We talk too much about rights - and not enough about love

Unthinkable: Ethical debate is at risk of becoming ‘cold and impersonal’, Tony Milligan warns

‘Rights talk does not seem to motivate in the way that love does.’ Photograph: Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

"All you need is love," sang John Lennon. Fifty years later, those lyrics have fallen well out of fashion. Hate, fear and anger are the touchstones of public debate. What's more, love has been relegated to a private matter by so-called progressives.

The language of rights has taken over. By all means, love your enemy if you wish but don’t bring that kind of talk onto Twitter.

Is there a price to be paid for rights talk monopolising our discussions? Philosopher and animal rights activist Dr Tony Milligan believes so. Talk about rights can seem "cold and impersonal" when faced with moral wrongdoing.

"A familiar example from Simone Weil can help to illustrate the point," he says. "A father who sells his daughter into prostitution would ordinarily – and justifiably – be reproached with something far more straightforward than a failure to respect her rights, even though such an action would no doubt also involve a failure to respect her rights, and talk about the latter might be added as an afterthought."


In this and other cases, starting from a rights perspective seems to run counter to how moral concern works. Typically, people who advocate for animal rights – like Milligan does – arrive at this point, he explains, “in response to cruelty, the experience of loving particular animals, and out of care and compassion. We come to value the lives of animals without any special theory about why we ought to do so.”

Milligan, who gave a keynote address at the agm of the Irish Philosophical Society in Carlow this month, says, "Rights talk does not seem to motivate in the way that love does." It can even be used to evade responsibility. "Like the characters in Coetzee's novel Elizabeth Costello, we can discuss animal rights over dinner, without registering a sense of moral horror about what is done."

As this week's Unthinkable guest, Milligan says love and rights shouldn't be seen as conceptual competitors. Rather he advocates them playing "different, if sometimes overlapping, ethical roles". The language of rights is important but "love is part of the broader background of valuing without which rights talk is likely to remain a dead letter."

There seems to be a conflict between a rights-based approach and a love-based approach to welfare issues. Enthusiasts for the former will say that rights are independent of love in the sense that even beings which are unlovable and which don’t love have rights. How do you respond?

“Part of the problem here is the very idea of ‘basing’. I hear it a lot in animal rights circles. But it suggests something like ethical foundations with everything else derived from these foundations plus some additional information. I don’t think that’s how real world ethical deliberation works.

“Instead, there are contexts where it makes sense to talk about love and contexts where it makes sense to talk about rights, and sometimes these two overlap.

“Sometimes the results of talking about love and about rights will be much the same, sometimes they will be different and you do get tensions. But that’s what happens when you have a richer understanding of ethics.

“The issue of what we do in the case of animals who are unlovable - because, for example, we cannot personally bond with them - is a much tougher problem. I suspect that I need a stronger story about that.

“Talk about rights fits quite well here. But it’s still going to be an extension of talk about rights in other contexts, and in these other contexts love - and various other concepts - will have a role to play. That’s how the sense, the meaning, of the talk gets fixed. That’s how we come to understand what it is to respect the rights of another creature.

“When people lose sight of this they end up with a thin understanding of rights, e.g. rights are simply a matter of being left alone; or worse, they end up with a thick understanding of rights that has little relation to how rights talk actually operates and the tasks that it performs.”

If you approach the issue of animal welfare through the prism of love, however, isn’t there a risk you will only care for the “lovable” animals (like cats and bunnies), or for specific animals (like your pet dog)?

“Well, that would be a bad way to use the concept of love. And here I’ll hold my hands up and say that I have no way at all of preventing people from using concepts in bad ways. But that applies to the concept of rights, compassion, duty, courage, and so on. We can all think of cases where they have been used to reinforce harms rather than ending them.

“On the other hand, what an understanding of love for and by animals might do is open up insights that we could easily miss. Take, for example, a familiar picture of farming life. A picture that I think is wrong . . . [if it] misses out the attitude that farmers often have towards their herds. This isn’t just about business. They want the herds to flourish, and not just long enough for slaughter.

“When something like foot and mouth happens and a herd is culled they are genuinely heartbroken. It’s not hypocrisy, it’s care that has a different object: the group and the lineage rather more than the individual creature.

“Whether we want to call this love or something else doesn’t really matter. It looks like love, but it certainly involves a sense of value that isn’t monetary. And it isn’t entirely disconnected from the individual animals who make up the herd.

“I think these kinds of relationships, love for pets and care for the herd, show us what we would otherwise lack, ie plausible ways of picturing care for animals which goes beyond using them solely for our own interests.”

What evidence is there that animals can love in a way similar to humans?

“Similarity is a difficult thing to pin down. And so too is love. There will always be differences between the way that I love an animal and the way that an animal loves me, just as there will be many differences between the ways that I love Suzanne – my wife – and the ways that I love my parents.

“There are different kinds of loves. But they all evolve and they are all connected to vulnerability and grief. The best evidence for some animals being able to love is the fact that they can and do grieve.

“This is very familiar in dogs – they can take loss very badly. But anyone who has heard a cow when her calf is taken away will know that the sense of loss is real.

“This seems also to apply to whales and dolphins. Interestingly, the capacity for grief applies across the boundaries of pet, livestock and wild animals.

“The pivotal thought here is that we only grieve over the loss of those we love. Of course, it is possible to deny that animal grief is real but that seems akin to climate change denial, or to the old, multiply-discredited idea that animals cannot think. These view run heavily against our best evidence.”

Is there a case for animal citizenship, and how far might one legitimately push this concept?

“To be honest, I like the idea of animal citizenship but I’m not sure that it’s a runner. We don’t really know what a world without animal exploitation would look like. We don’t have a plausible story for what comes after, so we use ideas of this sort to explore possible human-animal relationships and ideas about a future shared community.

“Advocates of the idea sometimes suggest that I don’t go far enough . . . and I daresay they’re right about that. But ultimately I suspect that the concept of citizenship is too closely tied to human history, to competences that only humans have – even if we do not all have them – and to ideas of ‘fraternity’.”

Ask a sage

Question: Do some animals deserve better treatment than others?

Mahatma Ghandi replies: "The more helpless a creature, the more entitled it is to protection by man from the cruelty of man."