Animal rights is the idea that some, or all, non-human animals are entitled to the possession of their own lives and that their most basic interests—such as the need to avoid suffering—should be afforded the same consideration as similar interests of human beings. Advocates oppose the assignment of moral value and fundamental protections on the basis of species membership alone—an idea known since 1970 as speciesism, when the term was coined by Richard D. Ryder—arguing that it is a prejudice as irrational as any other. They maintain that animals should no longer be viewed as property or used as food, clothing, research subjects, entertainment, or beasts of burden.
Advocates approach the issue from a variety of perspectives. The abolitionist view is that animals have moral rights, which the pursuit of incremental reform may undermine by encouraging human beings to feel comfortable with using them. Gary Francione‘s abolitionist position promotes ethical veganism. He argues that animal rights groups that pursue welfare concerns, such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), risk making the public feel comfortable about its use of animals. He calls such groups “the new welfarists.” PETA argues that Francione’s criticism does little to help alleviate the suffering of individual animals and also trivializes the efforts of workers in the field who handle cruelty cases. It also creates divisiveness within the animal liberation movement instead of focusing on shared goals.Tom Regan, as a deontologist, argues that at least some animals are “subjects-of-a-life”, with beliefs, desires, memories, and a sense of their own future, who must be treated as ends in themselves, not as means to an end. Sentiocentrism is the theory that sentient individuals are the subject of moral concern and therefore are deserving of rights. Protectionists seek incremental reform in how animals are treated, with a view to ending animal use entirely, or almost entirely. This position is represented by the philosopher Peter Singer. As autilitarian, Singer’s focus is not on moral rights, but on the argument that animals have interests—particularly an interest in not suffering—and that there is no moral or logical reason not to award those interests equal consideration. Multiple cultural traditions around the world—such as Animism, Taoism,Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism—also espouse some forms of animal rights.
In parallel to the debate about moral rights, animal law is now widely taught in law schools in North America, and several prominent legal scholars support the extension of basic legal rights and personhood to at least some animals. The animals most often considered in arguments for personhood arebonobos and chimpanzees. This is supported by some animal rights academics because it would break through the species barrier, but opposed by others because it predicates moral value on mental complexity, rather than on sentience alone.
Critics of animal rights argue that animals are unable to enter into a social contract, and thus cannot be possessors of rights, a view summed up by the philosopher Roger Scruton, who writes that only humans have duties, and therefore only humans have rights. A parallel argument, known as theutilitarian position, is that animals may be used as resources so long as there is no unnecessary suffering; they may have some moral standing, but they are inferior in status to human beings, and insofar as they have interests, those interests may be overridden, though what counts as necessary suffering or a legitimate sacrifice of interests varies considerably. Certain forms of animal rights activism, such as the destruction of fur farms and animal laboratories by the Animal Liberation Front, have also attracted criticism, including from within the animal rights movement itself, as well as prompted reaction from the U.S. Congress with the enactment of the “Animal Enterprise Protection Act” (amended in 2006 by the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act).
Historical development in the West
Moral status and animals in the ancient world
Aristotle argued that animals lacked reason (logos), and placed humans at the top of the natural world, yet the respect for animals in ancient Greece was very high.Some animals were considered divine eg:dolphins. The 21st-century debates about animals can be traced back to the ancient world, and the idea of a divine hierarchy. In the Book of Genesis 1:26 (5th or 6th century BCE), Adam is given “dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” Dominion need not entail property rights, but it has been interpreted, by some, over the centuries to imply ownership.
Contemporary philosopher Bernard Rollin writes that “dominion does not entail or allow abuse any more than does dominion a parent enjoys over a child.” Rollin further states that the Biblical Sabbath requirement promulgated in the Ten Commandments “required that animals be granted a day of rest along with humans. Correlatively, the Bible forbids ‘plowing with an ox and an ass together’ (Deut. 22:10–11). According to the rabbinical tradition, this prohibition stems from the hardship that an ass would suffer by being compelled to keep up with an ox, which is, of course, far more powerful. Similarly, one finds the prohibition against ‘muzzling an ox when it treads out the grain’ (Deut. 25:4–5), and even an environmental prohibition against destroying trees when besieging a city (Deut. 20:19–20). These ancient regulations, virtually forgotten, bespeak of an eloquent awareness of the status of animals as ends in themselves”, a point also corroborated by Norm Phelps.
The philosopher and mathematician, Pythagoras (c. 580–c. 500 BCE), urged respect for animals, believing that human and nonhuman souls were reincarnated from human to animal, and vice versa. Against this, Aristotle (384–322 BCE), student to the philosopher Plato, argued that nonhuman animals had no interests of their own, ranking them far below humans in the Great Chain of Being. He was the first to create a taxonomy of animals; he perceived some similarities between humans and other species, but argued for the most part that animals lacked reason (logos), reasoning (logismos), thought (dianoia, nous), and belief (doxa).
Theophrastus (c. 371 – c. 287 BCE), one of Aristotle’s pupils, argued that animals also had reasoning (logismos), he opposed eating meat on the grounds that it robbed them of life and was therefore unjust. Theophrastus did not prevail; Richard Sorabji writes that current attitudes to animals can be traced to the heirs of the Western Christian tradition selecting the hierarchy that Aristotle sought to preserve.
Tom Beauchamp (2011) writes that the most extensive account in antiquity of how animals should be treated was written by the Neoplatonist philosopher Porphyry (234–c. 305 CE), in his On Abstinence from Animal Food, and On Abstinence from Killing Animals.
17th century: Animals as automata
Early animal protection laws in Europe
According to Richard D. Ryder, the first known animal protection legislation in Europe was passed in Ireland in 1635. It prohibited pulling wool off sheep, and the attaching of ploughs to horses’ tails, referring to “the cruelty used to beasts.” In 1641 the first legal code to protect domestic animals in North America was passed by the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The colony’s constitution was based on The Body of Liberties by the Reverend Nathaniel Ward (1578–1652), an English lawyer, Puritan clergyman, and University of Cambridge graduate. Ward’s list of “rites” included rite 92: “No man shall exercise any Tirrany or Crueltie toward any brute Creature which are usually kept for man’s use.” Historian Roderick Nash (1989) writes that, at the height of René Descartes’ influence in Europe—and his view that animals were simply automata—it is significant that the New Englanders created a law that implied animals were not unfeeling machines.
The Puritans passed animal protection legislation in England too. Kathleen Kete writes that animal welfare laws were passed in 1654 as part of the ordinances of the Protectorate—the government underOliver Cromwell (1599–1658), which lasted from 1653 to 1659, following the English Civil War. Cromwell disliked blood sports, which included cockfighting, cock throwing, dog fighting, bull baiting and bull running, said to tenderize the meat. These could be seen in villages and fairgrounds, and became associated with idleness, drunkenness, and gambling. Kete writes that the Puritans interpreted the biblical dominion of man over animals to mean responsible stewardship, rather than ownership. The opposition to blood sports became part of what was seen as Puritan interference in people’s lives, and the animal protection laws were overturned during the Restoration, when Charles II was returned to the throne in 1660.
The great influence of the 17th century was the French philosopher, René Descartes (1596–1650), whose Meditations (1641) informed attitudes about animals well into the 20th century. Writing during the scientific revolution, Descartes proposed amechanistic theory of the universe, the aim of which was to show that the world could be mapped out without allusion to subjective experience.
His mechanistic approach was extended to the issue of animal consciousness. Mind, for Descartes, was a thing apart from the physical universe, a separate substance, linking human beings to the mind of God. The nonhuman, on the other hand, were for Descartes nothing but complex automata, with no souls, minds, or reason.
Treatment of animals as man’s duty towards himself
John Locke, Immanuel Kant
Against Descartes, the British philosopher John Locke (1632–1704) argued, in Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693), that animals did have feelings, and that unnecessary cruelty toward them was morally wrong, but that the right not to be harmed adhered either to the animal’s owner, or to the human being who was being damaged by being cruel. Discussing the importance of preventing children from tormenting animals, he wrote: “For the custom of tormenting and killing of beasts will, by degrees, harden their minds even towards men.
Locke’s position echoed that of Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274). Paul Waldau writes that the argument can be found at 1 Corinthians(9:9–10), when Paul asks: “Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Does he not speak entirely for our sake? It was written for our sake.” Christian philosophers interpreted this to mean that humans had no direct duty to nonhuman animals, but had a duty only to protect them from the effects of engaging in cruelty.
The German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), following Aquinas, opposed the idea that humans have direct duties toward nonhumans. For Kant, cruelty to animals was wrong only because it was bad for humankind. He argued in 1785 that “cruelty to animals is contrary to man’s duty to himself, because it deadens in him the feeling of sympathy for their sufferings, and thus a natural tendency that is very useful to morality in relation to other human beings is weakened.
18th century: Centrality of sentience
Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) argued in Discourse on Inequality (1754) for the inclusion of animals in natural law on the grounds of sentience: “By this method also we put an end to the time-honored disputes concerning the participation of animals in natural law: for it is clear that, being destitute of intelligence and liberty, they cannot recognize that law; as they partake, however, in some measure of our nature, in consequence of the sensibility with which they are endowed, they ought to partake of natural right; so that mankind is subjected to a kind of obligation even toward the brutes. It appears, in fact, that if I am bound to do no injury to my fellow-creatures, this is less because they are rational than because they are sentient beings: and this quality, being common both to men and beasts, ought to entitle the latter at least to the privilege of not being wantonly ill-treated by the former.
In his treatise on education, Emile, or On Education (1762), he encouraged parents to raise their children on a vegetarian diet. He believed that the food of the culture a child was raised eating, played an important role in the character and disposition they would develop as adults. “For however one tries to explain the practice, it is certain that great meat-eaters are usually more cruel and ferocious than other men. This has been recognized at all times and in all places. The English are noted for their cruelty while the Gaures are the gentlest of men. All savages are cruel, and it is not their customs that tend in this direction; their cruelty is the result of their food.”
Four years later, one of the founders of modern utilitarianism, the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832), although opposed to the concept of natural rights, argued that it was the ability to suffer that should be the benchmark of how we treat other beings. If rationality were the criterion, he argued, many humans, including infants and the disabled, would also have to be treated as though they were things. He did not conclude that humans and nonhumans had equal moral significance, but argued that the latter’s interests should be taken into account. He wrote in 1789, just as African slaves were being freed by the French:
The French have already discovered that the blackness of the skin is no reason a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor. 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 a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day or a week or even a month, old. But suppose the case were otherwise, what would it avail? the question is not, Can they reason?, nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?
19th century: Emergence of jus animalium
The 19th century saw an explosion of interest in animal protection, particularly in England. Debbie Legge and Simon Brooman write that the educated classes became concerned about attitudes toward the old, the needy, children, and the insane, and that this concern was extended to nonhumans. Before the 19th century, there had been prosecutions for poor treatment of animals, but only because of the damage to the animal as property. In 1793, for example, John Cornish was found not guilty of maiming a horse after pulling the animal’s tongue out; the judge ruled that Cornish could be found guilty only if there was evidence of malice toward the owner.
From 1800 onwards, there were several attempts in England to introduce animal protection legislation. The first was a bill against bull baiting, introduced in April 1800 by a Scottish MP, Sir William Pulteney (1729–1805). It was opposed inter alia on the grounds that it was anti-working class, and was defeated by two votes. Another attempt was made in 1802, this time opposed by the Secretary at War, William Windham (1750–1810), who said the Bill was supported by Methodists and Jacobins who wished to “destroy the Old English character, by the abolition of all rural sports.
In 1809, Lord Erskine (c. 1746–1828) introduced a bill to protect cattle and horses from malicious wounding, wanton cruelty, and beating. He told the House of Lords that animals had protection only as property: “They have no rights. [It is] that defect in the law which I seek to remedy.” The Bill was passed by the Lords, but was opposed in the Commons by Windham, who said it would be used against the “lower orders” when the real culprits would be their employers.
In 1821, the Treatment of Horses bill was introduced by Colonel Richard Martin (1754–1834), MP for Galway in Ireland, but it was lost among laughter in the House of Commons that the next thing would be rights for asses, dogs, and cats. Nicknamed “Humanity Dick” by George IV, Martin finally succeeded in 1822 with his “Ill Treatment of Horses and Cattle Bill”—or “Martin’s Act”, as it became known—which was the world’s first major piece of animal protection legislation. It was given royal assent on June 22 that year as An Act to prevent the cruel and improper Treatment of Cattle, and made it an offence, punishable by fines up to five pounds or two months imprisonment, to “beat, abuse, or ill-treat any horse, mare, gelding, mule, ass, ox, cow, heifer, steer, sheep or other cattle.
Legge and Brooman argue that the success of the Bill lay in the personality of “Humanity Dick”, who was able to shrug off the ridicule from the House of Commons, and whose sense of humour managed to capture the House’s attention.It was Martin himself who brought the first prosecution under the Act, when he had Bill Burns, a costermonger—a street seller of fruit—arrested for beating a donkey, and paraded the animal’s injuries before a reportedly astonished court. Burns was fined, and newspapers and music halls were full of jokes about how Martin had relied on the testimony of a donkey.
Other countries followed suit in passing legislation or making decisions that favoured animals. In 1822, the courts in New York ruled that wanton cruelty to animals was a misdemeanor at common law. In France in 1850, Jacques Philippe Delmas de Grammont succeeded in having the Loi Grammont passed, outlawing cruelty against domestic animals, and leading to years of arguments about whether bulls could be classed as domestic in order to ban bullfighting. The state of Washington followed in 1859, New York in 1866, California in 1868, and Florida in 1889. In England, a series of amendments extended the reach of the 1822 Act, which became the Cruelty to Animals Act 1835, outlawing cockfighting, baiting, and dog fighting, followed by another amendment in 1849, and again in 1876.