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Animal rights

Related subjects: Animal & Human Rights

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A civet, or sea fox, photographed in the Zigong People's Zoo, Sichuan, 2001, by the Asian Animal Protection Network. The AAPN writes that the animal was kept hungry so that visitors could feed him live eels from a ladle.

Animal rights, also known as animal liberation, is the idea that the basic interests of non-human animals — for example, the interest in avoiding suffering — should be afforded the same consideration as the basic interests of human beings. Animal rights advocates argue that animals should no longer be regarded as property, or treated as resources for human purposes, but should instead be regarded as legal persons and members of the moral community.

The idea of extending personhood to animals has the support of legal scholars such as Alan Dershowitz and Laurence Tribe of Harvard Law School, and animal law courses are now taught in 92 out of 180 law schools in the United States. Stephen Wise, also of Harvard Law School, argues that the first serious judicial challenges to the "legal thinghood of nonhuman animals" may only be a few years away.

The Seattle-based Great Ape Project is campaigning for the United Nations to adopt a Declaration on Great Apes, which would see gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees and bonobos included in a "community of equals" with human beings, extending to them the protection of three basic interests: the right to life, the protection of individual liberty, and the prohibition of torture. This is seen by an increasing number of animal rights lawyers as a first step toward granting rights to other animals.

Critics of the concept of animal rights argue that animals do not have the capacity to enter into a social contract or make moral choices, and therefore cannot be regarded as possessors of moral rights. The philosopher Roger Scruton argues that only human beings have duties and that "[t]he corollary is inescapable: we alone have rights." Critics holding this position argue that there is nothing inherently wrong with using animals for food, as entertainment, and in research, though human beings may nevertheless have an obligation to ensure they do not suffer unnecessarily. This position is generally called the animal welfare position, and it is held by some of the oldest of the animal protection agencies.


The 20th-century debate about animal rights can be traced back to the earliest philosophers. In the 6th century BCE, Pythagoras, the Greek philosopher and mathematician—who has been called the first animal rights philosopher—urged respect for animals because he believed in the transmigration of souls between human and non-human animals: in killing an animal, we might be killing an ancestor. He advocated vegetarianism, rejecting the use of animals as food or religious sacrifices.

Peter Singer, in the Oxford Companion to Philosophy, writes that the first chapter of Genesis describes how God gave human beings dominion over animals, tempered in the Torah by injunctions to be kind; for example, by being required to rest one's oxen on the sabbath. The New Testament is, he writes, devoid of such injunctions, with Paul interpreting the sabbath requirement as intended to benefit the human owners, not the animals themselves. Augustine argued that Jesus allowed the Gadarene swine to drown in order to demonstrate that man has no duty of care toward animals, a position adopted by Thomas Aquinas, who argued that humans should be charitable to animals only to make sure that cruel habits do not carry over into our treatment of human beings, a position later supported also by Locke and Kant.

Bust of Theophrastus

Aristotle, writing in the 4th century BCE, argued that non-human animals ranked far below humans in the Great Chain of Being, or scala naturae, because of their alleged irrationality, and that they had no interests of their own. One of his pupils, Theophrastus, disagreed, arguing against eating meat on the grounds that it robbed animals of life and was therefore unjust. Non-human animals, he said, can reason, sense, and feel just as human beings do. This view did not prevail, and it was Aristotle's position—that human and non-human animals exist in different moral realms because one is rational and the other not—that largely persisted until challenged by philosophers in the 1970s.

In 1545 the German painter Lucas Cranach the Elder - an adherent of the Reformation and personal friend of Martin Luther - painted a canvas, now unfortunately lost, depicting hares catching and roasting human hunters. This painting, described as "powerful" by viewers at the time, was evidently painted in reaction to the numerous hunting scenes which Cranach painted in earlier stages of his career, commissioned by the Elector of Saxony.

In the 17th century, the French philosopher René Descartes argued that animals have no souls or minds, and are nothing but complex automata. They therefore cannot think or even feel pain. They do have sensory equipment so they can see, hear and touch, and may even feel anger and fear, but they are not, in any sense, conscious. Against this, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in the preface of his Discourse on Inequality (1754), argued that man starts as an animal, though not one "devoid of intellect and freedom." However, as animals are sensitive beings, "they too ought to participate in natural right, and … man is subject to some sort of duties toward them," specifically "one [has] the right not to be uselessly mistreated by the other."

Contemporaneous with Rousseau was the Scottish writer John Oswald, who died in 1793. In The Cry of Nature or an Appeal to Mercy and Justice on Behalf of the Persecuted Animals, Oswald argued that man is naturally equipped with feelings of mercy and compassion. If each man had to witness the death of the animals he ate, he argued, a vegetarian diet would be far more common. The division of labor, however, allows modern man to eat flesh without experiencing what Oswald called the prompting of man's natural sensitivities, while the brutalization of modern man made him inured to these sensitivities.

Later in the 18th century, one of the founders of modern utilitarianism, the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, argued that animal pain is as real and as morally relevant as human pain, and that "[t]he 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 argued that the ability to suffer, not the ability to reason, must be the benchmark of how we treat other beings. If the ability to reason were the criterion, many human beings, including babies and disabled people, would also have to be treated as though they were things, famously writing:

It may one day come to be recognized that the number of the legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate. What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason or perhaps the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as more conversable animal, than an infant of a day or a week or even a month old. But suppose they were otherwise, what would it avail? The question is not, Can they reason?, nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? Why should the law refuse its protection to any sensitive being? The time will come when humanity will extend its mantle over everything which breathes…

In the 19th century, Arthur Schopenhauer argued that non-human animals have the same essence as humans, despite lacking the faculty of reason. Although he considered vegetarianism to be only supererogatory, he argued for consideration to be given to animals in morality, and he opposed vivisection. His critique of Kantian ethics contains a lengthy and often furious polemic against the exclusion of animals in his moral system.

The world's first animal welfare organization, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, was founded in Britain in 1824, and similar groups soon sprang up elsewhere in Europe and then in North America. The first such group in the United States, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, was chartered in the state of New York in 1866. The first anti-vivisection movement was created in the second half of the 19th century. The concept of animal rights became the subject of an influential book in 1892, Animals' Rights: Considered in Relation to Social Progress, by English social reformer Henry Salt, who had formed the Humanitarian League a year earlier, with the objective of banning hunting as a sport.

By the late 20th century, animal welfare societies and laws against cruelty to animals existed in almost every country in the world. Specialized animal advocacy groups also proliferated, including those dedicated to the preservation of endangered species, and others, such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), that protested against painful or brutal methods of hunting animals, the mistreatment of animals raised for food in factory farms, and the use of animals in experiments and as entertainment.

Modern movement

The origins of the modern animal rights movement can be traced to Britain in the late 1960s/early 1970s, and in particular to a group of scholars, particularly philosophers, at Oxford University, now known as the Oxford group. It is one of the few examples of a social movement created and to a large extent sustained by philosophers. Psychologist Richard Ryder, who was part of the Oxford Group, writes that "rarely has a cause been so rationally argued and so intellectually well armed."

Ryder cites a 1965 article by novelist Brigid Brophy in the Sunday Times as helping to spark the movement. Brophy wrote:

The relationship of homo sapiens to the other animals is one of unremitting exploitation. We employ their work; we eat and wear them. We exploit them to serve our superstitions: whereas we used to sacrifice them to our gods and tear out their entrails in order to foresee the future, we now sacrifice them to science, and experiment on their entrail in the hope — or on the mere offchance — that we might thereby see a little more clearly into the present.

Ryder wrote letters to the Daily Telegraph in response to Brophy's arguments These were not, he writes, the result of involvement with the animal welfare movement, which he describes as stagnant at the time, but a "spontaneous eruption of thought and indignation" based on the tension between his sympathies for animals and incidents he had witnessed in laboratories in Cambridge, Edinburgh, New York, and California. Brophy read Ryder's letters and put him in touch with Oxford philosophers Stanley and Roslind Godlovitch, and John Harris, who were working on a book about the issue.

A year later, in 1970, Ryder coined the phrase " speciesism," first using it in a privately printed pamphlet to describe the assignment of value to the interests of beings on the basis of their membership of a particular species. Ryder subsequently became a contributor to the influential Animals, Men and Morals: An Inquiry into the Maltreatment of Non-humans(1972), edited by John Harris and the Godlovitches. Rosalind Godlovitch's essay "Animal and Morals" was published in the same year.

It was in a review of Animals, Men and Morals for the New York Review of Books that Peter Singer first put forward his basic arguments, based on utilitarianism and drawing an explicit comparison between women's liberation and animal liberation. The review was the basis of Singer's Animal Liberation, published in 1975, and widely regarded as the bible of the animal rights movement.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the movement was joined by a wide variety of academic and professional groups, including theologians, lawyers, physicians, psychologists, psychiatrists, veterinarians, pathologists and former vivisectionists.

Other books regarded as ground-breaking include The Case for Animal Rights by Tom Regan (1983); Created from Animals: The Moral Implications of Darwinism by James Rachels(1990); Rattling the Cage: Toward Legal Rights for Animals by Steven M. Wise (2000); and Animal Rights and Moral Philosophy Julian H. Franklin (2005).


Animal rights is the concept that all or some animals are entitled to possess their own lives; that they are deserving of, or already possess, certain moral rights; and that some basic rights for animals ought to be enshrined in law. 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 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 activists also make a distinction between sentient or self-aware animals and other life forms, with the belief that only sentient animals, or perhaps only animals who have a significant degree of self-awareness, should be afforded the right to possess their own lives and bodies, without regard to how they are valued by humans. Activists maintain that any human being or institution that commodifies animals for food, entertainment, cosmetics, clothing, animal testing, or for any other reason, infringes upon the animals' right to possess themselves and to pursue their own ends.

In the late 1960s and early '70s, Martin E. P. Seligman demonstrated that dogs repeatedly exposed to inescapable electroshocks are very similar to severely depressed humans. He wrote:

So there are considerable parallels between the behaviors which define learned helplessness and major symptoms of depression. Helpless animals become passive in the face of later trauma; they do not initiate responses to control trauma and the amplitude of responding is lowered. Depressed patients are characterized by diminished response initiation; their behavioural repertoire is impoverished and in severe cases, almost stuporous. Helpless animals do not benefit from exposure to experiences in which responding now produces relief; rather they often revert to passively accepting shock. Depressed patients have strong negative expectations about the effectiveness of their own responding. They construe even actions that succeed as having failed and underestimate and devalue their own performance. In addition, evidence exists which suggests that both learned helplessness and depression dissipate in time, are associated with weight loss and anorexia, or loss of libido, and norepinephrine depletion.

Finally, it is not an accident that we have used the word “helplessness” to describe the behaviour of dogs in our laboratory. Animals that lie down in traumatic shock that could be removed simply by jumping to the other side, and who fail even to make escape movements are readily seen as helpless. Moreover we should not forget that depressed patients commonly describe themselves helpless, hopeless, and powerless.

In contrast, animals like jellyfish have simple nervous systems, and may be little more than automata, capable of basic reflexes but incapable of formulating any ends to their actions or plans to pursue them, and equally unable to notice whether they are in captivity. But the biology of mind is largely a black box and claims regarding the existence or absence of mind in other animals, based on their physiology, are speculative. American writer Sam Harris, currently writing a doctoral thesis on the neuroscience of mind, argues:

Inevitably, scientists treat consciousness as a mere attribute of certain large-brained animals. The problem, however, is that nothing about a brain, when surveyed as a physical system, delares it to be a bearer of that peculiar, inner dimension that each of us experiences as consciousness in his own case … The operational definition of consciousness … is reportability. But consciousness and reportabiltiy are not the same thing. Is a starfish conscious? No science that conflates consciousness with reportabilty will deliver an answer to this question. To look for consciousness in the world on the basis of its outward signs is the only thing we can do.

And so, while we know many things about ourselves [and other animals] in anatomical, physiological, and evolutionary terms, we currently have no idea why it is "like something" to be what we are. The fact that the universe is illuminated where you stand, the fact that your thoughts and moods and sensations have a qualitative character, is an absolute mystery.

If I only could have one thing, it would be to end suffering. If you could take things from animals and kill animals all day long without causing them suffering, then I would take it...Everybody should be able to agree that animals should not suffer if you kill them or steal from them by taking the fur off their backs or take their eggs, whatever. But you shouldn’t put them through torture to do that.

Ingrid Newkirk, President of PETA,

Mameli and Bortolotti argue that animal rights are questionable because humans cannot understand the subjective state of animals.

Opponents of animal rights have attempted to identify morally relevant differences between humans and animals that might justify the attribution of rights and interests to the former but not to the latter. Various distinguishing features of humans have been proposed, including the possession of a soul, the ability to use language, self-consciousness, a high level of intelligence, and the ability to recognize the rights and interests of others.

Peter Singer and Tom Regan are the best-known proponents of animal liberation, though they differ in their philosophical approaches. Another influential thinker is Gary L. Francione, who presents an abolitionist view that non-human animals should have the basic right not to be treated as the property of humans.

Utilitarian approach

Although Singer is said to be the ideological founder of today's animal-liberation movement, his approach to an animal's moral status is not based on the concept of rights, but on the utilitarian principle of equal consideration of interests. His 1975 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 the 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."

Singer uses a particularly compelling argument called the Argument from Marginal Cases. If we give rights to humans based on some quality they possess, then we cannot argue that humans that lack that quality should have rights. Such a quality may be sentience or ability to enter a social contract or rationality. But an infant born with a defect so that it will never have those qualities can not be granted rights without invoking speciesism. Singer argues that the way in which humans use animals is not justified, because the benefits to humans are negligible compared to the amount of animal suffering they necessarily entail, and because he feels the same benefits can be obtained in ways that do not involve the same degree of suffering.

A debate between Singer and Judge Richard Posner is listed online. In it, Posner first argues that instead of starting his philosophy with the idea that consideration of pain for all animals is equal, his moral intuition tells him that humans prefer their own. If a dog threatened a human infant, and it required causing more pain to the dog to get it to stop than the dog would have caused to the infant, then we, as humans, favour the child. It would be "monstrous to spare the dog," Posner argues. Singer challenges Posner's moral intuition by arguing that formerly unequal rights for homosexuals, women, and those of different races also were justified using the same set of intuitions. Posner replies that equality in civil rights did not occur because of ethical arguments, but because facts mounted that there were not significant differences between humans based on race, sex, or sexual orientation that would support that inequality. If and when similar facts mount on the differences between humans and animals, those differences in rights will erode. But facts will drive equality, and not ethical arguments that run contrary to moral instinct. Posner calls his approach soft utilitarian in contrast to Singer's hard utilitarian. Posner argues:

The "soft" utilitarian position on animal rights is a moral intuition of many, probably most, Americans. We realize that animals feel pain, and we think that to inflict pain without a reason is bad. Nothing of practical value is added by dressing up this intuition in the language of philosophy; much is lost when the intuition is made a stage in a logical argument. When kindness toward animals is levered into a duty of weighting the pains of animals and of people equally, bizarre vistas of social engineering are opened up.

Rights-based approach

Tom Regan (The Case for Animal Rights and Empty Cages) argues that non-human animals, as "subjects-of-a-life," are bearers of rights like humans. He argues that, because the moral rights of humans are based on their possession of certain cognitive abilities, and because these abilities are also possessed by at least some non-human animals, such animals must have the same moral rights as humans. Although only humans act as moral agents, both marginal case humans and at least some non-humans must have the status of moral patients.

Animals in this class have "inherent value" as individuals, and cannot be regarded as means to an end. This is also called the "direct duty" view. 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 to those that can be regarded as "subjects-of-a-life." He argues that all normal mammals of at least one year of age would qualify in this regard.

The predation reduction argument is often applied to Regan's rights-based approach. If we are to protect animals with rights from moral patient humans, must we also protect them from other animals? This raises the issue of whether giving animals 'moral patient' status condemns to extermination certain classes of predation.

While Singer is primarily concerned with improving the 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 what he called the moral law; like Aquinas and Locke, Kant recommended kindness towards animals not for the sake of animals themselves, but mainly because he thought that those who are cruel towards animals are likely to tend to be cruel towards human beings too.

Despite these theoretical differences, both Singer and Regan largely agree about what to do in practise. For example, they agree that the adoption of a vegan diet and the abolition of nearly all forms of animal testing are ethically mandatory.

The view of rights as requiring obligations

Critics such as Carl Cohen, professor of philosophy at the University of Michigan and the University of Michigan Medical School, oppose the granting of personhood to animals. Cohen wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine in October 1986: that "[t]he holders of rights must have the capacity to comprehend rules of duty governing all, including themselves. In applying such rules, the holders of rights must recognize possible conflicts between what is in their own interest and what is just. Only in a community of beings capable of self-restricting moral judgments can the concept of a right be correctly invoked."

Cohen rejects Peter Singer's argument that since a brain-damaged human could not exhibit the ability to make moral judgments, that moral judgments cannot be used as the distinguishing characteristic for determining who is awarded rights. Cohen states that the test for moral judgment "is not a test to be administered to humans one by one." This is also known as the Argument from Species Normality.

The British philosopher Roger Scruton has argued that rights can only be assigned to beings who are able to understand them and to reciprocate by observing their own obligations to other beings. In The Animals Issue: Moral Theory in Practice, the British philosopher Peter Carruthers argues that humans have obligations only to other beings who can take part in a hypothetical social contract. thus animals are excluded from the group of beings to whom humans have moral obligations. Social contract arguments do not address the problem of animals acting as if they have entered into such contracts with others of their species. Cooperation and relatively peaceful coexistence in group situations are characteristics of many species. Jules Masserman (1905–1989), past president of the American Psychiatric Association, concluded in 1964 that: "A majority of rhesus monkeys will consistently suffer hunger rather than secure food at the expense of electroshock to a conspecific."

Abolitionist view

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 then 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 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 for the Animal Rights Law Project at Rutgers University, he points out that any effort that does not advocate the abolition 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, he argues. Francione holds that a society which regards dogs and cats as family members yet kills cows, chickens, and pigs for food exhibits what he calls "moral schizophrenia."

Animal rights in law

A monkey in a restraint tube filmed by PETA in a Covance branch, Vienna, Virginia, 2004–2005

The Encyclopaedia Britannica cites the Roman jurist Hermogenianus writing in the 3rd or 4th century CE that: "Hominum causa omne jus constitum"—"All law was established for men's sake"—a position repeated in P.A. Fitzgerald's Salmond on Jurisprudence (1966), in which he wrote: "The law is made for men and allows no fellowship or bonds of obligation between them and the lower animals."

This view categorizes animals as property; not as legal persons with rights, but as things that other legal persons exercise their rights in relation to. Current animal law therefore addresses the rights of the people who own animals, not the rights of the animals themselves. There are criminal laws against cruelty to animals; laws that regulate the keeping of animals in cities and on farms; laws regulating the transit of animals internationally, and governing quarantine and inspection provisions. These are designed to offer animals some protection from unnecessary physical harm and to regulate the use of animals as food, but they offer no civil rights to animals, who have a status similar to that of human slaves before abolition. American legal scholar Steven Wise writes in the Encyclopaedia Britannica that the failure to recognize individual rights makes animals "invisible to civil law."

There is increasing interest in the concept of animal rights in law. The idea of extending personhood to animals is gaining the support of mainstream legal scholars such as Alan Dershowitz and Laurence Tribe. Animal law courses are taught in 91 out of 180 U.S. law schools, and 47 U.S. law schools have student animal legal defense funds, with more being set up in Australia and Europe. Three specialist legal journals have been established—Animal Law, the Journal of Animal Law, and the Journal of Animal Law and Ethics.

In 2006, Brazilians founded the Brazilian Animal Rights Review, the first legal journal about animal law in a developing country. Brazil has advanced legislation: since 1988, their Constitution recognizes the protection of animals against cruelty.

Switzerland passed legislation in 1992 to recognize animals as beings, rather than things, and the protection of animals was enshrined in the German constitution in 2002, when its upper house of parliament voted to add the words "and animals" to the clause in the constitution obliging the state to protect the "natural foundations of life … in the interests of future generations."

Steven Wise writes that the legal arguments in favour of animal rights are "powerfully assisted by increasingly sophisticated scientific investigations into the cognitive, emotional, and social capacities of animals and by advances in genetics, neuroscience, physiology, linguistics, psychology, evolution, and ethology, many of which have demonstrated that humans and animals share a broad range of behaviours, capacities, and genetic material." Wise argues that the first serious judicial challenges to the "legal thinghood of nonhuman animals" may only be a few years away.

Animal rights in politics

Political parties advocating animal welfare and animal rights have been founded since 2005 in Spain, the UK, Germany, Canada, and the Netherlands. In the Netherlands the Party for the Animals (Partij voor de Dieren) is the worlds first political party with an agenda focused primarily on animal welfare and animal rights. The party holds two seats in Dutch Parliament since the last national elections in November 2006.

Animal rights and the Holocaust

Some writers and animal rights groups have drawn a comparison between the treatment of animals and the Holocaust. Jewish Nobel Prize winner Isaac Bashevis Singer, wrote in Enemies, a Love Story:

As often as Herman had witnessed the slaughter of animals and fish, he always had the same thought: In their behaviour toward creatures, all men were Nazis. The smugness with which man could do with other species as he pleased exemplified the most extreme racist theories, the principle that might is right.

Charles Patterson in Eternal Treblinka argues that "Nazi genocide and modern society's enslavement and slaughter of non-human animals" share common roots. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals organized a touring exhibition in 2003 entitled " Holocaust on your Plate," which mixed imagery of Jews in concentration camps with animals being killed and abused. The National Primate Research Exhibition Hall, a project of animal rights activists in Wisconsin, compares itself to the Holocaust Memorial at Auschwitz and plans extensive use of such imagery in its exhibits.

The comparison has been criticized by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Roberta Kalechofsky of Jews for Animal Rights argues that, although there is "connective tissue" between animal suffering and the Holocaust, they "fall into different historical frameworks, and comparison between them aborts the ... force of anti-Semitism.

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