Philosophy > General AR Philosophy

The Philosophy of Animal Rights
David Meyer

In our society a different moral standard applies to the treatment of humans than to the treatment of all other animals. Humans, unlike other animals, are not raised to be eaten, factory farmed in wretched conditions and genetically engineered for the most meat. We don't use human skin for products. We don't test the safety of consumer products by forcing them into people's eyes. We don't infect people with cancer to try to cure cancer, nor do we force people to perform in circuses, or keep them captive in theme parks for the amusement of others. Our society has evolved to the point that we realize all this would be unethical and immoral. Yet all of these activities are permissible when they involve any animal species other than homo sapiens. People use scientific, religious, and intuitive justifications to define humans as fundamentally different than all other animals and therefore deserving of different moral treatment. A careful examination of these justifications shows that they are flawed, and a new way of viewing animals is in order.

One scientific justification for a separate moral standard for non-human animals is that homo sapiens are simply more powerful. We are strong and can do what we want because this is the way of nature and natural selection. This view does not, however, carry any moral weight. If we adopt a system in which "might makes right," it would not remain limited to cross-species might. We would make it morally justifiable for powerful humans to abuse weaker humans.

The problem with justifying moral inequities based upon power becomes more clear if you consider the following hypothetical situation. One day we might make contact with alien life forms. These creatures might be so far more advanced and powerful than us that they simply view us as another of the simple life forms on earth. They may want to farm us for food, or experiment on us. Because they would be more powerful, we would not be able to claim that this treatment is immoral. We would be experiencing the very treatment we have justified for animals over whom we have power on our own planet. Who among us could stand up and say without hypocrisy, "No. You must not treat me this way. It's not moral?" Animal rights activists could.

Another justification is that humans are more intelligent. This seems true but it is humans who define the meaning of intelligence. In the same way that we experience difficulty finding a measure of intelligence that is valid across human cultural lines, it is impossible to find a standard measure of overall intelligence which we can apply to creatures with whom we cannot easily communicate.

If we define intelligence as living harmoniously and in a sustainable balance with our environment, humans would rank among the least intelligent species. There are things we do as a species such as destroying our living environment and ourselves through war, greed, and hate, that are highly unintelligent. We know of no other animal that does this.

Using general intelligence to define moral standing also creates a problem regarding those humans who, as a result of accident or birth defect, are rendered extremely unintelligent. If raw intelligence is the litmus test for who can be exploited, the mentally retarded and brain-injured should join the ranks of those in the circuses and on the scientists' experiment tables (they once were, but we've moved beyond that).

People often cite more specific aspects of intelligence as a distinction between humans and other animals. None of these distinctions are absolute.

Humans are capable of abstract thought. We can make no true judgment of the ultimate level of cognitive capabilities animals possess. We cannot speak their language. People with companion cats and dogs know that these animals can clearly think and reason. Time and Newsweek magazines featured cover stories on the mounting scientific evidence that many animals are capable of thought, reasoning, and even intentional deception.

Humans have imagination. Anyone who lives with a cat has seen their cat instigate adventuresome games with inanimate objects. Dolphins, such as those at the Kewalo Basin Marine Mammal Laboratory in Hawaii, can understand hand signals which mean ''tandem" and "creative." After a moment underwater, two dolphins begin swimming in tandem and leap out of the water performing an action of their own choosing in perfect synchronization. Trainers say these actions sometimes have never before been demonstrated by the dolphins.

Humans use tools. Other animals use objects in their environment as tools. Otters use rocks to crack open shell fish, and monkeys use sticks to retrieve ants from holes in trees.

Humans modify their environment to suit their living needs and solve problems. Ants, beavers, birds and many other animals modify their environments to suit their living needs by building dams, nests, hives, etc. Cats and monkeys are well known for using their intelligence to solve problems.

Humans communicate using language. Birds, whales, dolphins and many other animals quite obviously communicate using language. Bees do a complicated dance which tells, more specifically than any human could, the precise distant coordinates of a plant with pollen. We have yet to grasp the complex communications which occur between marine mammals such as dolphins and orcas.

The only form of intelligence that seems unique to humans is the recording of information which allows future generations to build upon experience and creations. This unique aspect of humans does not morally justify a treatment of all animals in ways we could not justify for people. There is no moral relevance to whether or not a species can write down knowledge. To believe there is would lead to a view that can be parodied in this way: If you are a member of a species that can write down knowledge (like myself and the rest of us who happen to be making these rules) then you are entitled to the full protection of the Constitution of the United States, the guarantees of the Geneva convention, etc. If on the other hand you happen to be a member of a species that does not [to us] seem to write down knowledge, then we can eat you, wear your skins, force you to do stupid tricks to entertain us, and basically, you are our property.

It does seem obvious that humans are vastly unique from all other animal species. We build skyscrapers and jet planes. We send people to the moon and we do DNA research. We can make ice cream and prevent Polio. But no individual can alone build a jet plane or do DNA research. Without the proper tools and electricity, you can't even make ice cream. If we were not the beneficiaries of a civilization whose creations and knowledge were preserved and added to over time, none of these things would be possible. All these achievements are the outgrowth of that one difference between people and other animals which we have already discussed -- the recording of information for future generations.

What's more, all these wondrous achievements have occurred only in the last 100 years. If awe of our achievements serves as our moral justification for our treatment of animals, we cannot reconcile this with the millions of years of human existence without these achievements. Certainly we cannot believe that somehow since the industrial revolution, our moral status has been heightened. If you leave nude humans out in the wilderness, they won't seem any different from the other animals running around trying to survive. This basic existence, and not superconductors, is the summary of the millions of years of human experience on earth.

Scientifically speaking, there is no difference between people and the entirety of all other animals species that would be considered morally relevant. The pursuit of a morally relevant scientific difference between homo sapiens and all other species of animals often degrades into one of simply grabbing for anything that will justify our treatment of animals. Fundamental differences between humans and other animals are only in degree, and not kind.

Having shown that scientific justification is impossible, we can now examine the use of religion to justify a different moral standard between the treatment of humans and other animals. While religious beliefs are often a matter of faith and therefore their truth cannot be empirically proven, many of the most common religious justifications are internally inconsistent.

Many of the world's great religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism explicitly teach reverence for all animal life. It is the Judeo-Christian Bible, however, that shapes most American's religious sensibilities. Examining the Bible, we see strong indications of the moral value of non-human animal life. In Genesis, the description of creation clarifies that vegetables, not animals, were created to be eaten:

    And God said: "Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed � to you it shall be for food." Genesis 1:29

Adam and Eve were vegetarian. The Bible goes on to say:

    "and to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every living thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is a living soul, [I have given] every green herb for food." Genesis 1:30

Non-human animals have significant moral standing in the Bible. God created animals first. God then made fruits and vegetables for people, and fruits and vegetables for animals. The animals receive from God and therefore have value. Animals are even said to have "living souls." In fact, the fourth commandrnent which mandates the Sabbath day of rest says that animals must be given a day of rest as well.

In Genesis, God refers to God's creations as "good," which means that Adam and Eve, living without eating or wearing animals was good. The Bible's vision of Utopia (Eden) has no place for the destruction of the very creations of God. The wanton destruction of God's magnificent creations, such as in sport hunting, should be viewed by religious people as a sacrilege upon God's will.

Although the Bible makes numerous references to the use and consumption of animals, it also contains many limitations and restrictions. In Deuteronomy, the Bible contains dietary laws which limit which animals can be eaten and how they must be killed. From this we learn that animals have value and that our treatment of them has moral relevance in the eyes of God.

Limitations of certain behaviors in the Bible can be interpreted as discouraging the conduct. While the Bible does not outright ban the use of animals for human gain, neither does it ban slavery. But the Bible does have a pervasive tone of limiting and discouraging slavery. It also has a pervasive tone proclaiming the value of animal life, and limiting our freedom to exploit animals.

The Bible says that humans were given dominion over the earth and it's creatures. Many people view this dominion as a justification for treating animals as nothing more than property to do with as they please. While it is clear that humans have dominion over the earth and its creatures, it is not religiously mandated that we be cruel or shortsighted rulers. A queen has dominion over her people but she chooses whether to be tyrannical or just.

If someone truly believes that human dominion over the earth makes animals nothing more than human property, then they would also have to oppose anti-cruelty laws pertaining to animals. Human needs and desires would always take precedence over mere property. Torturing and killing animals could be justified because animals were created for human use. But most people would oppose this view. Most people would agree that, all other things being equal, an animal has a basic right not to be tortured and killed which supersedes a human's basic right to torture and kill it. This is the view of animal rights, and it cannot be reconciled with a belief that animals are nothing more than human property.

Some people believe that humans have immortal souls and other animals do not. This view is not in conflict with a philosophy of animal rights so long as animals' status without immortal souls does not render them morally valueless. In fact, if animals do not have immortal souls and their only life experience is their time alive in this world, we have even a greater moral responsibility to insure that their short tenure on this planet is free of torture and exploitation.

As is often the case with religion, liturgy can be interpreted to support many conflicting positions. We therefore must ultimately seek guidance from a combination of our own intellect and hearts (intuition) to formulate a reasonable view of our moral duties to non-human animals and the value we place on all life.

If your intuition tells you that it is bad to torture a dog for pleasure, then you must also be critical of eating the flesh of a cow or chicken. Since eating meat is unnecessary for survival and is therefore only a matter of habit and pleasure, both cases assert a human's right to pleasure over an animal's right to live. Circuses, rodeos, zoos, aquatic parks, eating meat, product testing, fur coats, and leather products all harm animals for human enjoyment, convenience, and profit, and are therefore inconsistent with most people's core values.

We know that killing is sometimes necessary, and our intuition tells us that there is a difference in the magnitude of killing an ant and killing a human. Few people would question the right of a human to kill another animal in order to survive. In fact, humans must kill all the time. Our bodies are continually killing off viruses and bacteria. As we walk, we kill plants beneath our feet. Killing is dearly a part of the cycle of all life. But killing a virus is not of the same moral magnitude as killing a cow.

We can adopt a loose continuum representing the value of living things, and use this line to make judgments about when to kill and when not to kill. Just as it is reasonable to value the life of a spouse or child above the life of an absolute stranger, it is reasonable to value the life of a member of your own species over a member of another. Cows, dogs and mice all have value and are on the continuum. Even vegetables and viruses are on the line. Ants have value, somewhere above them are cats and monkeys. Murderers and saints are on the continuum. Humans as a group are at the top. But even the simplest form of life is high on the imaginary line � right at the point labeled "very valuable."

Since we must kill to live, we should strive to kill things as low on the continuum as possible. Eating fruits and nuts would be most desirable because these do not cause the death of the plant. Eating vegetables would be next, and we need kill no higher on the continuum for human nourishment.

Many people intuitively do not criticize vivisection because they have been led to believe that harming animals lower on the continuum serves the purpose of saving human lives. This is a flawed view because using non-human animals to model human disease is in most cases not accurate enough to be considered scientific. Organizations of doctors and medical professionals such as the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and the Medical Research Modernization Committee are entirely opposed to vivisection because the inaccuracy of the animal model leads to erroneous and at times dangerously incorrect conclusions about the treatment of human disease.

Animal research has the trappings of precise research, but is based upon a completely random assumption that the animal model can predict human responses. Consider the criticism that would be leveled at a study of a disease in humans if no controls were used for age, sex, race, lifestyle, etc. Such a study would be laughed off the pages of the medical journals. Yet biomedical research purports to study human disease, and does not even control for species.

We know that aspirin kills cats, that dogs can overdose on chocolate, and that penicillin is lethal to guinea pigs. Conflicting data from experimentation on mice actually delayed for years the Surgeon General's warnings against cigarettes, and only non-animal related human epidemiological studies eventually proved the danger of smoking. We cannot reliably assume that what affects the pathology of a mouse or any other non-human animal in a laboratory will similarly affect humans.

Most animal researchers do not even attempt to select animals whose physiology most closely resembles humans. Rather, they select the least expensive and most available animal subjects. Rats and mice breed quickly and easily in captivity and are inexpensive. It is for this non-scientific reason that these animals are so frequently used. If they became unavailable, researchers would choose another inexpensive animal.

Many people believe that the billions of dollars spent each year on animal research could be more effectively spent on education, disease prevention, and other forms of research. America's top three killers (cancer, heart disease, and stroke) are all known to be largely preventable through changes in diet and lifestyle. The major advances in the fight against these diseases have all been through human epidemiological observation and advances in diagnostic technology. The animal research establishment may actually degrade the overall human condition by squandering desperately needed prevention and education health care dollars on faulty animal research.

Even if someone believes that the flawed animal model might lead to an overall saving of human lives, it is important to define what it means to "save a life." Saving a life really means prolonging a life, and in some cases raising the quality of a life. All humans will die, but a cure for AIDS may mean someone will die in forty years rather than in five years. A treatment for Alzheimer's may mean that someone lives a final ten years of clarity and productivity rather than confusion. Potential gains in length and quality of life vary greatly, so lines must be drawn on what research is justified. The vast majority of experiments being carried out on animals, including the death of millions of animals each year for classroom dissection, pursue obscure and academic endeavors and are not at the cutting edge of research that even purports to save human life.

For example, "Discover" magazine (July 1993) describes an experiment in which Dale M. Edgar of Stanford University Sleep Research Center took five adult male squirrel monkeys and "obliterated" the portion of their brains which controls sleeping patterns. The ultimate goal of Edgar's research is to develop drugs that would allow humans to reset our internal alarm clocks to overcome inconveniences such as jet lag. Regardless of the scientific unreliability of generalizing data from squirrel monkeys to humans, altering a monkey's brain to possibly learn about sleep rhythms would not be considered by most people to be life-saving research. Jet lag is not an important enough issue regarding the quality of human life to justify harming an animal. If someone enjoys torturing animals for fun, then this torture improves the person's quality of life. There is no moral difference in the result of research toward curing jet lag and the torture of an animal for fun. Both make a small increase in someone's quality of life at the expense of an innocent sentient being. Vivisection for this purpose is morally unjustifiable.

Religion and science teach us of our connection with other human and non-human animals. Religions teach us that all humans are members of our extended family and that humans and animals emanate from the same divine source. Science has taught us that humans share evolutionary ancestry with other species of animals. Monkeys are referred to as "our closest relatives" in the animal world. A long time ago, some of our evolutionary ancestors found it useful to have wings, others found it useful to see in the dark. Our closer relatives found it useful to descend from the trees. All animals are our distant relatives with whom we share common family lines. Maybe the animals around us are on the way to evolving into incredibly intelligent life forms and we're just a bit further on the path. Shouldn't we respect and love them as we do ourselves?

Intuitively, no one wants to be treated like an animal, but the fact that we treat animals "like animals" makes it easier to treat humans in the same way. When a group like the Nazis classifies some people as subhuman, those people could then be treated like we treat all other animals. They can be put in cattle cars and killed en masse, and even be used to make human skin lamp shades and human fat soap. This behavior would be very difficult to justify even to one's self if people really valued all life, human and non-human. With what could one equate a group of humans to justify their genocide, rocks?

The sum of most people's intellect, religious beliefs, and intuition tells them that not killing is better than killing. Translated into action, this means that it is better to have a cotton coat than a fur coat, to eat vegetarian food than to eat meat. When it is possible it is always better not to kill and not to cause suffering. Most people already innately embrace the essence of the animal rights philosophy, but they have yet to realize how their beliefs should affect their daily actions.

If there is no way to justify treatment of animals in a manner radically different from our treatment of humans, we must develop a society that values all life. Even someone who deeply believes that humans have an innately higher moral value than all other animals can agree that animals have a sufficient moral value to deserve better treatment in our society than they currently receive. A society consistent with this view should be free of the wanton exploitation of human as well as nonhuman animals. There is no place for animal circuses and rodeos. Animals should not be slaughtered for food or clothing. The faulty animal model in scientific research should be replaced by live tissue cultures, computer models, in vitro research, and compassion before mere curiosity. Such a society can begin today, through each person's opinions, and more importantly through actions.

Put simply, the philosophy of the animal rights movement is that all living beings have value independent of their usefulness to humans, and non-human as well as human animals have certain basic rights to a peaceful existence. To live according to this doctrine means to live a life of respect and harmony. It means loving humans and all other animals. It means respecting and nurturing the connection of all living things. It is a wonderful feeling to go through life as a life saver, not a killer, and to act in absolute accordance with your deepest values. A true consistency between feelings and actions is the result of a life lived according to the animal right's philosophy.

David is on staff at 1-800-Save-A-Pet.
Fair Use Notice and Disclaimer
Send questions or comments about this web site to Ann Berlin,