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AR FAQs
General AR FAQs

1. What are the fundamental principles of the Animal Rights (AR) movement?

2. Animal Rights vs. Animal Welfare

3. What exactly are rights and what rights can we give animals?

4. Isn't AR hypocritical, e.g., because you don't give rights to insects or plants?

5. What right do AR people have to impose their beliefs on others?

6. Isn't AR just another facet of political correctness?

7. Isn't AR just another religion?

8. Doesn't it demean humans to give rights to animals?

9. Weren't Hitler and Goebbels in favor of animal rights?

10. Do you really believe that "a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy"?


#1 What are the fundamental principles of the Animal Rights (AR) movement?

The fundamental principle of the AR movement is that nonhuman animals deserve to live according to their own natures, free from harm, abuse, and exploitation. This goes further than just saying that we should treat animals well while we exploit them, or before we kill and eat them. It says animals have the RIGHT to be free from human cruelty and exploitation, just as humans possess this right. The withholding of this right from the nonhuman animals based on their species membership is referred to as "speciesism".

Animal rights activists try to extend the human circle of respect and compassion beyond our species to include other animals, who are also capable of feeling pain, fear, hunger, thirst, loneliness, and kinship. When we try to do this, many of us come to the conclusion that we can no longer support factory farming, vivisection, and the exploitation of animals for entertainment. At the same time, there are still areas of debate among animal rights supporters, for example, whether ANY research that harms animals is ever justified, where the line should be drawn for enfranchising species with rights, on what occasions civil disobedience may be appropriate, etc. However, these areas of potential disagreement do not negate the abiding principles that join us: compassion and concern for the pain and suffering of nonhumans.

One main goal of this FAQ is to address the common justifications that arise when we become aware of how systematically our society abuses and exploits animals. Such "justifications" help remove the burden from our consciences, but this FAQ attempts to show that they do not excuse the harm we cause other animals. Beyond the scope of this FAQ, more detailed arguments can be found in three classics of the AR literature:

    The Case for Animal Rights, Tom Regan (ISBN 0-520-05460-1)

    In Defense of Animals, Peter Singer (ISBN 0-06-097044-8)

    Animal Liberation, Peter Singer (ISBN 0-380-71333-0, 2nd Ed.)

While appreciating the important contributions of Regan and Singer, many animal rights activists emphasize the role of empathetic caring as the actual and most appropriate fuel for the animal rights movement in contradistinction to Singer's and Regan's philosophical rationales. To the reader who says "Why should I care?", we can point out the following reasons:

    One cares about minimizing suffering.

    One cares about promoting compassion in human affairs.

    One is concerned about improving the health of humanity.

    One is concerned about human starvation and malnutrition.

    One wants to prevent the radical disruption of our planet's ecosystem.

    One wants to preserve animal species.

    One wants to preserve wilderness.

    The connections between these issues and the AR agenda may not be obvious. Please read on as we attempt to clarify this. --DG

"The day may come when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been withholden from them but by the hand of tyranny." --Jeremy Bentham (philosopher)

"Life is life--whether in a cat, or dog or man. There is no difference there between a cat or a man. The idea of difference is a human conception for man's own advantage..." --Sri Aurobindo (poet and philosopher)

"Non-violence leads to the highest ethics, which is the goal of all evolution. Until we stop harming all other living beings, we are still savages." --Thomas Edison (inventor)

"The time will come when men such as I will look upon the murder of animals as they now look on the murder of men." --Leonardo Da Vinci (artist and scientist)

SEE ALSO #2-#3, #26, #87-#91

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#2 Animal Rights vs. Animal Welfare

Animal Rights Versus Animal Welfare

Animal welfare theories accept that animals have interests, but allow these interests to be traded away as long as there are some human benefits that are thought to justify that sacrifice. Animal rights means that animals, like humans, have interests that cannot be sacrificed or traded away simply because it might benefit others. The rights position does not hold that rights are absolute; an animal's rights, just like those of humans, must be limited, and rights can certainly conflict. Animal rights means that animals are not ours to use for food, clothing, entertainment, or to experiment on. Animal welfare allows these uses as long as humane guidelines are followed.

The Animal Welfare movement acknowledges the suffering of nonhumans and attempts to reduce that suffering through "humane" treatment, but it does not have as a goal elimination of the use and exploitation of animals. The Animal Rights movement goes significantly further by rejecting the exploitation of animals and according them rights in that regard. A person committed to animal welfare might be concerned that cows get enough space, proper food, etc., but would not necessarily have any qualms about killing and eating cows, so long as the rearing and slaughter are "humane".

The Animal Welfare movement is represented by such organizations as the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and the Humane Society.

Having said this, it should be realized that some hold a broader interpretation of the AR movement. They would argue that the AW groups do, in fact, support rights for animals (e.g., a dog has the right not to be kicked). Under this interpretation, AR is viewed as a broad umbrella covering the AW and strict AR groups. This interpretation has the advantage of moving AR closer to the mainstream. Nevertheless, there is a valid distinction between the AW and AR groups, as described in the first paragraph.

Animal Liberation (AL) is, for many people, a synonym for Animal Rights (but see below). Some people prefer the term "liberation" because it brings to mind images of other successful liberation movements, such as the movement for liberation of slaves and liberation of women, whereas the term "rights" often encounters resistance when an attempt is made to apply it to nonhumans. The phrase "Animal Liberation" became popular with the publication of Peter Singer's classic book of the same name.

This use of the term liberation should be distinguished from the literal meaning discussed in question #88, i.e., an Animal Liberationist is not necessarily one who engages in forceful civil disobedience or unlawful actions.

Finally, intellectual honesty compels us to acknowledge that the account given here is rendered in broad strokes (but is at least approximately correct), and purposely avoids describing ongoing debate about the meaning of the terms "Animal Rights", "Animal Liberation", and "Animal Welfare", debate about the history of these movements, and debate about the actual positions of the prominent thinkers. To depict the flavor of such debates, the following text describes one coherent position. Naturally, it will be attacked from all sides!

Some might suggest that a subtle distinction can be made between the Animal Liberation and Animal Rights movements. The Animal Rights movement, at least as propounded by Regan and his adherents, is said to require total abolition of such practices as experimentation on animals. The Animal Liberation movement, as propounded by Singer and his adherents, is said to reject the absolutist view and assert that in some cases, such experimentation can be morally defensible. Because such cases could also justify some experiments on humans, however, it is not clear that the distinction described reflects a difference between the liberation and rights views, so much as it does a broader difference of ethical theory, i.e., absolutism versus utilitarianism. --DG

Historically, animal welfare groups have attempted to improve the lot of animals in society. They worked against the popular Western concept of animals as lacking souls and not being at all worthy of any ethical consideration. The animal rights movement set itself up as an abolitionist alternative to the reform-minded animal welfarists. As the animal rights movement has become larger and more influential, the animal exploiters have finally been forced to respond to it. Perhaps inspired by the efforts of Tom Regan to distinguish AR from AW, industry groups intent on maintaining the status quo have embraced the term "animal welfare". Pro-vivisection, hunting, trapping, agribusiness, and animal entertainment groups now refer to themselves as "animal welfare" supporters. Several umbrella groups whose goal is to defend these practices have also arisen.

This classic case of public-relations doublespeak acknowledges the issue of cruelty to animals in name only, while allowing for the continued use and abuse of animals. The propaganda effect is to stigmatize animal rights supporters as being extreme while attempting to portray themselves as the reasonable moderates. Nowadays, the cause of "animal welfare" is invoked by the animal industry at least as often as it is used by animal protection groups. --LJ

SEE ALSO: #1, #3, #87-#88

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#3 What exactly are rights and what rights can we give animals?

Rights (whether moral or legal) serve to protect certain basic interests from being traded away. If I have the right to liberty, that means my interest in my freedom will be protected and not sacrificed merely because it would be in the interests of others to ignore it. Animals don't always have the SAME rights as humans, because their interests are not always the same as ours and some rights would be irrelevant to animals' lives. For instance, a dog doesn't have an interest in voting and therefore doesn't have the right to vote, since that right would be as meaningless to a dog as it is to a child. Animals do, however, have the right to equal consideration of their interests. For instance, a dog most certainly has an interest in not having pain inflicted on him or her unnecessarily. We therefore are obliged to take that interest into consideration and respect the dog's right not to have pain unnecessarily inflicted pain upon him or her.

Animal rights means that animals deserve certain kinds of consideration -- consideration of what is in their own best interests regardless of whether they are cute, useful to humans, or an endangered species, and regardless of whether any human cares about them at all (just as a retarded human has rights even if he or she is not cute or useful or even if everyone dislikes him or her). It means recognizing that animals are not ours to use--for food, clothing, entertainment, or to experiment on.

Despite arguably being the foundation of the Western liberal tradition, the concept of "rights" has been a source of controversy and confusion in the debate over AR. A common objection to the notion that animals have rights involves questioning the origin of those rights. One such argument might proceed as follows:

Where do these rights come from? Are you in special communication with God, and he has told you that animals have rights? Have the rights been granted by law? Aren't rights something that humans must grant?

It is true that the concept of "rights" needs to be carefully explicated. It is also true that the concept of "natural rights" is fraught with philosophical difficulties. Complicating things further is the confusion between legal rights and moral rights.

One attempt to avoid this objection is to accept it, but argue that if it is not an obstacle for thinking of humans as having rights, then it should not be an obstacle for thinking of animals as having rights. Henry Salt wrote: Have the lower animals "rights?" Undoubtedly--if men have. That is the point I wish to make evident in this opening chapter... The fitness of this nomenclature is disputed, but the existence of some real principle of the kind can hardly be called in question; so that the controversy concerning "rights" is little else than an academic battle over words, which leads to no practical conclusion. I shall assume, therefore, that men are possessed of "rights," in the sense of Herbert Spencer's definition; and if any of my readers object to this qualified use of the term, I can only say that I shall be perfectly willing to change the word as soon as a more appropriate one is forthcoming. The immediate question that claims our attention is this--if men have rights, have animals their rights also?

Satisfying though this argument may be, it still leaves us unable to respond to the skeptic who disavows the notion of rights even for humans. Fortunately, however, there is a straightforward interpretation of "rights" that is plausible and allows us to avoid the controversial rights rhetoric and underpinnings. It is the notion that a "right" is the flip side of a moral imperative. If, ethically, we must refrain from an act performed on a being, then that being can be said to have a "right" that the act not be performed. For example, if our ethics tells us that we must not kill another, then the other has a right not to be killed by us. This interpretation of rights is, in fact, an intuitive one that people both understand and readily endorse. (Of course, rights so interpreted can be codified as legal rights through appropriate legislation.)

It is important to realize that, although there is a basis for speaking of animals as having rights, that does not imply or require that they possess all the rights that humans possess, or even that humans possess all the rights that animals possess. Consider the human right to vote. (On the view taken here, this would derive from an ethical imperative to give humans influence over actions that influence their lives.) Since animals lack the capacity to rationally consider actions and their implications, and to understand the concept of democracy and voting, they lack the capacity to vote. There is, therefore, no ethical imperative to allow them to do so, and thus they do not possess the right to vote.

Similarly, some fowls have a strong biological need to extend and flap their wings; right-thinking people feel an ethical imperative to make it possible for them to do so. Thus, it can be said that fowl have the right to flap their wings. Obviously, such a right need not be extended to humans.

The rights that animals and humans possess, then, are determined by their interests and capacities. Animals have an interest in living, avoiding pain, and even in pursuing happiness (as do humans). As a result of the ethical imperatives, they have rights to these things (as do humans). They can exercise these rights by living their lives free of exploitation and abuse at the hands of humans. --DG

SEE ALSO: #1-#2

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#4 Isn't AR hypocritical, e.g., because you don't give rights to insects or plants?

The general hypocrisy argument appears in many forms. A typical form is as follows:

"It is hypocritical to assert rights for a cow but not for a plant; therefore, cows cannot have rights."

Arguments of this type are frequently used against AR. Not much analysis is required to see that they carry little weight. First, one can assert an hypothesis A that would carry as a corollary hypothesis B. If one then fails to assert B, one is hypocritical, but this does not necessarily make A false. Certainly, to assert A and not B would call into question one's credibility, but it entails nothing about the validity of A.

Second, the factual assertion of hypocrisy is often unwarranted. In the above example, there are grounds for distinguishing between cows and plants (plants do not have a central nervous system), so the charge of hypocrisy is unjustified. One may disagree with the criteria, but assertion of such criteria nullifies the charge of hypocrisy.

Finally, the charge of hypocrisy can be reduced in most cases to simple speciesism. For example, the quote above can be recast as:
"It is hypocritical to assert rights for a human but not for a plant; therefore, humans cannot have rights."

To escape from this reductio ad absurdum of the first quote, one must produce a crucial relevant difference between cows and humans, in other words, one must justify the speciesist assignment of rights to humans but not to cows. (In question #24, we apply a similar reduction to the charge of hypocrisy related to abortion. For questions dealing specifically with insects and plants, refer to questions #39 through #46.)

Finally, we must ask ourselves who the real hypocrites are. The following quotation from Michael W. Fox describes the grossly hypocritical treatment of exploited versus companion animals. --DG

"Farm animals can be kept five to a cage two feet square, tied up constantly by a two-foot-long tether, castrated without anesthesia, or branded with a hot iron. A pet owner would be no less than prosecuted for treating a companion animal in such a manner; an American president was, in fact, morally censured merely for pulling the ears of his two beagles." --Michael W. Fox (Vice President of HSUS)

Hypocrisy

SEE ALSO: #24, #39-#46

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#5 What right do AR people have to impose their beliefs on others?

Just by saying that, you are telling me what I should and shouldn't do! Everybody is entitled to their own opinions, but freedom of thought does not always imply freedom of action. You are free to believe whatever you want as long as you don't hurt others. You may think that animals should be killed, that black people should be enslaved, or that women should be beaten, but that doesn't give you the right to put your beliefs into practice. As for telling people what to do, society exists so that there will be rules governing people's behavior. The very nature of reform movements is to tell others what to do--don't use humans as slaves, don't beat your wife, etc.-- and all movements initially encounter opposition from people who want to go right on doing the criticized behavior.

There is a not-so-subtle distinction between imposition of one's views and advertising them. AR supporters are certainly not imposing their views in the sense that, say, the Spanish Inquisition imposed its views, or the Church imposed its views on Galileo. We do, however, feel a moral duty to present our case to the public, and often to our friends and acquaintances. There is ample precedent for this: protests against slavery, protests against the Vietnam War, condemnation of racism, etc.

One might point out that the gravest imposition is that of the exploiter of animals upon his innocent and defenseless victims. --DG

"If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear." --George Orwell (author)

"I never give them hell. I just tell the truth and they think it's hell." --Harry S. Truman (33rd U.S. President)

SEE ALSO: #11, #87-#91

5 Reasons Why Meat-Eating Can't Be Considered A "Personal Choice"

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#6 Isn't AR just another facet of political correctness?

If only that were true! The term "politically correct" generally refers to a view that is in sync with the societal mainstream but which some might be inclined to disagree with. For example, some people might be inclined to dismiss equal treatment for the races as mere "political correctness". The AR agenda is, currently, far from being a mainstream idea.

Also, it is ridiculous to suppose that a view's validity can be overturned simply by attaching the label "politically correct" or "politically incorrect". --DG

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#7 Isn't AR just another religion?

No. The dictionary defines "religion" as the appeal to a supernatural power. (An alternate definition refers to devotion to a cause; that is a virtue that the AR movement would be happy to avow.)

People who support Animal Rights come from many different religions and many different philosophies. What they share is a belief in the importance of showing compassion for other individuals, whether human or nonhuman. --LK

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#8 Doesn't it demean humans to give rights to animals?

A tongue-in-cheek, though valid, answer to this question is given by David Cowles-Hamar: "Humans are animals, so animal rights are human rights!"

In a more serious vein, we can observe that giving rights to women and black people does not demean white males. By analogy, then, giving rights to nonhumans does not demean humans. If anything, by being morally consistent, and widening the circle of compassion to deserving nonhumans, we ennoble humans. (Refer to question #26 for other relevant arguments.) --DG

"The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated." --Mahatma Gandhi (statesman and philosopher)

"It is man's sympathy with all creatures that first makes him truly a man." --Albert Schweitzer (statesman, Nobel 1952)

"For as long as men massacre animals, they will kill each other. Indeed, he who sows the seed of murder and pain cannot reap joy and love." --Pythagoras (mathematician)

SEE ALSO: #26

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#9 Weren't Hitler and Goebbels in favor of animal rights?

This argument is absurd and almost unworthy of serious consideration. The questioner implies that since Hitler and Goebbels allegedly held views supportive of animal rights (e.g., Hitler was a vegetarian for some time), the animal rights viewpoint must be wrong or dubious.

The problem for this argument is simple: bad people and good people can both believe things correctly. Or put in another way, just because a person holds one bad belief (e.g., Nazism), that doesn't make all his beliefs wrong. A few examples suffice to illustrate this. The Nazis undertook smoking reduction campaigns. Is it therefore dubious to discourage smoking? Early Americans withheld respect and liberty for black people. Does that mean that they were wrong in giving respect and liberty to others?

Technically, this argument is an "ignoratio elenchus fallacy", arguing from irrelevance.

Finally, many scholars are doubtful that Hitler and Goebbels supported AR in any meaningful way. --DG

SEE ALSO: #54

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#10 Do you really believe that "a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy"?

Taken alone and literally, this notion is absurd. However, this quote has been shamelessly removed from its original context and misrepresented by AR opponents. The original context of the quote is given below. Viewed within its context, it is clear that the quote is neither remarkable nor absurd. --DG

"When it comes to having a central nervous system, and the ability to feel pain, hunger, and thirst, a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy." --Ingrid Newkirk (AR activist)

SEE ALSO: #47

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