Disclaimer: I hold a regular Salon discussion group, with wide-ranging conversations on politics, philosophy, society, and life. The ideas in this post came from a recent Salon, but are not meant to be an accurate reflection of the dialogue.
Our discussion started on the basis for animal rights, but soon toppled into the different foundations for ethics. We spent a long time disentangling consequentialist and deontological ethics, and trading ethical thought experiments. We talked about Habeas Corpus, in reference to the recent court decision which takes it away from foreign "enemy combatants" held on foreign soil, and briefly revisited the DRM discussion from last time. We also talked about toilets and the anthropology of bathrooms.
And we didn't come to conclusions or consensus on anything. Which strikes me as tragic, given the weight of the questions. A post about ethics terminology is a waste of good bits, so I want to argue some points.
Both animal rights and habeas corpus hinge on unalienable rights, and are meant to be granted unconditionally. Habeas Corpus is a right for human beings to defend their freedom. Animal rights are about preventing the needless suffering of animals. While I acknowledge that these issues could be approached from very different angles, I want to consider them in tandem.
I don't think that consequentialism can form a foundation for unalienable rights. The normal consequential argument for them is that a world that didn't guarantee some basic rights wouldn't be a very good (e.g., happy) place. But a world in which some people (not you or your friends) are secretly interrogated, exploited, or eliminated, would be even better. You could live in the psychological assurance of your own rights, and the safety and luxury from taking away others'.
Under consequentialism, ends always justify means. Often consequential claims are based on a bit of calculation: compare the projected worlds that result from each possible decision, and integrate up some metric (total happiness, average well-being, population of philosophers); do whatever act would result in the best world.
There's a boundary problem here. Why should we care about the rights of animals and Arabs? We can extend the veil of ignorance to ask "What if we were born Arab in a United States-dominated world?" but we aren't going to ask, "What if we were born a rabbit?" In choosing our laws, why should we consider the well-being of other societies or species? To make a consequentialist argument, you need to define the metric you're trying to maximize. Why not draw the limit at your skin?
Such an ethics is probably more palatable than we'd like to believe. We're social creatures, and selfish motivations naturally lead to common goods. But the conscience is fairly malleable, and it's easy to learn to consider another group (blacks, rabbits, Montagues) as unworthy of our consideration.
I think this is a problem of subjectivity in ethics. The consequentialist worldview distinguishes descriptive and normative statements, and orders them: first, there's the world, then, there are value judgments about it. This division is a modern invention that gives us considerable analytical power, while simultaneously bracketing all ethical truths as subjective claims. But ethics by its very nature has to make objective claims if it’s going to say anything.
Deontological ethics aren't based on value judgments (or at least, they aren't supposed to be). "Killing is wrong" sounds like a value judgment to us, but within the deontological worldview, it's purely (though not immediately) descriptive. Similarly, rights are actual entities of the deontological worldview. We can't grant them-- they were endowed without our help-- so we can only respect them or break them.
The world as we experience it has no such descriptive/normative distinction. I believe that animals and foreigners have rights that we should respect. That's a speculatively descriptive statement. On further evaluation, it might turn out that they have more or fewer rights than I thought. Currently my sense of their rights is based on Kant's claim that it's unjust to use another creature as a means to your ends, but even if that claim were discovered to be ill-founded, I would look for another *reason* why it is that they appear to have rights.
Even as I write this, I'm coming to doubt it. After all, don't we create our world, not discover it? But then, let's create a world where ethics can actually exist and have bearing on our lives-- even if it would just make us happier to live in that world.