon training they get even better! Animals have an EQ. Somehow all of these factors are simply just irrelevant to let them live their lives.


  • Trishula Says:

    Although JN says that we shouldn’t put forth marginal cases as a counter argument, I would still wonder why not. Forget children as children do indeed have a potential to be moral and rational agents. But,however, what about the mentally retarded ones? The ones that can never recover their mental stability for the rest of their lives..? How about replacing them for vivisection purposes? Or how about doing anything to them that is done to the animals..? I don’t care if its a marginal case.. All I know is that these kind of mentally handicapped people are as good as the animals and so probably should be treated the same way as the animals are, if we are to believe the claims of people JN.


    Chu-hua Zhu Reply:

    Because the marginal cases are the ones wherein classification is dubious. A vegitative person or a retard only have rights because of their prima facie or presumptive (i.e., prior) personage. The marginal cases are technical problems, not philosophical ones.


  • Lydia Fettig Says:

    I teach a class about the relationship between animals and humans and would love to have my students listen to this clip. I would like to know more about it though–what was the context for the discussion? When and where did it take place? Please contact me! Thanks so much.


  • LeeAnn Says:

    There is this weird “it’s just how it is” mindset with me and many others. Animals eat other animals– it’s not an uncommon occurrence. The smarter, more agile animals get to eat the slower, less intelligent animals. It’s just how it is. Have you ever seen a baby eagle kill its baby brother/sister to optimize the amount of food he or she gets? Or a hawk scoop up a duckling from a pond? It’s just nature, people. Humans are smarter than animals, so we eat them.

    If animals outsmarted us, they’d eat us– you can bet on that.

    It’s just a fact of life, people. Now do I think we should unneccesarily torture animals? Of course not. But using them for nourishment is a different matter.


    iro k Reply:

    if i am smarter than you, then can i eat you?


    Chu-hua Zhu Reply:

    Irrelevant strawman, the question is: you have no brain, can I eat you? To which the libertarian answer would be, “prior owners withstanding, yes.”


  • Michelle Candaras Says:

    Well, the thing we need to understand, re: LeeAnn, is that there is no such thing as needing animals for nourishment. I am glad that some people still believe that, because that lends opportunity for educating them and allowing them to see the truth. Those people, re: LeeAnn, need to ask and research the claims they make. You will find it is untrue. Not only is it untrue that animals are required for our nourishment, they are actually bad for us. Apex predators need other animals for nourishment, human molecular/digestive systems were not designed the same way. Also, good point, Iro K.


  • Michelle Candaras Says:

    This entire argument doesn’t make much sense to me due to one simple fact. The opponents are not tantamount in moral composition. We are unequivocally dealing with one good man and one bad man – and the latter (JN) does little to conceal the stuff he is made of. Narveson offers not one authentic or sensible explanation for his opinions and it is quite plain to see that he is incapable of very basic human emotions. Any qualified psychologist could easily see this individual has the textbook makings of someone with Anti-social Personality Disorder, if he isn’t already a full-blown Sociopath. It is well-known that trying to argue with individuals who present with such symptoms or diagnoses is a frustrating exercise in futility.


    Chu-hua Zhu Reply:

    Jan Narveson systematically opposes robbery, slavery, murder, warfare, religious and intellectual persecution and freedom of opinion and action. The fact that you decide to begin your childish psychologizing diagnosis on the fact that he thinks there is an ineradicable human prejudice to morality proves that you are more interested in your pet wanking than facts.

    If you think ‘animal torture’ is a more serious moral issue than systemic slavery and mass murder (i.e., warfare) then you are most definitely ‘weird’.


    Michelle Candaras Reply:

    Where is it that you think I said anything like “animal torture is a more serious moral issue than systematic slavery and mass murder”? Are you delusional or just like to put words in people’s mouths to promote your opinion? And for the record, I wasn’t basing my opinion of his sociopathic leanings on the fact that he thinks there is a divergence of thought on morality. That’s a given. But when you go so far as to say you couldn’t give two shits about another living creature simply because it isn’t human, I think there’s a real problem there – and I’m not alone on that opinion, as much of what academics in the field of animal rights look at is how a lack of compassion for those weaker than us relates to our overall sense of respect for life and actually contributes to all those things you went on about (robbery, slavery, murder, warfare, persecution).


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