Animal rights philosophy is based on the idea that animals should not be used by people for any reason, and that animal rights should protect their interests the way human rights protect people. Animal welfare, on the other hand, is a set of practices designed to govern the treatment of animals who are being dominated by humans, whether for food, research, or entertainment.
DO ANIMALS NEED RIGHTS? PROS AND CONS
The idea of giving animals rights tends to be contentious, given how embedded animal products are within societies such as the United States. Some people, including animal activists, believe in an all-or-nothing approach, where animal rights must be legally enshrined and animals totally liberated from all exploitation. On the other end of the spectrum are people whose livelihoods depend upon animal-based industries. Below are some arguments both in favor of and opposing animal rights.
Arguments in favor of animal rights
Should the rights of animals be recognized, animal exploitative industries would disappear, as would the host of environmental problems they cause, including water pollution, air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and deforestation.
Halting the widespread use of animals would also eliminate the systematic cruelty and denial of choice that animal industries perpetuate. The physical and psychological pain endured by animals in places like factory farms has reached a point many consider to be unacceptable, to say the least. Animals are mutilated by humans in several different ways, including castrations, dehorning, and cutting off various body parts, usually without the use of anesthetic.
Many species never see the outdoors except on their way to the slaughterhouse.
As their name suggests, concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) pack vast numbers of animals in cramped conditions, often forcing animals to perpetually stand in their own waste. Many species—including chickens, cows, and pigs—never see the outdoors except on their way to the slaughterhouse. Recognizing animal rights would necessitate stopping this mistreatment for good.
Arguments against animal rights
Most arguments against animal rights can be traced back to money, because animal exploitation is big business. Factory farming for animal products is a multi-billion-dollar industry. JBS, the world’s largest meatpacker, posted $9 billion in revenue for the third quarter of 2020 alone.
A lesser-known, yet also massive, industry is that which supplies animals for laboratories. The US market for lab rats (who are far less popular than mice for experiments) was valued at over $412 million in 2016. Big industrial producers of animals and animal products have enough political clout to influence legislation—including passing laws making it illegal to document farm conditions—and to benefit from government subsidies.
Many people depend upon animal exploitation for work. On factory farms, relatively small numbers of people can manage vast herds or flocks of animals, thanks to mechanization and other intensive farming techniques. Unfortunately, jobs in industrial meatpacking facilities are also known to be some of the most dangerous in the US. Smaller farmers coming from multi-generational farming families more directly depend upon using animals to make a living and tend to follow welfare standards more judiciously. However, smaller farms have been decreasing in number, due to the proliferation of factory farms against which they often cannot compete.
Although people may lose money or jobs in the transition to animal alternatives, new jobs can be created in the alternative protein sector and other plant-based industries.
HOW MANY ANIMALS ARE EXTINCT?
Scientists believe that the world is undergoing a mass extinction event, driven by human activity. Since 1900, an estimated 543 species of vertebrates have gone extinct, although the number could be much higher. Species such as the northern hairy-nosed wombat, the Javan rhino, and the tamaraw buffalo are under critical threat of extinction, with some populations numbering less than 500 individuals each. A study conducted in 2020 predicts that one-fifth of all species would be threatened with extinction by the middle of the century.
WHY ARE ANIMAL RIGHTS IMPORTANT?
Animal rights are important because they represent a set of beliefs that counteract inaccurate yet long-held assumptions that animals are nothing more than mindless machines—beliefs popularized by western philosopher Rene Descartes in the 17th century. The perception of animals as being unthinking, unfeeling beings justified using them for human desires, resulting in today’s world where farmed mammals outnumber those in the wild, and the majority of these farmed animals are forced to endure harsh conditions on factory farms.
Farmed mammals outnumber those in the wild.
But the science is increasingly clear: The animals we eat (pigs, chickens, cows), the animals we use in laboratories (mice and rats), the animals who provide us with clothing, and those whose backs we ride upon have all been found to possess more cognitive complexity, emotions, and overall sophistication than has long been believed. This sophistication renders animals more susceptible not only to physical pain but also to the psychological impacts caused by the habitual denial of choice. Awareness of their own subjugation forms sufficient reasoning to rethink the ways animals are treated in western societies.
THE CONSEQUENCES OF ANIMAL RIGHTS
Currently, laws in the US and UK are geared toward shielding animals from cruelty, not giving them the same freedom of choice that humans have. (Even these laws are sorely lacking, as they fail to protect livestock and laboratory animals.) However, the animal rights movement can still have real-world consequences. Calls for animal liberation from places like factory farms can raise public awareness of the poor living conditions and welfare violations these facilities perpetuate, sometimes resulting in stronger protections, higher welfare standards, and decreasing consumer demand. Each of these outcomes carries economic consequences for producers, as typically it is more expensive for factory farms to provide better living conditions such as more space, or using fewer growth hormones which can result in lower production yields.
Of course, should the animal rights movement achieve its goals, society would look much different than it does today. If people consume more alternative sources of protein, such as plant-based or lab-grown meat (aka “clean meat”), the global environment would be far less impacted. Clothing would be made without leather or other animal products; alternative sources, such as pineapple leather created from waste products from the pineapple industry, could replace toxic tanneries. The fur industry is being increasingly shunned, with fashion labels rejecting fur in favor of faux materials. Ocean ecosystems would be able to recover, replenishing fish populations and seafloor habitats. Today these are razed by bottom trawling fishing, resulting in the clear-cutting of corals that can be thousands of years old.
A world in which animals are free from human exploitation still seems far off. But thanks to advocacy campaigns raising awareness of the harmful conditions they experience in places like factory farms, animals may one day experience more fair treatment at the hands of people.