Visitor:

About ALF > History

Animal Rights - An Overview
DownBound.com
Spring 2005

Animal rights is the viewpoint that animals have rights and are worthy of ethical consideration in how humans interact with them.

Animal Rights - An Overview

Animal rights is the concept that all or some animals are entitled to possess their own lives, and that animals are deserving of moral rights to protect their autonomy and well being. 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 animals with 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 consciousness. They maintain that any human or human institution that commoditizes animals for food, entertainment, clothing, scientific testing, or for any other purpose, infringes upon their fundamental rights to possess themselves and to pursue their own ends, which, therefore, is unethical.

Animal Rights in Philosophy

One of the first philosophers to take animal rights seriously was one of the founders of modern utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham, who once wrote, "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 lack of rationality ought not to be held against it insofar as morality is concerned, for "a horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal than an infant of a day, or a week, or even a month old."

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 1979 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 Peter Singer (see below) first coined the term 'animal liberation'.

Among the most famous philosophical proponents of animal rights are the philosophers Peter Singer and Tom Regan, who hold views that have much in common but with different philosophical justifications (see below) and Gary 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, Ingrid Newkirk of PETA, have each also presented fully-fledged political/personal philosophies of animal rights.

Although Singer is said to be one of the ideological founders of today's animal rights movement, his philosophical approach to an animal's moral status is not based on the concept of rights, but on the principle of equal consideration of interests. His 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 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 that are so-called "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 means for an end. This is also called a "direct duty" view on the moral status of non-human animals. 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 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 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 the moral law; he believed we ought to show compassion, but primarily because to not do so brutalizes the human condition, and not for the sake of animals.

Despite these theoretical discrepancies, both Singer and Regan mostly agree about what to do in practice: for instance, they both concur in 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, et.al.) is based on the premise that if non-human animals are considered to be property than 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 presently 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 abolishment 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. 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 one shared by Bentham and Singer, in that he believes suffering rather than rationaltiy is what makes one eligible for the moral realm. Berumen believes universal morality can only be founded on the conjoint princple of impartial rationality, whereby we extend the rational requirement to avoid unnecessary harm to ourselves to 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 prescribe our action as though it were a universal law, one applicable to all similar situations[1].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

Generally speaking, no legislation recognizes animal rights. Animals are not granted the same rights as human beings and corporations. However, animals are protected under the law in many jurisdictions. There are criminal laws against cruelty to animals, laws that regulate the keeping of animals in cities and on farms, 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 wealthy individuals without children create such trusts in their will. Trusts of this kind can be upheld by the courts if properly drafted and the testator was of sound mind. There are also many movements to give animals greater rights and protection under in Parliament. The law, if passed, will introduce a duty of care, whereby a keeper of an animal would commit an offence if he or she failed to take reasonable steps to ensure the animal's welfare. This concept of making the animal keeper have a duty to the animal is equivalent to granting the kept 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).

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 movement's most visible advocacy has been against the fur industry, especially in the 1980's.

Many animals 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 Proctor and 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 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 the negative publicity caused by 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, denounce the use of violence against people. 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," in which animal rights advocates rescue animals that have been exploited by factory farms without trying to hide their identity or destroying any property. 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.

Fair Use Notice and Disclaimer
Send questions or comments about this web site to Ann Berlin, annxtberlin@gmail.com