Finding Stasis in Vicki Hearne’s “What’s Wrong With Animal Rights?”

by | Academic, Rhetorical Analysis

I wrote this rhetorical analysis for Dr. Strain’s Rhetorical Theory class as the University of Dayton. It looks at Vicki Hearne’s essay, “What’s Wrong with Animal Rights” and compares it to Cicero’s De Oratore.

Love requires two parties. To refute that claim would require one to either reject the concept of love wholesale or subscribe to some variant of solipsism where the self functions as the object of love. The previous statement may have the ring of a false dichotomy, but I cannot conceive a way one might otherwise defend a single party love. Even if one loves an object or an abstract idea, these things function as the second party to the one exuding love. The existence of some things, such as love, entail a relationship. Vicki Hearne argues that the idea of rights similarly depends on a relationship between individuals in “What’s Wrong with Animal Rights?” She believes that a misunderstanding concerning the nature of rights has led activists who seemingly advocate for animals to actually cause them harm.

Hearne constructs her argument by answering key questions that examine the facts, definitions, and natures of the various elements involved in the animal rights debate. Then she extends her analysis to provide a solution for this conundrum. Her pattern of inquiry mirrors the method of analysis described by Marcus Antonius in Cicero’s De Oratore (322-323). Antonius speaks of rhetoric primarily as a forensic activity—meaning the legal rhetoric of a defending or prosecuting advocate—but Hearne’s similar pattern of investigative reasoning demonstrates the versatility of the method advanced in Cicero’s dialogue. Hearne successfully uses these categories to navigate her argument but she goes beyond extending these questions merely to the issue of rights; she also extends them to the idea of happiness. Just as Hearne’s conception of rights necessitates a relationship, the argument of her essay likewise depends on the relationship between rights and happiness. Thus her conclusion is borne out of the interaction between her systematic inquiries of both subjects.

According to Antonius in Cicero’s dialogue, the facts of a case must be thoroughly investigated because “no man can speak, without the direst disgrace, on a subject which he has not mastered” (322). Hearne demonstrates her mastery of the subject by beginning her essay with an examination of the issue of animal happiness. “Not all happy animals are alike” (138) she claims before proceeding to list various sources of animal happiness. Examples include agility obstacles for dogs, the training of a circus rhinoceros, and a draft horse pulling (138-139). According to Hearne, her work as an animal trainer has taught her that “work is the foundation of the happiness a trainer and an animal discover together” (140). She also heavily cites her experience as a dog owner. Her Airedale puppy, for example, is happy to be given space and work at a dog show (141). This notion stands in contrast to the typical conception of animal happiness as “creature comforts” such as “a horse with his nose deep in the oats” or “the kitty by the fire” (139). Hearne clearly asserts that not only is animal happiness a quality that one can identify by interacting with animals, but it’s more nuanced than the concept portrayed in pet food commercials.

The obvious challenge one could posit to Hearne would be that her notion of animal happiness depends on a very troublesome term—”happiness.” To clarify her distinction between creature comforts that do not induce happiness and work that does, Hearne must define what exactly she means by “happiness.” As Antonius states in De Oratore, “the question is one of definition, when the terms in which an act should be described are in dispute” (323). As with the more specific concept of animal happiness, Hearne emphasizes what happiness is not, writing that it “is often misunderstood as a synonym for pleasure or an antonym for suffering” (139). Hearne, drawing somewhat from Aristotle, defines happiness as “codes of behavior that urge us toward the sensation of getting it right, a kind of work that yields the ‘click’ of satisfaction upon solving a problem or surmounting an obstacle” (139). She compares this to “a sense of personal satisfaction” such as when a craftsman completes a job or an artist creates a work of art (139). This definition certainly supports Hearne’s notion that happiness—and therefore animal happiness—requires meaningful work.

With the questions of animal happiness answered, Hearne now must address the complimentary question of whether animal rights exist. The supposed facts concerning animal rights espoused by philosophers such as Peter Singer and organizations such as the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) repeat the same error demonstrated by those who conflate happiness and creature comforts. The popular idea that Hearne contests derives from an oft-quoted line from Jeremy Bentham: “The question is not, Can they reason? nor, can they talk? but, can they suffer?” (Hearne 140). This would imply that rights are endowed to those with the capacity to suffer and therefore pertain to the avoidance of suffering. By the end of the essay it becomes clear that Hearne does in fact believe in animal rights, but her conception of animal rights is vastly different than anything espoused by PETA or the Humane Society. Therefore, it is not the fact of animal rights that Hearne rejects, but the definition of rights espoused by those who typically advocate for animals rights. In her words, “they’ve got it all wrong” (140).

For Hearne, “[r]ights originate in committed relationships” (143). These may include a parent-child, friend-friend, citizen-government, or person-animal relationship (144-145). A right, in this sense, is that which one is responsible to “[defend] or [honor] or [respect]” concerning another in a relationship (143). These relationships also have a possessive nature, but Hearne argues against a negative conception of possession that is typically linked to slavery; instead what she has “in mind is reciprocity” (143). This definition of “rights” stands in stark contrast to the ideas of PETA or Singer, who argue that “rights were created to prevent us from unnecessary suffering” (Hearne 140). If rights are premised on the prevention of suffering, Hearne argues, then naturally death becomes the goal because it “is the ultimate release” (140). Meanwhile, “those who made animal happiness their business: veterinarians, trainers, and the like” become “demonized” for cultivating that which simultaneously causes both suffering and happiness—life (140).

Here the nature of rights and the nature of happiness intersect. When the facts and definitions of a case are resolved or are not in question, the nature of a case may be pertinent. Antonius uses a killing where the defendant admits to committing the act as an example. In the case, guilt depended on whether the act was justified or not (322-323). Coupled to this question of nature, Antonius includes the questions of “what is being done, or has been done or is going to be done?” (323). In Hearne’s argument, understanding the facts, definitions, and natures of her subjects make the answer to this question obvious. While the facts and definitions of “happiness” and “rights” can be examined independently, the natures of these concepts are indelibly intertwined and can only be analyzed together.

Happiness is integral to rights because the “right to pursue happiness,” at least in the American tradition owing to the words of Thomas Jefferson, is considered to be a fundamental right (Hearne 139). First, Hearne dispenses with the idea that animals can only be happy in the wild. She begins by comparing the favorable life expectancies of captive animals to the unfavorable life expectancies of wild animals (142). Domestic animals, of course, by and large cannot survive in the wild and thus both their rights and happiness depend on human owners (147). Consistent with her facts and definition of rights, wild animals by their lack of a relationship with humans, do not have any rights that are pertinent to human understanding (her reasoning leaves open a rights-relationship between members of a herd or a shared ecosystem, but it seems that such rights would be largely incomprehensible to humans). Hearne primarily illustrates the natures of animal happiness and rights through anecdotes describing obedience training with her Airedale (144-146). Because the dog has a limited conception of the world, he cannot have rights-relationships with entities other than his owner as they are “beyond a dog’s ken” (144). Thus complicated rights such as free speech cannot apply to a dog. Only the foundational right—the pursuit of happiness—really presents itself in the owner-pet relationship. Obedience is central to happiness because only through obedience can the dog discover meaningful work (145). Only through a rights-relationship can a dog pursue happiness, a concept that cements the relationship between animal rights and happiness.

Clearly, if one finds Hearne’s argument to be convincing, a question of policy leads to an obvious answer. One should avoid contributions to the Humane Society, the ASCPA, PETA, and other groups that contribute to animal unhappiness by treating animals as nothing more than vessels of suffering. People should not just be willing to own pets and livestock, they should be encouraged to do so because of the mutual benefits that can be conferred from human-animal relationships. No ethical dilemma exists concerning animal products—meat, leather, fur, etc.—as long as the animals are treated humanely and provided an opportunity for a happy life “It is true that it hurts to be slaughtered by man,” Hearne writes, “but it doesn’t hurt nearly as much as some of the cunningly cruel arrangements meted out by ‘Mother Nature'” (142). It would not be quite accurate to say that Hearne supports maintaining the status quo regarding human-animal relations. Her main reform would be to encourage pet and livestock owners to develop and maintain rights-based relationships with their pets and livestock. It is the intended revolution of the so-called “animal rights” movement that Hearne wishes to subdue.

Hearne’s essay demonstrates the power of breaking down a complicated moral argument by using basic categories of inquiry. Certainly Cicero would approve. But Hearne also takes Cicero’s method a step further by showing how concurrent arguments can lead to a single conclusion. A classical logician may view the essay as containing a “happiness” premise, a “rights” premise, and a “happiness and rights” conclusion. This type of formal construction proves to be unnecessary by utilizing Cicero’s method of analysis. The seemingly complicated becomes comprehensible through the method of division. Although Hearne’s citations of Aristotle and other scholars demonstrates her familiarity with other formal methods of inquiry, the strategy she chose in constructing “What’s Wrong with Animal Rights?” could be utilized by one with a less rigorous education. Knowing the right questions is often all that is necessary to arrive at a sound conclusion.


Note: the page numbers cited above clearly do not correspond with these internet sources

Cicero, De Orator

Hearne, Vicki, “What’s Wrong with Animal Rights?”


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