Steve Cooke

measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun

Lamont on the rights of animals, infants, and idiots

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Delicious books

Not so long ago @Kantian3, editor of, pointed me at a section of Lamont’s Principles of Moral Agreement that concerns animal rights (thanks Gary). I’d not read Lamont before, but I’d seen him referenced in Feinberg’s influential paper ‘The Rights of Animals and Unborn Generations‘ so I picked up a second-hand copy on Amazon for a couple of quid. A few days latter a pleasingly cloth bound copy arrived in the post. I’m glad I followed-up on Gary’s suggestion because Lamont’s short argument (Section 66, Chapter 3) is good.

In Section 66, Lamont engages with W.D. Ross on duties to and regarding non-human animals.i In The Right and the Good Ross argues that we have duties to non-human animals, he thinks also that, since non-human animals are not moral agents and so cannot have duties, they therefore cannot have rights for the same reason. Ross makes the claim that to have a right entails that an agent must be able to claim that right.ii

Lamont responds to Ross’ argument by asking: ‘is it true that the “owning of a right” and the “moving for its enforcement” must be united in the one person?’iii. Lamont answers his own question by pointing to criminal law and the ability of the public prosecutor to enforce the law in spite of the wishes of an individual victim of crime. In such cases victims cannot waive their rights, and have their claims pressed by another. Lamont also writes of the legal powers of guardians to press claims on behalf of their wards (he uses the examples of children and ‘idiots’).iv By denying rights to animals, Lamont thinks that Ross confuses possessing a right with the ability to ‘initiate proceedings for the defence of a right’.v Non-human animals are conative beings with interests that they pursue, and it is this, claims Lamont, that makes them the bearers of legal rights – the inability to press a claim presents no real practical or conceptual barrier to rights

What stuck me about Lamont’s argument with Ross is just how much it pre-empts contemporary debates between Will and Interest theorists of rights, and also just how influential it clearly was on Feinberg’s paper. I certainly recommend reading it – Lamont’s writing is clear and concise, and I’m definitely going to delve further into the book myself.

i I have a duty regarding my dog if I have a duty concerning my dog (such as to keep it on a lead), but which is not owed to it, and I have a duty to my dog if I have a duty which is owed to the dog directly (such as not to treat it cruelly).

ii William D. Ross, The Right and the Good (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1930), 50.

iii W.D. Lamont, Principles of Moral Agreement (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1946), 83.

iv Ibid., 84.

v Ibid., 85.

vi Ibid.


Author: Steve C

I work in normative ethics, specialising in animal and ethics and political philosophy.

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