Life and Works of Confucius by Prospero Intorcetta, 1687.

Lockean-Confucian Natural Law Theory and the Ethics of Eating Animals

A New Argument Against Animal Rights

After studying normative ethics for the last couple of years, I’ve settled on my own fusion of natural law theory based on the philosophies of John Locke and Confucius. This is a normative ethical view that sees humanity as part of an extended family consisting of individuals who have a social contract with one another — and the state — based on our familial ties, which is the source of all our moral duties. These rights, originating from our common origins, arise as conventions that are gradually built up over time based on our ability to reason with one another and expect one another to internalize these rules. While I have written on Locke before (here), for this piece I will delve into Confucian ethics.

The argument against animal rights can be framed in the following argument.

P1 — If human beings have an obligation to extend rights to non-human animals, then non-human animals are able to be a part of the same extended family.

P2 — Either a non-human animal is capable of being a part of the same extended family by dint of birth, or by way of internalizing the same cultural, legal, and societal conventions, or is incapable of being a part of the same extended family

P3 — A non-human animal is incapable of being a part of the same extended family by dint of birth, and is incapable of internalizing the same cultural conventions and practices as humans.

C — Human beings do not have an obligation to extend rights to non-human animals

The first premise is built on the understanding that our obligations extend only to our society. Which isn’t to say foreigners have no rights as many are capable of either integrating, and co-existing, if they are just visiting. As it stands, obligations are in some capacity limited from agent to agent in terms of their distance to us. Take for example our obligation to give someone the right to vote, while it is a right we would owe to someone in our own country, if say a visitor from Greenland, we do not owe them a right to vote. Or, as Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka put it,

It may be that the hundreds of thousands of Chinese tourists who now vacation around the world would enjoy visiting New York or Buenos Aires more if there were more Chinese-language street signs. And if a city wishes to attract tourists, it may well choose to make such changes. But there is no obligation on citizens to make their cities more welcoming to visitors, and it is the citizens, not the visitors, who make this collective decision about the shape of their society and its public space [1].

Both Kymlicka and Donaldson advocate for human rights extending to non-human animals based on the fact we all share consciousness [2]. The problem is there is no reason as to why some humans should have more rights than others on this view. At this point, an animal rights advocate might say that civic rights are really more of a prudential judgement. But the problem is that this doesn’t explain why we factor in civic obligations in our moral thought. If you had to save one solider from dying, an enemy combatant who is a general would become a P.O.W, or a fellow military private, the moral intuition is to save our fellow country men, even though there is more practical benefit for your side in capturing the general.

However, if normative ethics are derived through a social contract based on our family ties, such preferences are easy to explain. In the Analects of Confucius it is written,

Some one addressed Confucius, saying, ‘Sir, why are you not engaged in the government?’
The Master said, ‘What does the Shu-ching say of filial piety? — “You are filial, you discharge your brotherly duties. These qualities are displayed in government.” This then also constitutes the exercise of government. Why must there be THAT — making one be in the government?’ [3]

The idea is that one is already participating in their government by the fact one is fulfilling their familial obligations. Now, how does one behave when it comes to family? Simply put, we place our familial obligations before that of the state.

Mancius, Confucius’ successor, makes this point clearly,

Mencius said, ‘People have this common saying, — “The kingdom, the State, the family.” The root of the kingdom is in the State. The root of the State is in the family. The root of the family is in the person of its Head.’ [4]

The structure of society begins with the family unit because this is the root of all others. We are born into our families first, socialized by them, taught virtue through them, and go into our adult lives to begin the process over again. We act with virtue in our family unit first, so that it may be spread in others.

‘Treat with the reverence due to age the elders in your own family, so that the elders in the families of others shall be similarly treated; treat with the kindness due to youth the young in your own family, so that the young in the families of others shall be similarly treated: — do this, and the kingdom may be made to go round in your palm [5]

Why we have incentive to treat those closest to us first, rather than ignoring them, so that we can encourage that kind of behavior in our own society at large. Now, it might be asked why not just treat all young people and elders in the same way? The Great Learning contains Confucius’ argument,

What is meant by “The regulation of one’s family depends on the cultivation of his person is this:-men are partial where they feel affection and love; partial where they despise and dislike; partial where they stand in awe and reverence; partial where they feel sorrow and compassion; partial where they are arrogant and rude. Thus it is that there are few men in the world who love and at the same time know the bad qualities of the object of their love, or who hate and yet know the excellences of the object of their hatred.” [6]

When it comes to familial ties, were in the best disposition to focus on cultivating our kind, because we love them, but will still recognize their bad flaws. These are not dispositions we typically have to strangers.

Another argument is that we don’t have enough care to provide love and obligation to everyone equally. I can’t be called to love a stranger more than my mother, nor could I demand others do either. Sure, there might be a neglectful parent out there, but even than our hatred arises because they neglect the obligations we pin on them because of their station, not because they are merely a terrible person. It’s one thing for a stranger to wrong you, but to be wronged by kin is a greater evil.

In terms of how the family extends to the state and government, human beings have ties to one another through ancestry, and from that we form nations. On a wider scale, since we are all apart of the same species, we are all apart of the same extended family. Since we cannot care for everyone in the same capacity, it becomes incumbent for all states to take care of their own citizens, like all families to care for their own.

The second premise is based on how one becomes apart of a family. We can either be born into it (which would include people such as the mentally handicapped), or you can be adopted into it. To be adopted into the extended family, you would need to be capable of doing something similar to taking a citizenship test. You would need to be able to internalize the customs of your host nation, understand and abide by the law, and be capable of communicating with people. However, few, if any, animals have the capacity to do all these.

Since non-human animals are able to do neither, as a human cannot give birth to an ox, they are disqualified from any human obligation. While an alien like Superman could, and would get rights, given his capacity of intelligence, a pig could not.

An objection to this kind of ethic is that if there are no animal rights, wouldn’t that permit cruelty to animals? This doesn’t follow, human beings have an obligation to ourselves to treat animals with welfare and make sure others do as well for the sake of cultivating our virtues,

It is only he who is possessed of the most complete sincerity that can exist under heaven, who can give its fun development to his nature. Able to give its full development to his own nature, he can do the same to the nature of other men. Able to give its full development to the nature of other men, he can give their full development to the natures of animals and things. Able to give their full development to the natures of creatures and things, he can assist the transforming and nourishing powers of Heaven and Earth. Able to assist the transforming and nourishing powers of Heaven and Earth, he may with Heaven and Earth form a ternion [7].

Humans and non-human animals also are related as we either evolved together, or came from the same creator. While we have the greatest obligation towards one another, once it is taken care of, we can proceed to cultivating the welfare of animals. This builds up our own virtue, similarly to how raising a child builds up the proper character needed in being a parent. This is why we should constantly push for a society with an emphasis for the care of animals.

While it may have been hard in the past (seeing as we needed animals for labor, and there was no way to supplement your diet throughout human history), in the modern age, there is little need to consume meat products. A vegan diet is, according to the American Dietetic Association,

nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases [8]

Furthermore, given the negative effect that the meat industry has on man-made global warming, it would seem that switching to a plant-based diet has some practical benefits for ourselves as well [9]. While eating nonhuman animals is not wrong per se, it is certainly not in our best interest, and while we can eat nonhuman animals, it would be a waste of a life if we do not use it to cultivate our own virtues as it breaths.

At this point in my life, I have opted to eat a vegan diet. While only a few weeks in, it has helped me practice self-discipline, fasting, and living a healthy lifestyle. Although, I am not an ethical vegan, there are some good reasons to consider adopting the diet from a spiritual, environmental, and health perspective.

End Notes

[1] Donaldson and Kymlicka. Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights. OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition. 51

[2] Ibid, 19

[3] Analects of Confucius, Chap. 21, Link

[4] The Works of Mencius, Book 6, Chap. 5, Link

[5] Ibid, Book 1, Chap. 7

[6] The Great Learning of Confucius, Link

[7] Confucius, The Doctrine of the Mean, Link

[8] Craig WJ, Mangels AR; American Dietetic Association, Position of the American Dietetic Association: vegetarian diets, Link

[9]Fiona Harvey, Eat less meat to avoid dangerous global warming, scientists say, Link