Animal Rights 101
By Tom Regan
The other animals humans eat, use in science, hunt, trap, and exploit in a variety of ways, have a life of their own that is of importance to them apart from their utility to us. They are not only in the world, they are aware of it. What happens to them matters to them. Each has a life that fares better or worse for the one whose life it is.
That life includes a variety of biological, individual, and social needs. The satisfaction of these needs is a source of pleasure, their frustration or abuse, a source of pain. In these fundamental ways, the nonhuman animals in labs and on farms, for example, are the same as human beings. And so it is that the ethics of our dealings with them, and with one another, must acknowledge the same fundamental moral principles.
At its deepest level, human ethics is based on the independent value of the individual: The moral worth of any one human being is not to be measured by how useful that person is in advancing the interest of other human beings. To treat human beings in ways that do not honor their independent value is to violate that most basic of human rights: the right of each person to be treated with respect.
The philosophy of animal rights demands only that logic be respected. For any argument that plausibly explains the independent value of human beings implies that other animals have this same value, and have it equally. And any argument that plausibly explains the right of humans to be treated with respect, also implies that these other animals have this same right, and have it equally, too.
It is true, therefore, that women do not exist to serve men, blacks to serve whites, the poor to serve the rich, or the weak to serve the strong. The philosophy of animal rights not only accepts these truths, it insists upon and justifies them.
But this philosophy goes further. By insisting upon and justifying the independent value and rights of other animals, it gives scientifically informed and morally impartial reasons for denying that these animals exist to serve us.
Once this truth is acknowledged, it is easy to understand why the philosophy of animal rights is uncompromising in its response to each and every injustice other animals are made to suffer.
It is not larger, cleaner cages that justice demands in the case of animals used in science, for example, but empty cages: not “traditional” animal agriculture, but a complete end to all commerce in the flesh of dead animals; not “more humane” hunting and trapping, but the total eradication of these barbarous practices.
For when an injustice is absolute, one must oppose it absolutely. It was not “reformed” slavery that justice demanded, not “re-formed” child labor, not “reformed” subjugation of women. In each of these cases, abolition was the only moral answer. Merely to reform injustice is to prolong injustice.
The philosophy of animal rights demands this same answer — abolition — in response to the unjust exploitation of other animals. It is not the details of unjust exploitation that must be changed. It is the unjust exploitation itself that must be ended, whether on the farm, in the lab, or among the wild, for example. The philosophy of animal rights asks for nothing more, but neither will it be satisfied with anything less.
10 Reasons for Animal Rights and Their Explanations
1. The philosophy of animal rights is rational.
Explanation: It is not rational to discriminate arbitrarily. And discrimination against nonhuman animals is arbitrary. It is wrong to treat weaker human beings, especially those who are lacking in normal human intelligence, as “tools” or “renewable resources” or “models” or “commodities.” It cannot be right, therefore, to treat other animals as if they were “tools,” “models and the like, if their psychology is as rich as (or richer than) these humans. To think otherwise is irrational.
“To describe an animal as a physico-chemical system of extreme complexity is no doubt perfectly correct, except that it misses out on the ‘animalness’ of the animal.” —E.F. Schumacher
2. The philosophy of animal rights is scientific.
Explanation: The philosophy of animal rights is respectful of our best science in general and evolutionary biology in particular. The latter teaches that, in Darwin’s words, humans differ from many other animals “in degree,” not in kind.” Questions of line drawing to one side, it is obvious that the animals used in laboratories, raised for food, and hunted for pleasure or trapped for profit, for example, are our psychological kin. This is no fantasy, this is fact, proven by our best science.
“There is no fundamental difference between humans and the higher mammals in their mental faculties.” —Charles Darwin
3. The philosophy of animal rights is unprejudiced.
Explanation: Racists are people who think that the members of their race are superior to the members of other races simply because the former belong to their (the “superior”) race. Sexists believe that the members of their sex are superior to the members of the opposite sex simply because the former belong to their (the “superior”) sex. Both racism and sexism are paradigms of unsupportable bigotry. There is no “superior” or “inferior” sex or race. Racial and sexual differences are biological, not moral, differences. The same is true of speciesism — the view that members of the species Homo sapiens are superior to members of every other species simply because human beings belong to one’s own (the “superior”) species. For there is no “superior” species. To think otherwise is to be no less predjudiced than racists or sexists.
“If you can justify killing to eat meat, you can justify the conditions of the ghetto. I cannot justify either one.” —Dick Gregory
4. The philosophy of animal rights is just.
Explanation: Justice is the highest principle of ethics. We are not to commit or permit injustice so that good may come, not to violate the rights of the few so that the many might benefit. Slavery allowed this. Child labor allowed this. Most examples of social injustice allow this. But not the philosophy of animal rights, whose highest principle is that of justice: No one has a right to benefit as a result of violating another’s rights, whether that “other” is a human being or some other animal.
“The reasons for legal intervention in favor of children apply not less strongly to the case of those unfortunate slaves — the (other) animals.” —John Stuart Mill
5. The philosophy of animal rights is compassionate.
Explanation: A full human life demands feelings of empathy and sympathy — in a word, compassion — for the victims of injustice — whether the victims are humans or other animals. The philosophy of animal rights calls for, and its acceptance fosters the growth of, the virtue of compassion. This philosophy is, in Lincoln’s words, “the way of a whole human being.”
“Compassion in action may be the glorious possibility that could protect our crowded, polluted planet …” —Victoria Moran
6. The philosophy of animal rights is unselfish.
Explanation: The philosophy of animal rights demands a commitment to serve those who are weak and vulnerable — those who, whether they are humans or other animals, lack the ability to speak for or defend themselves, and who are in need of protection against human greed and callousness. This philosophy requires this commitment, not because it is in our self-interest to give it, but because it is right to do so. This philosophy therefore calls for, and its acceptance fosters the growth of, unselfish service.
“We need a moral philosophy in which the concept of love, so rarely mentioned now by philosophers, can once again be made central.” —Iris Murdoch
7. The philosophy of animal rights is individually fulfilling.
Explanation: All the great traditions in ethics, both secular and religious, emphasize the importance of four things: knowledge, justice, compassion, and autonomy. The philosophy of animal rights is no exception. This philosophy teaches that our choices should be based on knowledge, should be expressive of compassion and justice, and should be freely made. It is not easy to achieve these virtues, or to control the human inclinations toward greed and indifference. But a whole human life is impossible without them. The philosophy of animal rights both calls for, and its acceptance fosters the growth of, individual self-fulfillment.
“Humaneness is not a dead external precept, but a living impulse from within; not self-sacrifice, but self-fulfillment.” —Henry Salt
8. The philosophy of animal rights is socially progressive.
Explanation: The greatest impediment to the flourishing of human society is the exploitation of other animals at human hands. This is true in the case of unhealthy diets, of the habitual reliance on the “whole animal model” in science, and of the many other forms animal exploitation takes. And it is no less true of education and advertising, for example, which help deaden the human psyche to the demands of reason, impartiality, compassion, and justice. In all these ways (and more), nations remain profoundly backward because they fail to serve the true interests of their citizens.
“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be measured by the way its animals are treated.” —Mahatma Gandhi
9. The philosophy of animal rights is environmentally wise.
Explanation: The major cause of environmental degradation, including the greenhouse effect, water pollution, and the loss both of arable land and top soil, for example, can be traced to the exploitation of animals. This same pattern exists throughout the broad range of environmental problems, from acid rain and ocean dumping of toxic wastes, to air pollution and the destruction of natural habitat. In all these cases, to act to protect the affected animals (who are, after all, the first to suffer and die from these environmental ills), is to act to protect the earth.
“Until we establish a felt sense of kinship between our own species and those fellow mortals who share with us the sun and shadow of life on this agonized planet, there is no hope for other species, there is no hope for the environment, and there is no hope for ourselves.” —Jon Wynne-Tyson
10. The philosophy of animal rights is peace-loving.
Explanation: The fundamental demand of the philosophy of animal rights is to treat humans and other animals with respect. To do this requires that we not harm anyone just so that we ourselves or others might benefit. This philosophy therefore is totally opposed to military aggression. It is a philosophy of peace. But it is a philosophy that extends the demand for peace beyond the boundaries of our species. For there is a war being waged, every day, against countless millions of nonhuman animals. To stand truly for peace is to stand firmly against speciesism. It is wishful thinking to believe that there can be “peace in the world” if we fail to bring peace to our dealings with other animals.
“If by some miracle in all our struggle the earth is spared from nuclear holocaust, only justice to every living thing will save humankind.” —Alice Walker