Do animals have rights?

July 28, 2006 | By | 11 Replies More

A few weeks back, one of my teachers asked the class to make a five-minute PowerPoint Presentation on any topic of our choice. I chose to address a question which has long intrigued several people around me, including my classmates: “Why am I vegan?”

I thought long and hard on how I should present my views on the subject. I finally decided that my presentation would consist of pictures of factory-farmed animals being ill-treated. The presentation was appreciated by everyone but, in reality, those pictures barely account for my being vegan. Make no mistake, the depravity of the manner in which animals are treated on farms does disturb me. But my convictions about vegetarianism are rooted in a larger moral framework, one which recognizes the rights of all forms of substantial intelligence, including animals.

I was recently discussing animals’ rights with my friend, who remarked, “Rights? They are just animals for god’s sake!”

His remark that they were just animals revealed a common attitude held towards animals. Many people see animals as no different from other resources which can be harnessed for human use. They do understand the concept of rights, but this word for them, applies only to humans. I wonder if these people have thought through the concept of human rights at all. Are these rights given to humans, simply because they possess the “form” of humans?

Today, most people have a decent understanding of human rights. We generally deem it to be important for all humans, irrespective of age, race and nationality. This is because we realize that we share certain aspects that we value most in ourselves, with all other humans. These aspects include the singularness, or “individuality” which we can sense about ourselves. They include our consciousness, which helps us distinguish ourselves from our environment and understand our surroundings.  Most importantly, they include  our emotions, which characterize our daily lives.

Thus human life is assigned a “worth,” an importance, on the basis of these factors. But come to think of it, these are possessed by animals other than humans as well, though perhaps to a slightly lesser degree. Sure, they look different from us and they speak a different language, but are they really that different? Scientists today have concluded that animals as small as chickens possess not only a consciousness by which they distinguish themselves from their environment, but that they also experience a gamut of emotions similar to the one which we experience, which includes pain, fear and hatred. As these animals also possess those very aspects to which we assign worth and sanctity, are they not entitled to some rights too? Or do we simply deny them these rights because they look different from us? Are rights to be acknowledged on the basis of how beings look from the outside? Or are they to be acknowledged on the basis of how they feel on the inside?

Another common argument against vegetarianism is that humans appear to be omnivores and that they have long relied on the consumption of meat for sustenance. While this assertion is true, it discounts the physical, spiritual, emotional and most importantly intellectual evolution that humans have undergone in the past few millennia.

20,000 years ago, people did rely primarily on the flesh of other animals for nutrition, but that was a different type of person, who probably did not have an explicit understanding of sophisticated concepts such as “rights.”

Today, we consider ourselves to be rational and conscientious beings. We do not attribute respect merely to our own whims and instincts, but we are sensitive to the environment, to other beings. Thus, I do not expect an omnivorous animal such as a bear to stop consuming meat. But I do believe that a human who claims to understand concepts such as democracy and human rights, must recognize the right to life of animals on at least some level.

A consequentialist would argue that acknowledging even basic rights to animals, such as the right to life and habitat, is a waste of time. These people see rights as a purely functional concept. To them, concepts such as human rights are made simply to maintain some amount of order in humanity. Their logic of justifying human rights would be as follows: we must respect the rights of others because if we do not, they will revolt against us.

Thus, a consequentialist would conclude that this is not applicable to animals, as an “Animal Farm” situation (where animals revolt against humans) is not likely to happen.

But such reasoning is myopic. History itself has been testament to the fact that such consequentialist ethics only lead to perverted reasoning. Several wars have been fought on the principle that human life is dispensable for what has been perceived to be larger causes.

Imagine, if we were to value the life of animals, would we not value the life of humans all the more? If concern for life, for feelings, for pain, is shown for beings physically different from us, would we not show even more concern for beings like us? In my opinion, a kind of sensitivity to pain and agony experienced by all thinking, feeling beings universally, is what could bring lasting peace in this world.

Thus, if slaughter of animals is considered wrong under all conditions, would slaughter of humans too not be considered unacceptable under all conditions? Thus, even by consquentialist logic, I propose that it can be justified that kindness to animals is likely to create a more cohesive, peaceful humanity.

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Category: Food, Good and Evil

About the Author ()

I am Sujay Prabhu, 22, living in Mumbai (Bombay), India. Among other things, I enjoy reading non-fiction, listening to podcasts, watching world cinema, watching plays, and trekking. I believe skepticism is a most vital trait, needed not only to dodge schemes of charlatans, but also to lead a fulfilling life. I live in a country where superstitions and useless rituals reign supreme, and 'miracle-men' make a fast buck spouting irrational philosophy, backing it up with laughable magic tricks to fool the masses about their 'powers'. The few people who study their surroundings, try to look beyond the obvious, and subject their own beliefs to scrutiny, are those that earn my admiration.

Comments (11)

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    Sujay: I used to be one of those people who laughed off claims of animal rights. Now that I've learned much more about the complex cognition and social systems of the other apes (humans are apes), though, I would be aghast at the thought of eating a chimpanzee or gorilla. Same thought about monkeys. Nor would I eat my pet dog. So why would I consider eating a pig (I sometimes do) when I wouldn't eat my dog, even though I understand that a pig is arguably as intelligent as a dog?

    I just read somewhere (??) that there was a law in England that non-vertebrates are not protected by animal abuse laws. Well, until it was shown that octopi (who don't have backbones) are extremely intelligent. Then the law was extended to cover octopi.

    I admire the complexity of some very small living things like ants. I don't feel that it is a moral issue whether I kill or eat an ant, however. But maybe I am clouded by my upbringing and culture. I commonly eat chickens even thought I know that they are raised in horrendous conditions and even though I don't like the thought that that wonderful food was cognizant (though in a very limited way) of its world. Do I eat higher animals simply because I don't allow myself to consider what I am really doing?

    Your post reminds me of something a friend of mine has always held true: "Morality starts with what you put into your mouth."

    I don't know that I am ready to give up chicken, turkey or the occasional hamburger I have, but thank you for addressing this interesting issue in a straightforward and sensitive way. You've provoked me to think this through further.

  2. Erika Price says:

    Unfortunately, veganism on a philisophical/moral level creates a few conflicts if you take it to a "purist" degree. For example, Ingrid Newkirk, head of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, opposes all animal testing, "even if it produces a cure for AIDs". The human race's expansion inherrently encroaches on the other animals of the world- we destroy habitats to build house, pollute environments with both emissions as well as light and noise, we kill an animal if we think it may pose any threat whatsoever. To an extent, we can't erradicate those harmful actions. It comes as no wonder that the extreme animal rights advocates oppose the expanse of human life- as long as humans exist, they will make animals suffer in one way or another.

    But we can respect the rights of animals as sentient beings without putting them on the same priority as humans, a virtual impossibility. We may still test on animals, and at the same time make farms and slaughterhouses more humane, or have fewer of them if more people go the vegitarian route. This doesn't resolve the moral conundrum at all, but I think we could improve conditions for other animals without adversely affecting our own species.

  3. high and mighty says:

    for my purposes, there are no such things as absolute rights. There are only privleges extended to others and self by those in power. The arguments for rights can be argued philosophically so to endow every living, reproducing entity with as many rights as the human mind can conjure.

    I do believe in the right to life, liberty happines and prosperity. I have had cats. I allow them too, to enjoy those rights I enumerated. I have noticed that many of the cats I have enjoyed the long term company of, expressed prosperity and happiness by chasing and devouring mice and birds. I also extend to those mice and birds the same rights as mentioned above. Evolution dictates that the strong shall live, while the weak, like those devoured mice and birds, will not, thus ensuring the survival of the stronger members of any specie. It is natural selection beautifully expressed. Homo sapiens are the stronger or more intelligent or more agressive of the animal realm, and so we choose to dominate and use the lower,less developed animals for our sustenance and needs. That too, is evolution.Why is it wrong when humans also sketch out natural selection? I can make the distincion between animals housed poorly and cruely, and the raising and maintaining animals for consumption. For me, to reject meat eating using poorly housed animals as a reason is a knee jerk reaction.

  4. grumpypilgrim says:

    To high-and-mighty's comment that "evolution dictates that the strong shall live…," actually that is a popular misinterpretation of evolution. Evolution does not predict that the "strong" will live; it predicts that the species that are *best adapted to their environment* will live. Right now, the earth's planetary environment favors humans, but that has not always been the case in the past, nor does it seem likely to always be the case in the future. We humans are increasing our numbers at an unsustainable rate, just like bacteria will do when they are suddenly put into a nutrient-rich environment. However, just like bacteria, humans appear to be headed toward a crash: our numbers will peak, the resources needed to support those numbers will be exhausted, and our numbers will then decline. That's assuming we don't exterminate ourselves in a religiously-driven holocaust first.

    Vegetarianism delays this future. Feeding vegetable matter to humans is much more efficient (in terms of calories ingested per unit of energy expended) than feeding vegetable matter to animals in order to produce animal protein for human consumption. Indeed, even now, as we correspond on this blog, large sections of Amazon rainforest (a.k.a., the lungs of our planet, because it is where a considerable amount of our planet's oxygen comes from) are being clearcut to create pastureland for grazing livestock, much of which will produce fast food burgers. Therefore, not only are there moral reasons to avoid meat based on how livestock are treated, there is also a moral reason to avoid meat based on what the raising of livestock does to our planet's environment.

  5. Erika Price says:

    To a great degree I agree with you, highandmighty. I understand the moral qualms of vegitarians and vegans, but I think they've set themselves up for an impossible goal given the inherrent impact of humans on the rest of the animal world. I also agree that we have the Darwinistic advantage over the animals we harvest for food, leather, and other products. I eat meat, and I think humans can use some animal based products or support animal testing while still extending a level of humanity to our fellow animals.

    We've excelled far beyond that "natural state" of ruthless selfishness in the name of survival. We've created our own scheme of moral and ethical ideas, and we mostly respect other human beings as having basic rights. We can afford to share some of this invention of humanity with the animals we slaughter. Besides, many people contend that free-range meat tastes better than less humane meat, and it certainly has fewer unhealthful growth hormones. Generally, most animal-friendly initiatives- except for the opposition to animal testing- lead to more healthful results for humans too.

  6. Ricky Koppel says:

    A point which seem to be missing here (not necessarily not understood, but just to clarify):

    "Rights" is an invention, created to preserve ourselves. It is an invention that is based upon self interest. A system of rights allows us to state boundaries upon which others may not invade. The lack of these rights therefore allows us to invade. This is shown in history by slavery, and here it is applied to the anti-animal position, that they have no rights and as such are open to invasion and destruction. And, because humankind is the sole distrubutor of these rights, we retain the authoritarianism to regard these animals as lower forms of life.

    The application of that ideal is that it is not wrong to harm creatures which are not capable of communication with humans, perhaps the stance is that this is so because we cannot ascertain the criterion which establish the possession of rights. The largest problem overcoming the issue is the fact that it is not widely considered. During the American Revolution, were a man to consider slave owning illegal, he would find himself in much the same position Sujay finds himself in, which is that it is not a thought-out, conscious decision that these creatures are lower forms of life. Many simply do not address the question, and choose to disregard its implications.

    The authoritarianism goes unchecked, most likely due to lack of serious, non-ethical opposition. In fact, the opposition is also based upon opinion and assumption. However, there is a very direct means to ascertaining the solution.

    The question which would serve to destabilize these assumptions is:

    "What constitutes the existence of rights?"

    When does a thing gain rights, and when does it lose them?

    What conditions must be satisfied for the imposition of rights?

  7. John says:

    Well I will not provide arguments as it seems what little I have has already been presented. However I will offer some anecdotes; I studied philosophy in college, one class explored the moral and philosophical challenges of animal rights and our dietary choices. It had a strong impact on my wife and I (we discussed it extensively) and we tried to shift to being vegetarians. For anyone coming from the traditional American culture this is a rather difficult thing to do, especially if one lacks financial resources or the time required to ensure that one receives the proper nutrients. We did not last long. However we became much more aware at how poor we had been eating prior to our experiment and of how much meat we were consuming beyond what would be necessary for our protein requirements. I too am troubled by the treatment of the animals that are raised for food (not to mention the incredible numbers that are raised and the massive amount of resources that are devoted to "meat production") but suspect that a major part of the problem at least regarding this aspect of the issue is that Americans consume excessive quantities of meat, far exceeding dietary needs (so far as animal protein is considered a "need"). Address this and there becomes the "room" for more ethical treatment of animals in this cycle (free-range and other classifications of "special meat").

    Another anecdote; In my studies I took a religion class taught by a rabbi (granted he was a rather unorthodox rabbi). The Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) was part of our required books with various readings taken from it. The professor pointed out that in Eden, the human diet consisted of fruit only, after the expulsion God granted the right for humans to eat meat. However such a right came with a significant burden; much shorter life. The professor indicated that it is because of this moral burden that we must recognize prior to eating meat that it was once a living creature otherwise we are commiting a sin. Now I have my reservations about orthodox / organized (standardized) religion, but I found this to be a rather interesting thought.

    There is a remotely similar sentiment in Japanese as well, (at least it is polite to say) "Itadakimasu" prior to eating. Roughly literally this means "I humbly receive" indicating thanks for the life that has ended (both animal and plant) to provide the present meal. It goes farther than that though to indicate thanks for all of the various factors (weather, soil, sea, etc.) and people that played a role in providing a meal. I believe that it is our disconnect from our world that has brought us to the point where we treat the animals we use for food and products as poorly as we do and consume far more than we need.

    I concur with Erich's reply and Erika's second reply. Sujay, thank you for raising this topic. If nothing else, the awareness of the numerous problems associated with our diet will help to facilitate change.

  8. Erika Price says:

    Ricky: I guess I didn't explain myself properly. We have invented "rights", and they of course have no natural (or god-given for that matter) origin. But as you described in your reply, we've slowly extended our invention of "rights" to include all human beings. Living in a purely "natural state", where humans had to compete with one another even to survive, we couldn't afford to grant any rights to people outside of our social network. As a species, we've attained uncontested security, and with that has come the advent and extension of the concept of basic rights. Now we can afford even better than that- we can afford to care about the environment and the treatment of animals, because we don't need to destroy anything in our path in order to survive and prosper.

    For example, if the Inuits had fretted about killing baby seals and whales, they would have perished almost immediately. But very few people uphold that way of life anymore, because we have such unprecedented access to resources, especially in affluent countries such as the US.

    And John, what you mentioned about the Garden of Eden reminded me of fruitarians, a small pocket of radical vegans that only eat the fruits of plants (this would include vegitables such as corn and cucumber, as well as nuts), because any other consumption of food destroys life. If you eat a carrot, you've destroyed that particular carrot plant, but if you eat an apple off of a tree, you have done no harm, and therein lies their logic. Such a dietary restriction strikes me as laughable, ridiculous, and very unhealthy, but if some people will make such enormous (and frankly, insane) sacrifices in an attempt to make the world a more humane place, can't the average person eat a little less meat, or opt for more animal-friendly meat production? Considering the health benefits of cutting out red meat, I can't see a logical argument against it, and I say that as someone very critical of PETA in many respects.

  9. Sujay says:

    Hey folks!

    There are many points I would like to address here, but I unfortunately do not have the time to do so at the moment. But nevertheless, my views concur with Ricky's to quite an extent. And to John and Erich : Thank you! If I've even provoked someone to consider this issue further for a minute, I'm really happy!

  10. Deb says:

    Carrying this argument to the extreme, Erika's comment about the distinction between eating a carrot (which destroys the plant) and eating an apple (which does not), made me wonder why it is okay to eat the reproductive parts of a plant. After all, plants have a life span, and must reproduce to continue their existence.

    And are the seeds of plants like embryos? Does the new plant have existence in the seed, the way some think a blastocyst is the human being? If so, eating the fruit is the same as killing the carrot.

    It's all about where you decide to draw the line.

  11. Erika Price says:

    Deb: I read a discussion on a fruitarian website about the harm caused by eating supermarket fruit- they called store bought fruit a "moderately violent" food because of the death of insects due to pesticides and because insects often get crushed in the vehicles that transport the fruit. No joke. I guess my point has something to do with the fact that humans will always cause some level of harm and destruction to our environment. Many people take that as a sign that we shouldn't try to limit our destruction at all. I disagree- we have to make responsible decisions about how we treat the world around us, and that involves thinking about the way we farm and consume. I think we can all agree that fretting over crushed insects or massacred carrots goes way too far.

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