The Philosophy of Animal Rights

By Tom Regan

The other animals humans eat, use in science, hunt, trap and exploit in a variety of other 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 and also of what happens to them. And what happens to them matters to them.

Each has a life that fares experientially better or worse for the one whose life it is. Like us they bring a unified, psychological presence to the world. Like us they are somebodies, not somethings. In these fundamental ways that nonhuman animals in labs or 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 stress on some of the same fundamental moral principles.

At its deepest level, an enlightened human ethics is based on the independent value of the individual. To treat human beings in ways that do not honor their independent worth is to reduce them to the status of tools, or models or commodities, for example, is to violate that most basic of human rights, the right to be treated with respect.

The philosophy of animal rights demands only that the logic be respected for any argument that plausibly explains the independent value of human beings implies that other animal have the same value and have it equally. And any argument that plausibly explains the rights of humans to be treated with respect also implies that these other animals have the same rights and have it equally also.

As a result of selected media coverage in the past which this evening’s debate is a notable and praiseworthy exception, the general public has tended to view advocates of AR in exclusively negative terms: we are anti-intellectual, anti-science, anti-rational, anti-human, we stand against justice and for violence. The truth, as it happens, is quite the reverse. The philosophy of AR is on the side of reason, for it is not rational to discriminate arbitrarily, and discrimination against nonhuman animals is demonstrably arbitrary. It is wrong to treat weaker human beings, especially those who are lacking a normal human intelligence, as tools or models, for example.

It cannot be rational, 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 human beings.

The philosophy of AR is pro, not anti-science. This philosophy is respectful of our best science in general and of evolutionary biology in particular. The latter teach us that, in Darwin’s words, human differ from many other animals in degree and not in kind. Questions about 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 not fantasy. This is fact, supported by our best science.

The philosophy of AR stands for, not against justice. We are not to violate the rights of the few so that the many might benefit. Slavery allows this, child labor allows this, all unjust social institutions allow this, but not the philosophy of AR whose highest principle is that of justice.

The philosophy of AR stands for peace, and against violence. The fundamental demand of this philosophy is to treat humans and other nonhuman animals with respect. This philosophy, therefore, 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 an undeclared war being waged everyday against countless millions of nonhuman animals.

To stand truly for peace is to stand firmly against their ruthless exploitation.

And what aside from the common menu of media distortions, what will be said by the opponents of the AR. Will the objections be that we are equating animals and humans in every respect when in fact humans and animals differ greatly, but clearly we are not saying that humans and other animals are the same in every way; that dogs and cats can do calculus, or the pigs and cows enjoy poetry. What we are saying is that, like humans, many other animals have an experiential welfare of their own. In this sense, we and they are the same. In this sense, therefore, despite our many differences, we and they are equal.

Will the objection be that we are saying that every human and every animal has the same rights, that chicken should have the right to vote, and pigs the right to ballet lessons but, of course, we are not saying this. All we are saying is that these animals and humans share one basic moral right, the right to be treated with respect.

Will the objection be that, because animals do not respect our rights, we therefore have no obligation to respect their rights either. But there are many human beings who have rights and are unable to respect the rights of others. Young children, and the mentally enfeebled and deranged of all ages; in their case, we do not say that it is perfectly all right to treat them as tools or models or commodities, because they do not honour our rights. On the contrary, we recognize that we have a duty to treat them with respect.

What is true of cases involving these human beings in no less true of cases involving other animals.

Will the objection be that, even if other animals do have moral rights, there are other more important things that need our attention: world hunger, and child abuse, for example. Apartheid, drugs, violence to women, the plight of the homeless, after, after we take care of these problems, then we can worry about AR.

This objection misses the mark for the rank and file of the AR movement is composed of people whose first lines of service is human service: doctors, nurses and other health care professionals, people involved in a broad range of social services from rape counseling to aiding victims of child abuse, or famine or discrimination, teachers of every level of education, ministers, priests, rabbis.

And the lives of these people demonstrate that the choice that people face are is not between helping humans or helping other animals. For one can do both. We should do both.

Will the objection be, finally, that no one has rights, not any human being and not any other animal either but, rather, that right and wrong are a matter of acting to produce the best consequences, being certain to count everyone’s interests and count equal interests equally. This moral philosophy, utilitarianism, has a long and venerable history, influential men and women, past and present, are among its adherents and yet it is a bankrupt moral philosophy if ever there was one.

Are we seriously, seriously, to inquire as to the interest of the rapist before declaring rape wrong; should we ask the child molester whether his interest would be frustrated before condemning the molestation of our children? Remarkably a consistent utilitarianism demands that we ask these questions and, in so demanding, relinquishes any claim on our rational assent. With regard to the philosophy of AR, then, is it rational, impartial, scientifically-informed, does it stand for peace, and against injustice? To these — all these questions — the answer is an unqualified yes.

And as for the objections that are raised against this philosophy, are those who accept it able to offer rational, informed, answers, again the answer is yes. In a battle of ideas, the philosophy of AR wins, its critics lose. It remains to be seen which side emerges, as the victor in the ongoing political battle between what is just and what is not.

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