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How the Animal Question Turned into a Right Royal Debate

05/10/2015 12:52 BST | Updated 01/10/2016 10:12 BST

Her Royal Highness Princess Michael of Kent successfully out-trolled People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) this week with a royal pronouncement that animals don't have rights. By way of explanation, HRH offered: "They don't have bank accounts, they don't vote. We have obligation to animals, but to say they have rights? You only have rights if you pay your taxes. You earn your rights."

Her views were rightly welcomed with ridicule. Among those who wouldn't have any rights by the bank accounts, taxes and franchise hypothesis include children and infants; prisoners; people living in non-democratic countries; anyone who lived before there was a system of banks and accounts; people who are exempt from taxation *cough*; people who have been slaves; and countless others.

If there are any rights in this world, surely we are prepared to acknowledge them in either society's most powerful or its most vulnerable - and ideally both!

What is Princess Michael trying to say? Perhaps, like many others, she is looking to restrict rights to human beings and banking, taxing and voting are a part of the reciprocal relationships humans have with one another. The problem with this view is that human rights are usually universal, viz Article 1 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights: "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights..." The bank accounts, taxes and franchise hypothesis excludes too many people to be taken seriously as a theory of human rights.

But given the Princess's previously held views on slavery, this might not have been her intention at all. Perhaps she's thinking of civil rights, which not every human being has, because not every human being is (or ought) to be a member of civil society. Out with prisoners and pity those souls who live under tyranny! One of the problems here is that just because you have in fact been denied certain civil rights, doesn't mean that you ought to have been. It may be that society has unjustly denied you certain protections. Sometimes the innocent are jailed, and yes, slavery is immoral.

The other problem is that animals, too, are a part of civil society. They are economically productive, contributing with their bodies over $890 billion dollars to the world economy in 2013 at the farm gate alone, to say nothing of the jobs and retail markets in butchery, dining and glamorous shoes. And even if we haven't yet recognized even a limited suite of civil rights for animals, it is not a far stretch at all to say that there are excellent reasons to get started.

Civil rights are not an all or nothing affair. Just because you've been denied the right to vote as a convicted felon, this doesn't prevent you from accessing, say, a right to education. It's entirely possible that animals could have some civil rights to basic protections on the farm or in the palace, even if we don't think they share in human rights to freedom from exploitation based on other qualities they don't possess, such as moral agency or inherent value (although there are plenty of reasons to think they do).

Princess Michael's statement on animal ethics might have caused consternation because her husband Prince Michael of Kent is the first cousin of Her Majesty the Queen, who is (among her many titles) the Supreme Governor of the Church of England. The boss of the Roman Catholic Church has been a little more generous in spelling out his Church's moral attitudes towards animals. He notes in the recent papal encyclical "It is not enough, however, to think of different species merely as potential 'resources' to be exploited, while overlooking the fact that they have value in themselves" among several other observations and exhortations to improve the lot of all creation.

This kind of language is music to the ears of the animal rights activist. It is precisely the acknowledgement of intrinsic value, together with a strong anti-exploitation message, that motivates mainstream accounts of animal rights. While Pope Francis has not yet published his own hummus recipe the worm has clearly turned atop one of the western world's pre-eminent conservative institutions. Whether it is ready to turn within any of the others remains to be seen.