Animal rights is the belief that human treatment of animals should be based first and foremost on respect for their rights, not on using them for our purposes. Since that is so far from reality, it is also the belief that human treatment of animals needs to change radically. Its most direct consequence is the moral case for a vegan diet.
Since this remains very much a fringe position, a brief run over some common arguments may be useful.
Why do animals have rights?
Because they are conscious; because they are able to suffer and to be happy, to perceive and to desire, to have ‘a life’. This applies, as far as we know, to the majority of vertebrates – as well as, perhaps, some invertebrates (octopuses and squid are the most strikingly intelligent invertebrates). My position is focused on those animals. I am not interested in defending rights for sea anenomes or animals without brains, who are closer to plants.
Animals, of course, do not have something called “reason”, nor language, nor science or religion or complex societies and thought. But it is simply a self-serving fantasy to imagine that this is the important thing to look for in a being with rights.
Young children do not have these abilities – some adults, with various sorts of mental disabilities, do not have them either. They do not thereby become beings without rights. But the only relevant difference between a very young child and the average mongoose is membership of the species Homo sapiens*. Membership of a species, in abstraction from any of the normal traits and abilities of that species, is an arbitrary basis to apportion rights. Human corpses, after all, are for a while full of human DNA.
*Or perhaps the genus Homo? Would a meat-eater be happy to eat a steak made from Homo habilis, or some other ‘cave-man’?
So do you believe animals have equal value to humans?
I do not believe this is the right question to ask.
Animals have the same basic single right as humans: that when doing things to them we consider the effects on them first, and the effects on others only secondarily. My ‘moral value’ is not that my pain is more important than, less important than, or as important as, other people’s pain – it is that when you do things to my body, things that directly affect me, you prioritise my pain. This is how we treat persons.
The problem in how we treat animals is not that we don’t ‘give their interests sufficient weight’. The problem is that we treat them as property, not persons. We prioritise our desires over theirs completely, even when we are physically ripping them open.
The real value of equality is not in my number being ‘1’ and yours also be ‘1’ (for then how can we be so certain that no-one is ever 0.9 or 1.1?). The value of equality is equal relationships – relationships where neither partner can command or coerce the other, where both partners must treat each other with respect in order to secure each other’s co-operation.
That equality is mainly to do with how society works – and animals do not, and to a great extent cannot, be part of human society. So the question of their ‘equality’ is beside the point. The point is simply that they are the type of thing that deserves respect.
What about if animals are caged and killed in better, less cruel conditions?
I do not want us to use animals for our own purposes more humanely. I do not want us to give their interests “greater weight” while we are overriding those interests. I want us to treat them as persons, not as resources. I want us to stop killing, caging, and creating animals as if they were things. As long as this basic set-up remains, the issue of how cruelly animals are treated is secondary.
But animals kill other animals!
If this is meant to cast moral judgement on the animals, it is absurd. Animals are not rational, self-aware creatures to the degree that adult humans are – they are not fit subjects for moral appraisal. More to the point, it is very unlikely that the chickens and cows killed for food by humans ever killed anything. Animals are not a single homogenous mass, nor a collection of ‘species’. They are individuals.
If, on the other hand, the point is just that animals die all the time and we can do nothing about it, then that is true. Any attempt, at the current time, to end “the barbarity of the food chain”, would simply bring about a lifeless desert. We are simply unable to ‘save’ all animals from being eaten.
But the fact that people are dying and we cannot stop it makes no difference to the rightness or wrongness of murder. As morally responsible individuals, we must do what is right, whatever is happening elsewhere. As a morally responsible species, we must do what is right, whatever happens in ‘the wild’.
Maybe in the far future things will be different. In the here and now, all we know is that meat is murder.
Some posts of mine about animal rights: