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No Morality = No Rights? The Case of Danita the Chicken

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No Morality = No Rights? The Case of Danita the Chicken

From Free From Harm
May 2013

Animal rights advocates argue that possessing human-like moral reasoning is not a reason to deny animals the negative right to be left alone (not used as someone else’s resource). One need only be a being with interests that are being violated to have the negative right to be left alone. All animals qualify.

morality rights chicken Danita
Danita the chicken on top of the patio table sounding her warning calls to the flock that a predator is in their midst.
Photo: Robert Grillo

Animals are not moral beings like we are; therefore they cannot possess rights. That’s the crux of what is considered one of the leading arguments against animal rights from Professor Tibor Machan (1). Animal rights advocates argue that possessing human-like moral reasoning is not a reason to deny animals the negative right to be left alone (not used as someone else’s resource). One need only be a being with interests that are being violated to have the negative right to be left alone. All animals qualify.

Putting aside that debate over rights, I’ve decided to focus on a series of first hand observations that clearly indicate moral behavior in animals. I’m also putting aside for now the fact that many ethologists (animal behaviorists) have discovered a high level of moral behavior in a variety of animal species, from rats to chimps. Dale Peterson, author of The Moral Lives of Animals, has extensively studied animals in their natural habitat and argues that the foundation of human morality, such as the 10 Commandments, is linked to the moral behavior in other species.

I’d also like to address the common objection that attributing moral behavior to non human animals is anthropocentric, unscientific or invalid. Doesn’t that very objection reveal an anthropocentric bias? Dr. Marc Bekoff’s theory of biocentric anthropomorphism addresses this objection well. Observing behaviors in non human animals that have conventionally been attributed exclusively to humans threatens the carnistic power structure in which animals are used in the billions each year as mere commodities to satisfy mostly trivial human pleasures. As the human apes of the animal kingdom, how do we expect to observe and evaluate other animals if not from our uniquely human frame of reference?

Danita, the Mother Hen

So, for the first case of evidence of moral behavior I’d like to submit the case of Danita, the mother hen. Danita displays a strong interest in protecting her flock. Her actions reflect that she has a sense of moral duty to her flock. But the way she acts to protect her flock is not based on instinct or the carrying out of a repetitive and thoughtless action. On the contrary, the way she responds to a perceived danger to the flock varies in each situation that she is presented with. It also varies based on her disposition that day. It seems reasonable to conclude that she is making executive decisions based on a variety of circumstances unique to each situation.

One day she might be in top form, feeling great. She discovers a sneaky cat on the fence. She flies up to the highest point in the yard and sounds her warning calls to the flock (as in the photo). Even the squirrels take notice and start making their characteristic “predator in our midst” vocalizations. The cat get spooked and darts off.

On another day, she’s not feeling so well, having difficulty passing an egg. A falcon is spotted in the vicinity. Danita sounds the warning calls and at the same time runs to shelter, the others following behind her. I’ve designed the yard so that safe shelters (shrubs, enclosures, etc.) are within just a few feet anywhere in the yard.

Yet another day she might confront that falcon, standing her ground. She cranes her neck and stands tall. She lets out some frightful calls and flaps her huge wings violently — all in attempt to scare off or deter the predator. (2) It works. He seeks easier prey elsewhere.

One day Danita came in between Sweet Pea (another chicken) and me with the clear intent of resolving a confrontation. She was “protecting” me from Sweet Pea who was having a bit of meltdown at that moment. The worst thing Sweet Pea would do is some light pecking on my hand, but this was enough to trigger a moral response in Danita. Danita moved in between Sweet Pea and I then gently reprimanded Sweet Pea with a few pecks which scared her off.

Notes:

(1) Professor Tibor Machan explains this argument in a debate with Professor Gary Francione.

(2) I certainly do not want to suggest here that I encourage any situation that could put these chickens in danger. I’va actually gone to great lengths to minimize risks of predator attacks while giving them freedom of movement in the yard while I am here to supervise them. Predator attempts have been rare and Danita has sometimes bravely risen to the challenge.