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.

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:

  • No experiments on animals
  • No breeding and killing animals for food or clothes or medicine
  • No use of animals for hard labour
  • No selective breeding for any reason other than the benefit of the animal
  • No hunting
  • No zoos or use of animals in entertainment

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.

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.