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What is Animal rights, or animal liberation?

Animal rights, or animal liberation

Animal rights, or animal liberation

Animal rights, or animal liberation, is the movement to protect animals from being used or regarded as property by human beings. It is a radical social movement, insofar as it aims not merely to attain more humane treatment for animals, but also to include species other than human beings within the moral community by giving their basic interests — for example, the interest in avoiding suffering — the same consideration as our own. The claim, in other words, is that animals should no longer be regarded legally or morally as property, or treated merely as resources for human purposes, but should instead be regarded as persons.

Some countries have passed legislation awarding recognition to the interests of animals. Switzerland recognized animals as beings, not things, in 1992, and in 2002, the protection of animals was added to the German constitution. The Seattle-based Great Ape Project, founded by Australian philosopher Peter Singer, is campaigning for the United Nations to adopt its Declaration on Great Apes, which would see chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans included in a “community of equals” with humans, and which would extend to them the protection of three basic interests: the right to life, the protection of individual liberty, and the prohibition of torture.

Critics of the concept of animal rights argue that, because animals do not have the capacity to enter into a social contract [3] or make moral choices, cannot respect the rights of others, and do not even understand the idea of rights, they cannot be regarded as possessors of moral rights. The philosopher Roger Scruton argues that only human beings have duties and that “[t]he corollary is inescapable: we alone have rights.” [4] Critics holding this position argue that there is nothing inherently wrong with using animals for food, as entertainment, and in research, though human beings may nevertheless have an obligation to ensure they do not suffer unnecessarily (Frey 1980 and Scruton 1997). This position is generally called the animal-welfare position, and it is held by some of the oldest of the animal-protection agencies: for example, by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in the UK.


Animal liberation movement Animal rights is the concept that all or some animals are entitled to possess their own lives; that animals are deserving of, or already possess, certain moral rights; and that some basic rights for animals ought to be enshrined in law. The animal-rights view rejects the concept that animals are merely capital goods or property intended for the benefit of humans. The concept is often confused with animal welfare, which is the philosophy that takes cruelty towards animals and animal suffering into account, but that does not necessarily assign specific moral rights to them.

The animal-rights philosophy does not necessarily maintain that human and non-human animals are equal. For example, animal rights advocates do not call for voting rights for chickens. Some also would make a distinction between sentient or self-aware animals and other life forms, with the belief that only sentient animals, or perhaps only animals who have a significant degree of self-awareness, should be afforded the right to possess their own lives and bodies, without regard to how they are valued by humans. Others would extend this right to all animals, even those without developed nervous systems or self-consciousness. They maintain that any human or human institution that commodifies animals for the purposes of food, entertainment, cosmetics, clothing, scientific testing, or for any other reason, infringes upon their fundamental rights to possess themselves and to pursue their own ends.

Few people would deny that other great apes are highly intelligent animals who are aware of their own condition and goals, and can become frustrated when their freedoms are curtailed. In contrast, many other animals, like jellyfish, have only extremely simple nervous systems, and are little more than simple automata, capable only of simple reflexes but incapable of formulating any “ends to their actions” or “plans to pursue” them, and equally unable to notice whether they are in captivity or free. By the criteria that biologists use, jelly fish are undeniably animals, while from an animal-rights perspective, it is questionable whether they should not rather be considered “vegetables”. There is as yet no consensus with regard to which qualities make a living organism an animal in need of rights. The animal-rights debate (much like the abortion debate) is therefore marred by the difficulty that its proponents search for simple, clear-cut distinctions on which to base moral and political judgements, even though the biological realities of the problem present no hard and fast boundaries on which such distinctions could be based. Rather, the biological realities are full of complex and diverse gradients. From a neurobiological perspective, jellyfish, farmed chicken, laboratory mice, or pet cats would fall along different points on a (complex and high-dimensional) spectrum from the “nearly vegetable” to the “highly sentient”.

Animal rights in philosophyedit

Jean-Jacques Rousseau briefly alludes to the concept of animal rights in the preface of his Discourse on Inequality. He argues that man starts as an animal, though not one “devoid of intellect and freedom” like others; however, as animals are sensitive beings, “they too ought to participate in natural right, and that man is subject to some sort of duties toward them,” specifically “one [has] the right not to be uselessly mistreated by the other.”

Contemporaneous with Rousseau was the Scottish writer John Oswald (d. 1793). Oswald argued in “The Cry of Nature or an Appeal to Mercy and Justice on Behalf of the Persecuted Animals”, that man is naturally equipped with feelings of mercy and compassion. If each man had to personally experience the death of the animals he ate, so argued Oswald, a vegetarian diet would be far more common. The division of labor, however, allows modern man to eat flesh without experiencing the prompting of man’s natural sensitivities, while the brutalization of modern man made him inured to these sensitivities. Although Oswald gave compassion a central place in his philosophy, he was not a pacifist. Oswald was a radical republican and died in battle fighting in defence of the French Revolution.

One of the first philosophers to take animal liberation seriously was one of the founders of modern utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham, who wrote, speaking of the need to extend legal rights to animals: “The day may come when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been witholden from them but by the hand of tyranny.” Bentham also argued that an animal’s apparent lack of rationality ought not to be held against it insofar as morality is concerned:

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 more conversable animal, than an infant of a day or a week or even a month old. But suppose they were otherwise, what would it avail? The question is not, Can they reason?, nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? Why should the law refuse its protection to any sensitive being? The time will come when humanity will extend its mantle over everything which breathes … (Bentham, 1781)

Arthur Schopenhauer argued that animals have the same essence as humans, despite lacking the faculty of reason. Although he produced a utilitarian justification for eating animals, he argued for consideration to be given to animals in morality, and he opposed vivisection. His critique of Kantian ethics contained a lengthy and often furious polemic against the exclusion of animals in his moral system, which contained the famous line: “Cursed be any morality that does not see the essential unity in all eyes that see the sun.”

The concept of animal rights was the subject of an influential book — Animals’ Rights: Considered in Relation to Social Progress — by English social reformer Henry Salt in 1892. A year earlier, Salt had formed the Humanitarian League; its objectives included the banning of hunting as a sport.

In modern times, the idea of animal rights was re-introduced by S. and R. Godlovitch, and J. Harris, with their 1971 book Animals, Men and Morals. This was a collection of articles which restated the case for animal rights in a powerful and philosophically sophisticated way. It could justly be said that it was this work that reinvigorated the animal rights movement, and it inspired later philosophers to develop their ideas. It was, for example, in a review of this book, that the Australian philosopher Peter Singer, now Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics in the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University, first coined the term ‘animal liberation.’

Peter Singer and Tom Regan are the best-known proponents of animal liberation, though they differ in their philosophical approaches to the issue. Another influential thinker is Gary L. Francione, who presents an abolitionist view that non-human animals should have the basic right not to be treated as the property of humans. Activists Karen Davis of United Poultry Concerns, and Ingrid Newkirk of PETA have also presented philosophies of animal rights.

Although Singer is the ideological founder of today’s animal-rights movement, his approach to an animal’s moral status is not based on the concept of rights, but on the utilitarian principle of equal consideration of interests. His 1975 book Animal Liberation argues that humans grant moral consideration to other humans not on the basis of intelligence (in the instance of children, or the mentally disabled), on the ability to moralize (criminals and the insane), or on any other attribute that is inherently human, but rather on their ability to experience suffering. As animals also experience suffering, he argues, excluding animals from such consideration is a form of discrimination known as ‘speciesism’ — a term first coined by the British psychologist Richard D. Ryder.

Tom Regan (The Case for Animal Rights and Empty Cages), on the other side, claims that non-human animals as “subjects-of-a-life” are bearers of rights like humans, although not necessarily of the same degree. This means that animals in this class have “inherent value” as individuals, and cannot merely be considered as the means to an end. This is also called the “direct duty” view. According to Regan, we should abolish the breeding of animals for food, animal experimentation, and commercial hunting. Regan’s theory does not extend to all sentient animals but only to those that can be regarded as “subjects-of-a-life.” Regan argues that all normal mammals of at least one year of age would qualify in this regard.

While Singer is primarily concerned with improving the treatment of animals and accepts that, at least in some hypothetical scenarios, animals could be legitimately used for further (human or non-human) ends, Regan believes we ought to treat animals as we would persons, and he applies the strict Kantian idea that they ought never to be sacrificed as mere means to ends, and must be treated as ends unto themselves. Notably, Kant himself did not believe animals were subject to what he called the moral law; he believed we ought to show compassion, but primarily because not to do so brutalizes human beings, and not for the sake of animals themselves.

Despite these theoretical differences, both Singer and Regan agree about what to do in practice: for instance, they both agree that the adoption of a vegan diet and the abolition of nearly all forms of animal experimentation are ethically mandatory.

Gary Francione’s work (Introduction to Animal Rights, is based on the premise that if non-human animals are considered to be property then any rights that they may be granted would be directly undermined by that property status. He points out that a call to equally consider the ‘interests’ of your property against your own interests is absurd. Without the basic right not to be treated as the property of humans, non-human animals have no rights whatsoever, he says. Francione posits that sentience is the only valid determinant for moral standing, unlike Regan who sees qualitative degrees in the subjective experiences of his “subjects-of-a-life” based upon a loose determination of who falls within that category. Francione claims that there is no actual animal-rights movement in the United States, but only an animal-welfarist movement. In line with his philosophical position and his work in animal-rights law for the Animal Rights Law Project [5] at Rutgers University, he points out that any effort that does not advocate the abolition of the property status of animals is misguided, in that it inevitably results in the institutionalization of animal exploitation. It is logically inconsistent and doomed never to achieve its stated goal of improving the condition of animals, he argues. Francione holds that a society which regards dogs and cats as family members yet kills cows, chickens, and pigs for food exhibits what he calls “moral schizophrenia”.

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