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Animal rights

The philosophy of animal rights refers to the view that non-human animals ought to have certain basic rights enshrined in law to ensure the protection of their most important interests.

Switzerland passed legislation in 1992 recognizing animals as beings, not things, and in 2002, rights for non-human animals were enshrined in the German constitution when its upper house of parliament voted to add the words "and animals" to the clause in the constitution obliging the state to respect and protect the dignity of human beings. [2] The Seattle-based Great Ape Project, founded by Australian philosopher Peter Singer, is campaigning for a United Nations Declaration on the Rights of the Great Ape. [3]

Some animal-rights theorists argue that animals, like humans, have moral rights, while others take a utilitarian approach. The term "animal rights" is therefore more commonly taken to refer to animal liberation, and need not imply that its supporters advocate a rights-based moral philosophy.

Most, if not all, animal-rights theorists agree that to regard non-human animals as different in kind from humans, and undeserving of legal rights for that reason, is to be guilty of speciesism, a form of prejudice that, they argue, has no philosophical or biological justification. [4]



Animal rights is the concept that all or some animals are entitled to possess their own lives; that animals are deserving of, or already possess, certain moral rights; and that some basic rights for animals ought to be enshrined in law. The animal-rights view rejects the concept that animals are merely capital goods or property intended for the benefit of humans. The concept is often confused with animal welfare, which is the philosophy that takes cruelty towards animals and animal suffering into account, but that does not necessarily assign specific moral rights to them.

The animal-rights philosophy does not necessarily maintain that human and non-human animals are equal. For example, animal rights advocates do not call for voting rights for chickens. Some also would make a distinction between sentient or self-aware animals and lower life forms, with the belief that only sentient animals, or perhaps only animals who have a significant degree of self-awareness, should be afforded the right to possess their own lives and bodies, without regard to how they are valued by humans. Others would extend this right to all animals, even those without developed nervous systems or self-consciousness. They maintain that any human or human institution that commodifies animals for the purposes of food, entertainment, cosmetics, clothing, scientific testing , or for any other reason, infringes upon their fundamental rights to possess themselves and to pursue their own ends.

Few people would deny that other great apes are highly intelligent animals who are aware of their own condition and goals, and can become frustrated when their freedoms are curtailed. In contrast, many other animals, like jellyfish, have only extremely simple nervous systems, and are little more than simple automata, capable only of simple reflexes but incapable of formulating any "ends to their actions" or "plans to pursue" them, and equally unable to notice whether they are in captivity or free. By the criteria that biologists use, jelly fish are undeniably animals, while from an animal-rights perspective, it is questionable whether they should not rather be considered "vegetables". There is as yet no consensus with regard to which qualities make a living organism an animal in need of rights. The animal-rights debate (much like the abortion debate) is therefore marred by the difficulty that its proponents search for simple, clear-cut distinctions on which to base moral and political judgements, even though the biological realities of the problem present no hard and fast boundaries on which such distinctions could be based. Rather, the biological realities are full of complex and diverse gradients. From a neurobiological perspective, paramecia, jellyfish, farmed chicken, laboratory mice, or pet cats would fall along different points on a (complex and high-dimensional) spectrum from the "nearly vegetable" to the "highly sentient".

Animal rights in philosophy

One of the first philosophers to take animal liberation seriously was one of the founders of modern utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham, who wrote, speaking of the need to extend legal rights to animals: "The day may come when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been witholden from them but by the hand of tyranny." Bentham also argued that an animal's apparent lack of rationality ought not to be held against it insofar as morality is concerned:

It may one day come to be recognized that the number of the legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate.
What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason or perhaps the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as more conversable animal, than an infant of a day or a week or even a month old. But suppose they were otherwise, what would it avail? The question is not, Can they reason?, nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? Why should the law refuse its protection to any sensitive being? The time will come when humanity will extend its mantle over everything which breathes ... (Bentham, 1781)

Arthur Schopenhauer argued that animals have the same essence as humans, despite lacking the faculty of reason. Although he produced a utilitarian justification for eating animals, he argued for consideration to be given to animals in morality, and he opposed vivisection. His critique of Kantian ethics contained a lengthy and often furious polemic against the exclusion of animals in his moral system, which contained the famous line: "Cursed be any morality that does not see the essential unity in all eyes that see the sun."

The concept of animal rights was the subject of an influential book — Animals' Rights: Considered in Relation to Social Progress — by English social reformer Henry Salt in 1892. A year earlier, Salt had formed the Humanitarian League; its objectives included the banning of hunting as a sport.

In modern times, the idea of animal rights was re-introduced by S. and R. Godlovitch, and J. Harris, with their 1971 book Animals, Men and Morals. This was a collection of articles which restated the case for animal rights in a powerful and philosophically sophisticated way. It could justly be said that it was this work that reinvigorated the animal rights movement, and it inspired later philosophers to develop their ideas. It was, for example, in a review of this book, that the Australian philosopher Peter Singer, now Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics in the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University, first coined the term 'animal liberation'.

Peter Singer and Tom Regan are the most famous proponents of animal liberation, though they differ in their philosophical approaches to the issue. Another influential thinker is Gary L. Francione, who presents an abolitionist view that non-human animals should have the basic right not to be treated as the property of humans. Activists Karen Davis of United Poultry Concerns and Ingrid Newkirk of PETA have also presented philosophies of animal rights.

Although Singer is the ideological founder of today's animal-rights movement, his approach to an animal's moral status is not based on the concept of rights, but on the utilitarian principle of equal consideration of interests. His 1975 book Animal Liberation argues that humans grant moral consideration to other humans not on the basis of intelligence (in the instance of children, or the mentally disabled), on the ability to moralize (criminals and the insane), or on any other attribute that is inherently human, but rather on their ability to experience suffering. As animals also experience suffering, he argues, excluding animals from such consideration is a form of discrimination known as 'speciesism' — a term first coined by the British psychologist Richard D. Ryder.

Tom Regan (The Case for Animal Rights ), on the other side, claims that non-human animals as "subjects-of-a-life" are bearers of rights like humans, although not necessarily of the same degree. This means that animals in this class have "inherent value" as individuals, and cannot merely be considered as the means to an end. This is also called the "direct duty" view. According to Regan, we should abolish the breeding of animals for food, animal experimentation, and commercial hunting. Regan's theory does not extend to all sentient animals but only to those that can be regarded as "subjects-of-a-life." Regan argues that all normal mammals of at least one year of age would qualify in this regard.

While Singer is primarily concerned with improving the treatment of animals and accepts that, at least in some hypothetical scenarios, animals could be legitimately used for further (human or non-human) ends, Regan believes we ought to treat animals as we would persons, and he applies the strict Kantian idea that they ought never to be sacrificed as mere means to ends, and must be treated as ends unto themselves. Notably, Kant himself did not believe animals were subject to what he called the moral law; he believed we ought to show compassion, but primarily because not to do so brutalizes human beings, and not for the sake of animals themselves.

Despite these theoretical differences, both Singer and Regan agree about what to do in practice: for instance, they both agree that the adoption of a vegan diet and the abolition of nearly all forms of animal experimentation are ethically mandatory.

Gary Francione's work (Introduction to Animal Rights , is based on the premise that if non-human animals are considered to be property then any rights that they may be granted would be directly undermined by that property status. He points out that a call to equally consider the 'interests' of your property against your own interests is absurd. Without the basic right not to be treated as the property of humans, non-human animals have no rights whatsoever, he says. Francione posits that sentience is the only valid determinant for moral standing, unlike Regan who sees qualitative degrees in the subjective experiences of his "subjects-of-a-life" based upon a loose determination of who falls within that category. Francione claims that there is no actual animal-rights movement in the United States, but only an animal-welfarist movement. In line with his philosophical position and his work in animal-rights law (Animal Rights Law Project at Rutgers University), he points out that any effort which does not advocate the abolition of the property status of animals is misguided in that it inevitably results in the institutionalization of animal exploitation. It is logically inconsistent and doomed never to achieve its stated goal of improving the condition of animals, he argues. Francione holds that a society which regards dogs and cats as family members yet kills cows, chickens, pigs, etc. for food exhibits "moral schizophrenia".

Michael E. Berumen adopts a position similar to the one shared by Bentham and Singer, in that he believes suffering, rather than rationality, is what makes a human or non-human animal eligible for the moral realm. Berumen believes universal morality can only be founded on the principle of impartial rationality, whereby we extend the rational requirement to avoid unnecessary harm to ourselves or others. Impartiality, by definition, requires us to extend this to all who can suffer, including other animals. Berumen contends that justified violation occurs only when we can describe our actions in terms of a universal law, one applicable to all similar situations [5]. Berumen's book Do No Evil: Ethics with Applications to Economic Theory and Business addresses some of the problems associated with the commercial use of animals.

Animal rights in law

Until the early 90s, no legislation in the Western world recognized animal rights. However, Switzerland passed legislation in 1992 to recognize animals as beings, not things; and in 2002, animal rights were enshrined in the German constitution when its upper house of parliament voted to add the words "and animals" to the clause in the constitution obliging the state to respect and protect the dignity of human beings. [6]

In other countries, animals are protected under the law, though without having rights assigned to them. There are criminal laws against cruelty to animals, laws that regulate the keeping of animals in cities and on farms, the transit of animals internationally, as well as quarantine and inspection provisions. These laws are designed to protect animals from unnecessary physical harm and to regulate the use of animals as food. In the common law, it is possible to create a charitable trust and have the trust empowered to see to the care of a particular animal after the death of the benefactor of the trust. Some individuals create such trusts in their will. Trusts of this kind can be upheld by the courts if properly drafted and if the testator is of sound mind. There are several movements in the UK campaigning to require the British parliament to award greater protection to animals. The legislation, if passed, will introduce a duty of care, whereby a keeper of an animal would commit an offence if he or she fails to take reasonable steps to ensure an animalís welfare. This concept of giving the animal keeper a duty towards the animal is equivalent to granting the animal a right to proper welfare. The draft bill is supported by an RSPCA campaign.

Animal rights in practice

In practice, those who advocate animal rights usually boycott a number of industries that use animals. Foremost among these is the factory farming industry, which produces the majority of meat, milk and eggs in America and other industrialized nations. For this reason, the vast majority of animal rights advocates adopt vegetarian diets (containing no meat) or vegan diets (containing no animal products at all).

The transportation, often involving the Live Export of farm animals for slaughter has in recent years been a major issue of campaigning for animal rights groups, particularly in the United Kingdom.

Animal rights advocates also generally refuse to wear fur and leather, as these products come from animals killed for their skin and/or flesh. The animal rights movementís most visible advocacy has been against the fur industry, especially in the 1980ís.

Many animals are said to suffer and die in cosmetic testing, which is not required by law, so most animal rights activists also refuse to buy cosmetics that are tested on animals, and sometimes other products from the same company. The Procter & Gamble corporation tests many of its products on animals, which causes some animal rights supporters to boycott all of their products, including food like peanut butter.

The vast majority of animal rights advocates are nonviolent, and dedicate their efforts to educating the public. Some organizations, like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, strive to do this by garnering media attention for animal rights issues, often using outrageous stunts or advertisements to get on the news with a more serious message about animal rights.

There is a growing trend in the American animal rights movement towards devoting all resources to vegetarian outreach. The number of animals killed for food use every year (9.8 billion) far exceeds the number of animals alleged to be suffering from all other forms of animal exploitation. A number of groups (Vegan Outreach, Compassion Over Killing, and several smaller regional groups) devote the majority or all of their time to exposing factory farming practices to consumers, through undercover investigations and literature distribution.

While many animal rights groups exist only to lobby for animal rights, publicise animal rights transgressions and care for animals, there is a growing number of animal rights activists that use direct action methods. This typically involves the removal of animals from facilities that use them or the damage of property at such facilities in the hopes of causing financial harm. A comparatively tiny, yet notable, number of incidents have involved violence or the threat of violence toward animal experimenters or others involved in the use of animals.

Due to illegal activities of "direct action" (the FBI has announced that it considers the Animal Liberation Front and Earth Liberation Front the number one terrorist groups native to the United States), many animal rights organisations denounce its use in advancing the animal rights cause. All above-ground animal rights groups, as well as the Animal Liberation Front, reject the use of violence by people acting in their name. However some radical animal right activists in Canada, the UK and the US actively engage in harassment of family homes of individual workers of research facilities, related businesses and individual shareholders.

There are also a growing number of "open rescues," (an animal rights euphemism for theft) in which animal rights advocates enter legitimate and legal operations to steal animals without trying to hide their identity. By doing this, they hope to expose the everyday cruelty in factory farms without drawing attention away from the issue by creating controversy. Open rescues tend to be done by committed individuals who are willing to go to jail if they are prosecuted, but so far, no factory farm owner has been willing to press charges, due to the negative publicity that would ensue.

Criticisms of animal rights

Apart from the difficulty mentioned above posed by defining the lower boundary - between animals and organisms undeserving of rights - objections fall into two main categories. Critics of animal rights include those who reject animal liberation entirely, and those who advocate animal liberation but reject animal rights as its basis.

Those who reject animal liberation commonly do so on the grounds that only moral agents can have moral rights and be members of the moral community. Unless one is a moral agent, the argument goes, one cannot claim rights for oneself or be held accountable for respecting the rights of others. Hence, while there may be good reasons to treat animals humanely (out of compassion or out of respect for the wishes of other humans), it makes no sense to ascribe rights to them. However, many humans (infants and the severely mentally handicapped) are not moral agents. Do these humans have no moral rights? Those who deny full moral standing to animals on the basis of mental capacity must deal with the so-called "argument from marginal cases" for animal liberation, which points to the fact that there is an overlap in capacities between (some) humans and (some) animals. Carl Cohen attempts to meet the issue of marginal cases by basing the claim to moral standing on "kind"; thus, mentally deficient humans merit rights simply because they are human and therefore members of a group that typically does exhibit moral agency. Cohenís position implies that while a human being with the mental capacity of a mouse has full moral standing, a mutant chimpanzee with an I.Q. of 150, who regularly contributed articles on philosophy to Wikipedia, would have no rights whatever. A different approach is that of philosophers in the tradition of Thomas Hobbes, like Jan Narveson and Peter Carruthers, who see morality as a contract among rational, self-interested agents. According to this view, because animals cannot be rational contractors, their interests are protected only insofar as human contractors desire. (Hence the protection afforded to most dogs and cats but not to pigs and cows.) Infants and mentally handicapped humans are protected by being written into the moral contract by the rest of us.

Roger Scruton, in Animal Rights and Wrongs, has used an argument based on a Kantian outlook which restricts animal rights only to those animals which are kept in human custody, which Kant believed was primarily for the benefit of the moral sensibilities of humans. We do not have a duty of care to wild animals, so that wild animals have no greater status than wild plants, which may be worthy of respecting because they are beautiful or interesting or a valuable part of the ecosystem, but that is all. Fox hunting is permitted, but factory farming is not. Some accuse Scruton of hypocrisy here, as he rejected Kantian ethics in his book "The Meaning of Conservatism", but is happy to use the system when it produces a conclusion he favours.

Finally, one marxian or historicist perspective rejects the treatment of rights as abstract properties, which entities might passively possess due to membership of a particular category. Instead it conceives of rights as the formal expression or recognition of actual political agency, rather in the manner that a gold medal is formal recognition of actual athletic effort. Rights are enjoyed by humans because they have proved their claims to power against the default power hierarchy. Tracing the history of rights from the ancient divine right of kings through the historical events which forced monarchs to share aspects of their power, this account finds no occasion on which animals have 'earned' any claim to power. To award them rights, by this account, makes as much sense as awarding everyone an Olympic gold medal. At the cost of degrading the unique value of the existing symbol, its passive recipients lack the ability to exploit the benefits it once symbolised for the 'elite' who earned their entitlement to it. This argument is often treated by Animal Rights supporters as a 'might makes right' argument. But in at least some respects, it is the opposite. Far from treating rights as protections offered by the mighty to the powerless, it conceives of rights as freedoms asserted against the mighty by coalitions of the powerless. Rights here can only ever be self-assertions, not the assertions of others on our behalf. More detailed historical considerations are thus required for this critique to account for the argument from marginal cases.

The animal-rights position is also criticized by some who favour animal liberation. Although he is often called the father of the modern animal-rights movement, Peter Singer actually rejects the notion of moral rights. As a utilitarian, he prefers to talk in terms of the equal consideration of interests. Those feminist philosophers who favour animal liberation tend to believe that the concept of individual moral rights reflects a historical male bias toward rationality and autonomy, a bias that ignores the role that personal relationships, emotion, and caring ought to play in an adequate moral theory. Ecofeminist Carol Adams, author of The Sexual Politics of Meat, attempts to show a linkage between the ways that animals and women have been viewed, and to show that meat-eating has reflected a cultural male bias. In contrast, Kathryn Paxton George has argued that the ideal of veganism is based on the biased idea of male physiology as the human norm, and ignores the nutritional needs of girls and women. [7]


  • "We have enslaved the rest of the animal creation, and have treated our distant cousins in fur and feathers so badly that beyond doubt, if they were able to formulate a religion, they would depict the Devil in human form."William Ralph Inge (1860 - 1954)
  • "In years of studying the (Animal Rights) mentality and engaging (activists) in debate, I have arrived at four basic characteristics that all ARAs seem to have in common. The proportions vary ,of course, but all ARAs seem to have all four traits in some percentage. The four traits are as follows: Misplaced Compassion, Denial, Intellectual Laziness, and Arrogance." — Ward M. Clark (Misplaced Compassion - The Animal Rights Movement Exposed, Writer's Club Press, 2001)
  • "I have from an early age abjured the use of meat, and the time will come when men such as I will look upon the murder of animals as they now look upon the murder of men." — Leonardo da Vinci
  • "Nothing will benefit human health and increase chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet." — Albert Einstein

See also


Further reading

  • Francione, Gary (2000), Introduction to Animal Rights, Your child or the dog?, Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
  • Scruton, Roger (2000), Animal Rights and Wrongs Claridge Press.
  • Clark, Ward M. (2001), Misplaced Compassion - The Animal Rights Movement Exposed, Writer's Club Press

External links

Animal rights in philosophy and law

Animal rights resources

Animal rights organizations

Animal rights Online Community

Animal rights directories


Last updated: 06-02-2005 13:19:30
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