Animal Rights Basis
Snappy Page Essence
Animal rights are benefits people give to animals to protect them from human use and abuse. Rights can take moral, legal and practical forms.
Animal rights are benefits people give to animals. Benefits include the right of protection from human use and abuse and rights 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.
"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. 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.
But what are animal rights specifically? How do animal rights compare with human rights? Are rights a remedy for all moral problems?
Background to Rights
One of the first to distinguish rights was the English philosopher John Lock (1632 - 1704), who thought that people were entitled to the rights of life, liberty and property. People often base their concept of rights on a belief in ‘natural’ rights that they are given by God or were somehow enjoyed long ago, when people lived in a ‘state of nature’ before they became civilized. Furthermore, they assume that these rights are universal, that is that they 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.
Modern human rights have four features in that they are said to be:
- rulers do not invent them.
- they apply to everyone.
- they are the same for everyone.
- no one can lose them.
Rights are usually contracted between a country's government and its citizens, like the right to vote, the right to fair trial and the right to free speech, and vary from country to country. Many states make utterances about giving their citizens rights but do not fully grant them.
Major Dates for Rights1776
The Declaration of Independence
of the United States recognised the right to 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness'. This was the world's first major published statement of human rights.
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.
The United Nations affirmed their Universal Declaration of Human Rights
, setting out over two dozen rights, including the right of individuals to life, liberty, education, equality in law and freedom of movement, religion, association and information.
The justification for conferring rights on animals is that animals are in many important ways like humans. Animals 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 for them, unlike what happens to a rock or a stone. So, if you argue that humans deserve rights, it is rational that animals also deserve rights.
Animal interests, however, are not always the same as human interests. Thus the range of rights that animals need is not always the same as the range of rights that humans need. Animals are not in need of equality before the law, or freedom of speech and religion, or of fair taxation. Nor do animals have an interest in voting or being literate. Hence, it would be meaningless and silly to give animals rights to these affairs. However, this should not prevent people from bestowing relevant and appropriate rights on animals.
Relevant rights for animals can be any benefits appropriate for them that people wish to bestow on them. Relevant rights for animals can include:
- The right to live free in the natural state of the animals' choosing.
- The right to express normal behaviour (eg food searching, grooming, nest building).
- The right to life (ie not be killed for human food or other human use).
- The right to reproduce (ie pass on their genes to the next generation).
- The right to choose their own lifestyle (eg not for people to coerce them into experiments or entertainment).
- The right to live free from human induced harm (eg hunger, thirst, molestation, fear, distress, pain, injury or disease).
If you believe animals have such rights then you would have a doubtful basis for exploiting animals. You would have a moral duty to support those rights and would be morally corrupt if you did not. If animals have these rights, how could you justify, say, eating animals, using them for sport or keeping them in zoos? In practical terms you would have to live your life accordingly, such as become a vegetarian or vegan.
Fundamental Animal Rights Positions
As for the actuality of giving rights to animals there are three fundamental positions: abuse, welfare and liberation.
Animals have no moral status. We owe nothing to animals except to make use of them as and how we like. This is the position many people held in past centuries and many people still hold today, especially in China and surrounding countries.
Animals should have welfare. We should treat animals kindly, but humans always come first when there is a conflict of interest, because humans are superior and animals are a resource for humanity. Welfarists acknowledge the need to use animals but try to alleviate 'needless' animal suffering. This is the position most people in the West support today.
We should liberate animals. This is the avant-garde position: animals deserve moral status similar in some way to human moral status. There are two types of animal liberationist and both want to abolish the use of animals on moral or other grounds. ‘New welfarists’ regard abolition as a long-term goal and meanwhile try to ease as much animal suffering as possible by introducing practical welfare measures. The 'hard-line abolitionists’ believe welfare is a waste of time and pitch straight for abolition of animal use on the grounds that if there is no abuse then there is no need for welfare. Liberationists have a lifestyle quite different to the majority of people, being vegan or vegetarian and reject goods and services based on animals.
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 about animal rights. For example you can distinguish three basic views: absolute, equal and relative.
1. Relative Animal Rights
We should avoid causing animals 'unnecessary' suffering, but human welfare is more important than animal welfare and we should overrule the interests (rights) of animals if we have good reason to do so. Animal welfarists hold this view.
2. Equal Consideration
We should give equal consideration to the comparable interests of animals and humans. When making a moral decision about the suffering of a dog and a human, neither want pain inflicted on them, so we should give the same weight of consideration to the dog as we would to the human. If we are not prepared to make a human suffer then we should not make a dog suffer. People of a utilitarian philosophy may hold an outlook like this.
3. Absolute Animal Rights
We should always protect the rights of animals, even when doing so is troublesome personally and difficult for society. People should not experiment on dogs to develop a possible life-saving drug (other experimental methods should be found) even if it might mean delaying the drug's development by some years. This is the view that animal rightists hold.
You need not confine yourself to these three levels when discussing animal rights. Make up nuances as you like, such as broadening animal rights to apparently non-sentient animals, or to the whole of inanimate nature, or by coming up with different definitions of animal rights.
Are Rights a Cure-all?
Rights should be absolute if they are to protect individuals; they cannot be suspended or hacked about to fit in with what someone may happen to want. Yet there seem to be cases for overriding rights during moral dilemmas, such as killing some individuals to save others. This might be when mice are spoiling a harvest and setting off a famine, or when coyotes or foxes are eating the last individuals of an endangered species. How should we react to conflicts of interest like these? We might respond by temporarily adopting another philosophy, like utilitarianism - that you should act to bring about the greatest good to the greatest number of individuals. Therefore rights may not be a panacea that can cope with all moral conditions all the time; now and then we may have to look outside rights for other solutions to guide us when dealing with moral issues.
Another problem with rights is that sometimes people say animals have intrinsic value: an importance in themselves irrespective of their value to humans. You might claim that all sentient beings are entitled to rights because they have equal intrinsic value. But does intrinsic value really exist in itself? Intrinsic value might simply be subjective, what people say has value to themselves. If you do not believe in intrinsic value then you might have to pursue animal liberation via utilitarianism, not through animal rights. As a utilitarian you could claim that sentient animals have interests and thus no species (that is humanity) is more important than any other; therefore, we should give equal moral consideration to every creature's relevant moral interests.
For & Against: argue your case
Listen to people's arguments for and against animal rights. Break down their arguments into simple statements and add them to these common outlooks to help argue your own case.
1. Drawing the Line
- Claim: If we grant rights to animals then eventually even insects and plants will have rights. That would be ridiculous.
- Claim: Animal rights encompass animals who are sentient (chiefly mammals and birds, but also advanced invertebrates like the octopus, Octopus vulgaris). It is Deep Ecology that makes the case for giving rights to all of nature.
- 2. Dependency on Animality
- Claim: Giving rights to animals will severely disrupt society. We would have to undergo enormous changes if we give rights to animals. Every use of animals would have to stop and we would not be able to live normal lives.
- 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.
- 3. Moral Sense
- Claim: Animals have no sense of morality. So they do not need moral rights.
- Claim: People should support animal rights because people are moral. Whether or not animals have a sense of morality is not the issue.
- 4. Comprehension
- Claim: Only creatures who comprehend rights can benefit from 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. Therefore we should not hold back from giving rights to animals because they cannot comprehend them.
- 5. Reciprocation
- Claim: The giving of rights implies reciprocation. You have the right to life so you must respect the right of others to life. But animals cannot reciprocate so they should not have rights.
- Claim: Animal rights are about how humans should treat animals, not about how animals should treat humans. In any case, we respect the rights of our future unborn generations and they cannot reciprocate.
- 6. Biology vs Rationality
- Claim: Humans kill and eat animals because we evolved to survive by exploiting our environment. It is therefore senseless even to consider giving animals rights and we should continue to exploit them.
- Claim: Unlike other animals, we are not now constrained entirely by biological evolution. We can reflect on how we should act and choose how to behave. Therefore we can behave morally and give animals rights.
- 7. Food & Territory
- Claim: We are all part of the natural food web: animals eat each other and we eat them. Being part of the natural food web we should not give animals the right not to be eaten by us.
- Claim: Animals kill each other because they have to, either for food or to protect their food supplies, or they would die. But we can rationalise and decide not to eat animals. Vegetarians do not die for lack of meat.
- 8. Mental Capacity
- Claim: People have grater mental capacities than animals and cannot measure up to us. Therefore giving animals rights would demean humanity and we must reject animal rights.
- Claim: We do not use or abuse people who are severely mentally retarded or in a permanent vegetative state. Many animals have mental abilities far better than these people. So we should not withhold rights from animals.
- 9. Species Differences
- Claim: Animals and humans are obviously different. So we should treat animals differently from us.
- Claim: There is no acceptable difference (whether intelligence, shape, posture or colour) that distinguishes animals from humans on moral grounds. So there is no moral line you can draw that separates animals and humans.
- 10. Pain & Suffering
- 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. We can treat animals well and give them adequate legal protection without giving them 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 by giving them rights.
- 11. Sentience
- Claim: Animals are not sentient: they cannot speak, have no thoughts, feelings, desires, emotions or interests. Therefore we should reject animal rights.
- Claim: We should not make our ignorance of animals a basis for insensitivity. But we know that some animals at least have ideas and a measure of speech, and that animals have feelings, like a need to care for their young, remain with their group and feel safe and well. Therefore we should give them rights.
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