Brute Ethics





Animal Ethics Encyclopedia

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Animal rights are the rights of animals to be protected from human use and abuse and can take moral, legal and practical forms. People who support animal rights believe that animals are not ours to use as we wish, for whatever purpose, be it for food, clothing, experimentation or entertainment. Animal rights supporters also believe that we should consider the best interests of animals regardless of whatever value the animals may have for us. But what are animal rights specifically, how do animal rights compare with human rights, and should animals have rights?

Background to Animal Rights

The English philosopher John Lock (1632 - 1704) was among the first to distinguished certain 'natural' rights he thought people were entitled to: the rights to life, liberty and property. The concept of human rights is often based on a belief in natural rights, assumed to be given by God, or enjoyed before people were civilized, when they lived in a 'state of nature', or in some way possessed universally, that rights apply to everyone automatically, indisputably and irrevocably.

Alternatively, you could claim that human rights are neither natural nor universal. Rights are only what people are willing to confer as they see fit on others, being the granting of particular benefits by people to people. Rights are usually contracted between a country's government and its citizens, like the right to vote, the right to have fair trial and the right to have free speech, and vary from county to country. Many states make utterances about giving their citizens rights but do not fully grant them.

It is said that modern human rights have four features:

  • Rights are natural; rulers do not invented them.

  • Rights are universal; they apply to everyone.

  • Rights are equal; they are the same for everyone.

  • Rights are inalienable; you cannot lose them.

  • Examples of Human Rights
  • 1776   The United States Declaration of Independence recognised the right to 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness'. This was the world's first major published statement of human rights.

  • 1789   The National Assembly of France approved rights for the common man, including equality before the law, equal opportunity, freedom from arbitrary imprisonment, freedom of speech and religion, security of property, and taxation commensurate with ability to pay.

  • 1948   The United Nations affirmed its Universal Declaration of Human Rights, setting out over two dozen rights, including the right of individuals to life, liberty, education, equality in law and the freedom of movement, religion, association and information.

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    Animal Rights

    The justification for conferring rights on animals is that animals are in many important ways like humans. They are sentient creatures who are subjects of a life: they feel pleasure and pain, experience emotions, remember, anticipate, learn, and what happens to them is important, unlike what happens to a rock or stone. So, if you argue that humans deserve rights, you can argue that animals also deserve rights, rights that are appropriate to them.

    Human rights govern what humans do to each other; animal rights govern what people do to animals. Animal rights are not exactly the same as accorded by humans to humans. Animals are not in need of equality before the law, freedom of speech and religion, or fair taxation. Animals' rights can be any number of benefits people wish to bestow on animals. Rights appropriate for animals can include the right to live wild and free in the natural state of their choosing, to express normal behaviour, not to be killed for food, not to be experimented on, not to be used as entertainment, to be free from hunger, thirst, molestation, fear, distress, pain, injury or disease caused by humans, and so on.

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    The Place of Animal Rights in Ethics

    Animal rights is a Duty Ethics theory. If you believe animals have rights then you have a duty to support those rights and you are behaving morally when you do so. If you believe animals have the right to life and to live free and in their own environment, you would not for example support animal experimentation or zoos and you would be a vegetarian, unless you saw mitigating factors.

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    Variations on Animal Rights

    The concept of animal rights has different levels of definition. So to make any discussion meaningful and avoid talking at cross purposes you need to clarify what people have in mind when they speak of animal rights. For example:

  • Absolute Animal Rights

  • Always protect animals' rights, even when difficult.

    Animals are important in themselves irrespective of human attitudes and do not exist solely for humans (they have intrinsic value). Moreover, people must protect the rights of animals even when to do so is difficult for human society. For instance, no one should experiment on dogs to develop a possible life-saving drug for humans even if it means delaying the drug's development by years.

  • Equal Consideration of Animal Rights

  • Give equal importance to comparable interests of animals and humans.

    Animals have at least some importance in themselves irrespective of human attitudes (they have some intrinsic value), so we should treat them well. Furthermore, we must give equal consideration to the comparable interests of animals and humans. For instance, when making a moral decision about a dog and a human who may suffer we should give the same weight to the dog as we would to the human, as neither want pain inflicted on them.

  • Relative Animal Rights

  • Overrule the interests of animals if there is good reason.

    Animals have at least some importance in themselves irrespective of human attitudes (animals have some intrinsic value), so we should treat them well. But although people should avoid causing animals 'unnecessary' suffering, animal rights are relative to human rights. People can overrule the interests of animals for human benefit if there is good reason. For instance, we should use dogs and monkeys in research and their welfare is important, but the well-being of humans is more important.

    You need not confine yourself to these three themes when discussing animal rights. You can make up nuances as you like, such as broadening animal rights to apparently non-sentient animals or coming up with different definitions of animal rights.


"To spread the concept [of animal rights] beyond our species is to jeopardize our dignity as moral beings, who live in judgement of one another and of themselves."

Roger Scruton, Animal Rights, City Journal, Summer 2000.

"...animal rights must not only be an idea but a social movement for the liberation of the world's most oppressed beings, both in terms of numbers and in the severity of their pain."

Steven Best, Essay Animal Rights and the New Enlightenment.

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Rights for Animals

What sort of animal rights should animals have? The most basic is the right to equal consideration of interests, that is giving the same consideration to animal interests as we give to human interests. For instance, an animal has an interest in not having pain inflicted on him and we are therefore obligated to take that interest into consideration and respect the animal's right not to be hurt.

However, not all interests are comparable because animal interests are not always the same as ours. Animals do not have an interest in voting or getting a university education and therefore it would be meaningless and silly to talk of giving animals the right to vote or to higher education. Equal consideration of comparable interests must be considered comparably.

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  • Origin
  • What are the origins of rights? Claiming they are given by God does not convince non-theists of their utility and claiming they are absolute, that they exist materially somewhere waiting to be discovered, does not satisfy non-materialists. In the absence of God-given or absolute rights who is to say what is right? Who can we trust to proclaim a worthy balance of rights? Who is responsible when rights are breached? Rights need a solid foundation if we are not to judge the concept as just a vague idea in someone's head.

  • Criteria
  • Which criteria should we base rights on? All humans may be said to have rights by virtue of being human, but this is speciesist and weak because it neglects other beings. If an insane and criminal human has rights, why not a normal chimpanzee? If chimpanzees have rights, why not dogs as well? Should we base rights on interests, on being subject of a life, on intrinsic value, or what?

  • Universality
  • By applying rights universally - the same rights to all beings in all circumstances - you ignore the needs of specific groups. Experimental animals and wild animals, for example, live in different circumstances. Therefore universal rights are too broad to be efficacious.

  • Conflicts
  • Rights should be absolute (cannot be suspended or hacked about to fit in with what someone may happen to want) if they are to protect individuals. Yet sometimes there seem to be cases for overriding rights during conflicts of interest. Killing some individuals to save others, for example, mice spoiling a harvest and setting off a famine, or plentiful predators, such as coyotes or foxes, who are eating the last individuals of an endangered species. Thus rights cannot cope with all conditions.

  • Underlying Causes
  • The granting of rights does not in itself do anything to correct the ills that may make them necessary in the first place. We must not neglect the underlying causes that the rights are intended to counteract. However, by the time society appreciates animals to the extent of giving them rights, the rights themselves may then not be necessary or their importance may be diminished. Therefore rights may only be a temporary expedient.

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    For & Against: argue your case

    Drawing The Line
  • Claim: If we grant rights to animals then eventually even insects and plants will have rights. That would be ridiculous. Therefore animals should not have rights.

  • Claim: Animal rights only encompass animals who are sentient, chiefly mammals and birds, but also advanced animals like the octopus (Octopus vulgaris). It is Deep Ecology that makes the case for including all of nature.

  • Extreme Views
  • Claim: There is no limit if we give animals rights. All kinds of animal will end up wanting to live in our houses and take out health insurance.

  • Claim: Conferring animal rights does not depend on absurdities or taking extreme views.

  • Dependence on Animality
  • Claim: Giving rights to animals will severely disrupt society. We would have to undergo enormous change because every use of animals would have to stop. We would not be able to live normal lives. Therefore it is unreasonable to grant animals rights.

  • Claim: Most people may want to give absolute animal rights where they can and relative animal rights where they cannot. We must do this with good intention and careful consideration.

  • Comprehension
  • Claim: Only creatures who comprehend what rights are can have them. Only humans understand rights so only humans can have rights.

  • Claim: Children and severely mentally impaired people cannot understand rights, yet we do not deny them rights. Equally, we should not shirk animal rights because of non-comprehension.

  • Protection vs Rights
  • Claim: We can treat animals well and give them adequate legal protection with no need to give them moral rights.

  • Claim: All children have rights under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified by nearly 200 countries. Mentally handicapped people have rights as people. Now we must broaden our circle of compassion to animals.

  • Morality
  • Claim: Morality does not exist for animals, so they do not need moral rights.

  • Claim: We support animal rights because we are moral, whether animals have morality or not. (But see Moral Ubiquity.)

  • Reciprocation
  • Claim: Conferment of rights implies reciprocation; like you have the right not to be killed so you must respect the rights of other people and not kill them. Animals do not reciprocate so they should not have rights.

  • Claim: Animal rights are about how humans should treat animals and not about how animals should treat us. In any case, we respect the rights of human infants and our future unborn generations and they cannot reciprocate. So lack of reciprocation is not a problem.

  • Biology vs Rationality
  • Claim: Humans kill and eat animals because we evolved to survive by exploiting our environment. We cannot transcend our biological nature. It is therefore pointless even to consider giving animals rights and we should continue to exploit them.

  • Claim: Unlike other animals we are not constrained by biological evolution. We can reflect on how we act and can make choices on how to behave. Therefore we can behave morally and give animals rights.

  • Species Relationship
  • Claim: We only have moral obligations to members of our own species. Only humans should have rights because we are closely related to each other.

  • Claim: Humans and animals differ only in degree, not in kind. Therefore we cannot draw a clear distinction between humans having rights and animals having no rights.

  • Genetic Relatedness
  • Claim: Chimpanzees share 98 per cent of their genes with humans. This makes them very close to us. Consequently they at least should have rights.

  • Claim: We should not automatically confer rights on animals because of their genetic relatedness to humans. Some worms share three quarters of their genes with us, but they are nowhere near human.

  • Sentience
  • Claim: Animals are not sentient: they cannot speak, have no thoughts, feelings, desires, emotions or interests. Therefore we should reject animal rights.

  • Claim: Some animals have a measure of speech and ideas, such as finding novel ways to overcome a problem (see Thinking Animals). Animals also have feelings, like a need to care for their young, remain with their group, and feel safe and well. Therefore these animals at least are sentient and deserve animal rights.

  • Good for Humans
  • Claim: What matters is only how humans treat each other. Therefore we need not consider animal rights.

  • Claim: How we treat animals bears on how humans treat each other. By treating animals well we are more likely to treat humans well. By treating animals badly we are more likely to treat humans badly. Therefore giving animals moral rights is good for human moral rights.

  • Cognition
  • Claim: People have grater mental capacities than animals and cannot be compared with them. Therefore we should reject animal rights.

  • Claim: We do not use or abuse people who are severely mentally retarded or in a permanent vegetative state. Animals have cognitive abilities on a level or better then these unfortunates. So we should not use or abuse animals either but give them rights.

  • Pain & Suffering
  • Claim: Animals experience pain and suffering so we should not abuse them or deny them their animal rights.

  • Claim: Animals can experience pain and suffering but this does not mean we have to give them rights, only that we should not be cruel to them.

  • Absolute vs Relative Rights
  • Claim: Animals should have some rights but they should not be equal to human rights. Human rights should always have priority over animal rights.

  • Claim: There is no moral reason for thinking that animals should have lesser rights than humans, as the above arguments show, so long as animals have rights that are relevant to them.

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    Also see:

    Animal Rights vs Animal Welfare

    Animal Rights vs Conservation

    Universal Declaration on Animal Welfare

    © 2004 Roger Panaman All rights reserved