Real universal rights

A short reflection for the beginning of a new year.

In traditional rights-based ethics, we start with a set of all important rights and then ask the question: which entities in the universe get all those rights? Then we see an expanding moral circle through history: from our family to our tribe to our fellow countrymen to all humans, and now expanding further to include some non-human animals. But this approach always ends up with an arbitrariness: why not expand the moral circle further, to all sentient beings, all living beings or all entities in the universe?
I propose to follow the reverse direction: start with the assumption that everyone and everything counts morally and is fully included in the moral circle. Everything, from humans to plants to computers to rocks to planets to molecules, deserves equal rights, without arbitrary exclusions. Then the question becomes: which rights should we grant to everyone and everything?
One such right could be the right to bodily autonomy, i.e. the right that your body should not be used as a means against your will for the ends of someone else. This right refers to ‘body’ and ‘will’, and hence is trivially satisfied for those entities (like rocks, plants, computers) who do not have a sense of their bodies and who do not have a subjective will. That right can only be violated if the entity is a sentient being. Whatever ways we use plants or computers, we do never use their bodies as a means against their will, because these entities do not have a will nor a sense of their bodies. But when we use sentient beings such as farm animals for food, we use their bodies against their will and hence we violate this right of farm animals. Hence, this moral theory results in veganism: we should abstain from eating animal products.

Happy new year!

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