There is much disagreement as to whether non-human animals have rights, and what is meant by animal rights.
There is much less disagreement about the consequences of accepting that animals have rights.
The consequences of animal rights
Animal rights teach us that certain things are wrong as a matter of principle, that there are some things that it is morally wrong to do to animals.
Human beings must not do those things, no matter what the cost to humanity of not doing them.
Human beings must not do those things, even if they do them in a humane way.
For example: if animals have a right not to be bred and killed for food then animals must not be bred and killed for food.
It makes no difference if the animals are given 5-star treatment throughout their lives and then killed humanely without any fear or pain – it’s just plain wrong in principle, and nothing can make it right.
Accepting the doctrine of animal rights means:
The case for animal rights
Philosophers have usually avoided arguing that all non-human animals have rights because:
- the consequences are so limiting for humanity
- it would give rights to creatures that are so simple that the idea of them having rights seems to defy common sense
The second problem is dealt with by not arguing that all animals have rights, but only that ‘higher’ animals have rights.
One leading author restricts right to mentally normal mammals at least one year old (called ‘adult mammals’ from now on).
The case for animal rights
The case for animal rights is usually derived from the case for human rights.
The argument (grossly oversimplified) goes like this:
- Human animals have rights
- There is no morally relevant difference between human animals and adult mammals
- Therefore adult mammals must have rights too
Human beings and adult mammals have rights because they are both ‘subjects-of-a-life’.
This means that:
- They have similar levels of biological complexity
- They are conscious and aware that they exist
- They know what is happening to them
- They prefer some things and dislike others
- They make conscious choices
- They live in such a way as to give themselves the best quality of life
- They plan their lives to some extent
- The quality and length of their life matters to them
If a being is the subject-of-a-life then it can be said to have ‘inherent value’.
All beings with inherent value are equally valuable and entitled to the same rights.
Their inherent value doesn’t depend on how useful they are to the world, and it doesn’t diminish if they are a burden to others.
Thus adult mammals have rights in just the same way, for the same reasons, and to the same extent that human beings have rights.
The case against animal rights
A number of arguments are put forward against the idea that animals have rights.
- Animals don’t think
- Animals are not really conscious
- Animals were put on earth to serve human beings
- Animals don’t have souls
- Animals don’t behave morally
- Animals are not members of the ‘moral community’
- Animals lack the capacity for free moral judgment
- Animals don’t think
St Thomas Aquinas taught that animals acted purely on instinct while human beings engaged in rational thought.
This distinction provided the frontier between human beings and animals, and was regarded as a suitable criterion for assessing a being’s moral status.
Animals are not really conscious
The French philosopher Rene Descartes, and many others, taught that animals were no more than complicated biological robots.
This meant that animals were not the sort of thing that was entitled to have any rights – or indeed any moral consideration at all.
Animals were put on earth to serve human beings
This view comes originally from the Bible, but probably reflects a basic human attitude towards other species.
Christian theologians developed this idea – St Augustine taught that “by a most just ordinance of the Creator, both their [animals’] life and their death are subject to our use.”
St Thomas Aquinas taught that the universe was constructed as a hierarchy in which beings at a lower level were there to serve those above them.
As human beings were above animals in this hierarchy they were entitled to use animals in any way they wanted.
However, as C.S. Lewis pointed out:
We may find it difficult to formulate a human right of tormenting beasts in terms which would not equally imply an angelic right of tormenting men.
C.S. Lewis, Vivisection
Animals don’t have souls
Christian theologians used to teach that only beings with souls deserved ethical consideration.
Animals did not have souls and therefore did not have any moral rights.
This argument is no longer regarded as useful, because the idea of the soul is very controversial and unclear, even among religious people. Furthermore it is not possible to establish the existence of the soul (human or animal) in a valid experimental way.
This also makes it difficult to argue, as some theologians have done, that animals should have rights because they do have souls.
Animals aren’t ‘moral’
Some of the arguments against animal rights centre on whether animals behave morally.
Rights are unique to human beings
- rights only have meaning within a moral community
- only human beings live in a moral community
- adult mammals don’t understand or practice living according to a moral code
- the differences in the way human beings and adult mammals experience the world are morally relevant
- therefore rights is a uniquely human concept and only applies to human beings
Animals don’t behave morally
Some argue that since animals don’t behave in a moral way they don’t deserve moral treatment from other beings.
Animals, it’s argued, usually behave selfishly, and look after their own interests, while human beings will often help other people, even if doing so is to their own disadvantage.
Not all scientists agree: Jane Goodall, an expert on chimpanzees has reported that they sometimes show truly altruistic behaviour.
Animals don’t have rights against other animals
Another reason for thinking that animals don’t behave morally is that even the most enthusiastic supporters of animal rights only argue that animals have rights against human beings, not against other animals.
For example, as Mary Warnock put it:
May they [animals] be hunted? To this the answer is no, not by humans; but presumably their rights are not infringed if they are hunted by animals other than human beings.
And here the real difficulties start. If all animals had a right to freedom to live their lives without molestation, then someone would have to protect them from one another. But this is absurd…
M Warnock, An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Ethics, 1998
Why this might be relevant to the question of whether animals should have rights becomes clearer if you rephrase it in terms of duties or obligations instead of rights and ask – why should human beings have obligations towards animals, if animals don’t have obligations to other animals or to human beings?
This argument states that animals are not members of the ‘moral community’.
- A moral community is
- a group of beings who live in relationship with each other and use and understand moral concepts and rules
- the members of this community can respect each other as moral persons
- the members of this community respect each other’s autonomy
- human beings do display these characteristics and are therefore members of the ‘moral community’
- animals do not display these characteristics and are therefore not members of the ‘moral community’
- most people would agree with this: after all we don’t regard a dog as having done something morally wrong when it bites someone – if the dog is put to death because of the bite, that is to protect people, not to punish the dog
- only members of a ‘moral community’ can have rights, therefore animals don’t have rights
- members of the ‘moral community’ are more ‘valuable’ than beings that are not members of the moral community
- it is not wrong for valuable beings to ‘use’ less valuable beings
- therefore it is not wrong for human beings to use animals
Animals lack the capacity for free moral judgements
- If an individual lacks the capacity for free moral judgment, then they do not have moral rights.
- All non-human animals lack the capacity for free moral judgment.
- Therefore, non-human animals do not have moral rights.
Animal and human rights boil down to one fundamental right: the right to be treated with respect as an individual with inherent value.
Philosophers have a traditional way of expressing this:
Animals with rights must be treated as ends in themselves; they should not be treated by others as means to achieve their ends.
From this fundamental right come other rights.
Particular species only get relevant and useful rights – so animals don’t get all the rights that human beings get. For example: animals don’t want or get the right to vote.
When rights conflict
Sometimes a particular situation results in a conflict of rights.
Two methods can be used to determine the best course of action when there is no alternative to violating the rights of some individual or group:
- The Miniride Principle: Where similar harms are involved, override the fewest individuals’ rights.
- The Worse-off Principle: Where dissimilar harms are involved, avoid harming the worse-off individual.
Harm is defined as the reduction of the capacity to have and fulfil desires.
This definition of harm benefits people over animals because human beings have far more desires that they want to satisfy than do non-human animals.
This resolves many of the traditional problems of humans versus animals in favour of humanity, because the human being under consideration would suffer far more harm than the non-human animal.
But be careful: this method of choosing alternative courses of action is not utilitarian, it doesn’t necessarily lead to choosing the course of action that produces the greatest overall happiness.