Philosophy > Philosophy - General
Beyond Might Makes Right

Matt Ball & Jack Norris

Those who exploit and mistreat animals generally defend their activities on the grounds that animals lack even basic rights.

Is this true, or do people deny animals rights simply to rationalize exploiting them?

In searching for an honest, consistent ethic, if one believes that humans have rights, we find that there are no legitimate grounds for rejecting rights for all other animals.


What is meant by "Rights"

In most of the world, human beings are granted basic rights. These fundamental rights are usually (at a minimum): the entitlement of individuals to have basic control of their lives and bodies, without infringing on the rights of others. In other words: the right not to be killed, caged, or experimented on against their will at the hands of moral agents (persons able to understand and act from a moral code). It is assumed that the reader believes humans to have these rights.

A Difference of Degree

Many say that humans deserve rights while other animals do not because humans have a greater level of certain characteristics: humans are more intelligent, creative, aware, technologically advanced, dominant, able to use language, able to enter into contracts, able to make moral choices, etc. Thus, humans deserve rights because they have a greater degree of these characteristics.

This argument has two problems:

Rights are not relevant to a group (e.g., "humans"), but only to individuals. Individuals, not groups, are exploited and are capable of suffering and dying; individuals, not groups, are denied rights when there is a morally relevant reason (e.g., after committing a crime).

Not all humans possess these characteristics to a greater degree than all other non-humans. There are non-humans who are more intelligent, creative, aware, dominant, technologically advanced (in reference to tool making), and able to use language, than some humans (such as infants or severely handicapped humans). Furthermore, many animals perform actions that, in humans, would be labeled moral behavior; oftentimes some animals act more ethically than many humans. If rights were granted at a certain threshold of intelligence, creativity, moral behavior, etc., some animals would have rights and some humans would not.

Value to Others

Some say that even though infants do not possess high levels of some characteristics, they should be granted rights because they are valued by other humans (their parents, for instance). By this argument, infants themselves do not possess any inherent rights, but receive them only if valued by an adult human.

At the same time, being valued by an adult human does not grant rights to pigs, parakeets, pet rocks, or Porsches. This is inconsistent: either one is granted rights by being valued by an adult human--and thus everything valued by an adult human has rights--or there must be different criteria for granting rights.

People who believe that rights are granted to infants because of their value to adult humans would have to admit that infants who are not valued by other humans could be used in medical research. Indeed, this would be morally imperative in order to benefit infants who are valued by others. Most people would contend, however, that even unvalued orphans have rights. Therefore, rights must be based on other criteria.

Biological Rights

Another argument is that humans have rights because they belong to the species Homo sapiens. In other words, a chimpanzee may very well be as intelligent (or creative, etc.) as some humans, but chimpanzees do not have rights because they are not members of the biologically-defined, rights-bearing species, Homo sapiens.

In the past, there have been a number of biological definitions of what constitutes a species. Today, it is defined genetically. The questions then become:

Why should rights be deserved solely on the basis of a certain arrangement of genes?

Among the genes that determine one's eye color, etc., which gene is it that confers rights?

If rights should be based on genes, why should the line be drawn at the species level? Why shouldn't the line be drawn at race, order, phylum, or kingdom?

A thoughtful person might find having their rights (or lack thereof) determined by a molecular sequence to be a bit absurd. It is no better than basing rights on the pigmentation of one's skin (which is also determined by the individual's genetic code).

Consider if we could genetically engineer humanoids who were biologically distinct from humans (could not reproduce with humans) but shared human emotions and intelligence. Could we justifiably enslave, experiment on, and eat such people?

The Law

Some argue that infants and the mentally handicapped deserve rights because the current laws grant them rights. However, legal rights are not the same as moral rights. Legal rights change over time and by the whim of public or governmental opinion, whereas inherent moral rights do not. For example, the law in Nazi Germany did not respect the inherent rights of Jewish people.

Ability to Understand Abstract Concepts

It has been argued that non-humans do not deserve rights because they cannot understand abstract concepts, such as death. Yet anyone who has observed pigs in a slaughterhouse, for example, would find it difficult not to conclude that pigs understand death to the extent that they are terrified when confronted with it. What more do humans understand about death that is morally relevant?

The Golden Rule

In the past, humans may have respected each other's rights in order to survive without constant violence. Many people still function on this level. Yet over time, more civilized people have evolved a moral system that grants rights not just based on self-protection, but on the Golden Rule--treat your neighbor as you would like to be treated. We know that we want to stay alive, do not wish to suffer, etc., and we assume others like us have the same desires. Being capable of looking beyond our own individual interests, we apply the Golden Rule even to people who could not harm us.

How much like us do beings have to be before we include them under the Golden Rule? At one time, women were not enough like the men who held power to be granted many rights. Neither were minorities in the United States and other societies. Even though the circle has expanded to include these individuals in the United States, today other animals are still not considered sufficiently like us for the majority of people to treat these animals as our neighbors under the Golden Rule.

The Soul

Some would say having a God-given soul is what gives one rights. There is no way to prove that humans have souls, just as there is no way to prove that all other animals lack souls. Those who insist that only humans have souls (and thus rights) are faced with a theological dilemma: it would require a cruel God to create beings with the capacity to feel pain and the desire to live, if these animals' purpose was to suffer at the hands of humans.

Animals Kill Each Other

Some defend humans killing animals on the grounds that animals kill each other in nature. These people would be hard pressed to show that our modern systems of animal agriculture or experimentation are "natural."

While it is true that some animals kill other animals in nature, moral philosophy is based on principles, not excused by the actions of others. As Peter Singer writes: "You cannot evade responsibility by imitating beings who are incapable of making [an ethical] choice." Some humans assault, rape, or kill other humans, yet we do not condone these actions.

Appeals to Emotion as Justification for Vivisection

Vivisection defenders often use emotional, hypothetical choices to make animal exploitation appear necessary. For example, concerning her daughter Claire, who has cystic fibrosis, Jane McCabe wrote in Newsweek (Dec. 26, 1988): "If you had to choose between saving a very cute dog or my equally cute, blond, brown-eyed daughter, whose life would you choose?--It's not that I don't love animals, it's that I love Claire more."

A single dog experiment could never cure her child's disease, but the moral issue is whether personal attachment justifies harming innocent others. Since McCabe probably loves her daughter more than other children, would she endorse experimenting on other children (a scientifically more productive research strategy than experimenting on non-human animals) to save her child?

Strict Utilitarianism

Still, many people view vivisection as a morally-defensible trade-off of lives. For example, the transplant surgeon involved in experiments such as the baboon heart/Baby Faye operation assumes that the life of one human is worth more than that of one baboon. This issue--inter-species transplants--most clearly demonstrates the problem of determining morality from a utilitarian algebra of worth.

Using simple equations to determine the morality of actions, it would be acceptable to take the life of one human infant to continue the lives of two other infants in need of organs. Indeed, arguing from the perspective of worth, importance, or priorities, taking the life of one infant to extend the lives of two would be imperative. If this is not considered to be acceptable, is the first infant then "more important" than the two who are allowed to die?

Most people will agree that it is not justifiable to "sacrifice" one human for the "greater good," because each human has a right to live. This right is not to be violated, regardless of possible benefit to others. But when it comes to animals, they are assumed not to have this right.


Searching for some characteristic to justify granting rights to all humans while denying rights to all other animals is futile. A moral system based on any of the characteristics discussed so far would either include many non-human animals or exclude some humans.

To have a consistent set of ethics, a characteristic must be found that not only allows for the inclusion of all humans, but is also morally relevant. The only characteristic that simply and consistently meets these requirements is the capacity for suffering.

As Jeremy Bentham, head of the Department of Jurisprudence at Oxford University during the 19th century, said in reference to his belief that animals should be granted moral consideration, "The question is not, 'Can they reason?' nor, 'Can they talk?' But rather, 'Can they suffer?'"

If a thing cannot suffer, then it does not matter to that being what happens to it. For example, computers have forms of intelligence (in many ways greater than that of any human), but these machines do not care whether they are turned off or even destroyed.

On the other hand, if a being is able to have subjective experiences of pleasure and pain, then it does matter--to that individual--what happens to it. Irrespective of intelligence, language, etc., a conscious, sentient being has interests in its existence--at the very least to avoid pain and to stay alive. Any complete ethic cannot ignore these concerns.

For the Love of Animals

There are many who claim that they love animals and don't want them to suffer. Few oppose "humane" treatment of animals. But fewer still are willing to give up their prejudice of human superiority. Thus, the distance between the acceptable treatment and the actual, institutionalized treatment of these animals is greater than ever: slaughterhouses are hidden away from populated areas, and vivisectors' labs are closed and locked.

Many scientists claim they use animals only when it is "absolutely necessary to save human lives." Ignoring the question of whether or not their contention of necessity is accurate and what is the ethical use of limited resources for medical care and research, these people are betrayed by their actions: how many vegetarian vivisectors are there? They can hardly argue that it is necessary for them to kill animals for food.

In general, the animal welfarist position, which has been endorsed (but sparsely adopted) by the meat industry and pro-vivisection groups, is at odds with a truly respectful relationship based on the recognition of the rights of other animals. Welfarists concede that animals have interests, but these animals remain human property. Thus, the fundamental interests of the animals remain secondary to any interests of the owners. Laws based on the welfarist position, such as the federal Animal Welfare Act, have proven to be almost useless in every practical sense, as any use/abuse of an animal is allowed if deemed "necessary."

Trying to legislate a humane balance between the interests of animals and the interests of humans sounds good in principle and appeals to most. However, given that the current system still allows such atrocities as canned hunts, castration without anesthesia, factory farms, pain experiments, etc., animal abuse will continue until the current system recognizes that many animals are conscious, sentient beings whose rights are independent of the interests of humans.

Might Makes Right

The children whom the Jane McCabes of the world hold up to defend vivisection have done nothing to deserve their disease. It is precisely these children's innocence that makes their plight so heartrending. However, anyone who claims to be ethical must also ask what animals have done to deserve being imprisoned in cages, being infected with our diseases, and being carved up in our labs. No one would suggest that these animals "deserve" to be exploited and killed in experiments. Rather, we kill these healthy, innocent beings because we have the power to do so and it is convenient for us. In short, we follow the principle of Might Makes Right.

The ability to do something does not make it right. We are capable of many actions that most contend are unacceptable--rape, abuse, murder, etc. If we have any claim to "superiority," it comes from our ability to act according to moral principles, guided by justice, fairness, and compassion. But we deny our moral ability when we selfishly harm others.

Animal Morality

Even though rights can only be granted consistently and justly on the basis of the capacity to suffer and not on the ability to make moral choices, there is ample evidence that many animals can and do make moral choices, often to the shame of "superior" humans. As Drs. Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan relate in Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors:

In the annals of primate ethics, there are some accounts that have the ring of parable. In a laboratory setting, macaques were fed if they were willing to pull a chain and electrically shock an unrelated macaque whose agony was in plain view through a one-way mirror. Otherwise, they starved. After learning the ropes, the monkeys frequently refused to pull the chain; in one experiment only 13% would do so--87% preferred to go hungry. One macaque went without food for nearly two weeks rather than hurt its fellow. Macaques who had themselves been shocked in previous experiments were even less willing to pull the chain. The relative social status or gender of the macaques had little bearing on their reluctance to hurt others.

If asked to choose between the human experimenters offering the macaques this Faustian bargain and the macaques themselves--suffering from real hunger rather than causing pain to others--our own moral sympathies do not lie with the scientists. But their experiments permit us to glimpse in non-humans a saintly willingness to make sacrifices in order to save others--even those who are not close kin. By conventional human standards, these macaques--who have never gone to Sunday school, never heard of the Ten Commandments, never squirmed through a single junior high school civics lesson--seem exemplary in their moral grounding and their courageous resistance to evil. Among these macaques, at least in this case, heroism is the norm. If the circumstances were reversed, and captive humans were offered the same deal by macaque scientists, would we do as well? (Especially when there is an authority figure urging us to administer the electric shocks, we humans are disturbingly willing to cause pain--and for a reward much more paltry than food is for a starving macaque [cf. Stanley Milgram, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental Overview].) In human history there are a precious few whose memory we revere because they knowingly sacrificed themselves for others. For each of them, there are multitudes who did nothing.

If animals can feel pain as humans can, and desire to live as humans do, how can we deny them similar respect? As moral beings, how can we justify our continued exploitation of them?

We must stand up against the idea that might makes right. We must question the status quo which allows the unquestioned infliction of so much suffering. We must act from our own ethics, rather than blindly follow authority figures who tell us it's okay and even necessary to harm animals.

Discussing the macaque monkeys who chose to starve rather than inflict pain on another, Drs. Sagan and Druyan conclude, "Might we have a more optimistic view of the human future if we were sure our ethics were up to their standards?"

For a more complete treatment of the philosophy of animal rights, see Tom Regan's The Case for Animal Rights. For a discussion of the preference utilitarian philosophy of animal liberation, see Peter Singer's Animal Liberation. Additionally, the Vegetarian Site has a summary of some of the current animal rights philosophers.


Fair Use Notice and Disclaimer
Send questions or comments about this web site to Ann Berlin,