Animal Rights

Animal rights is a philosophical concept in bioethics that considers animals other than the human species as bearers of rights. This means that animals should have their basic interests taken into consideration which would require humans to avoid animal exploitation in activities such as medical experimentation as well as food and clothing production. The fundamental bioethical question regarding animal rights is whether animals do have rights, and if so, what are those rights.

The philosophy of animal rights has given rise to a socio-political and even a legal movement. For example, some countries have passed legislation awarding recognition of animal rights. In 2002, Germany recognized animals as right-bearers in their constitution (Gross 2002). Also, the Seattle-based Great Ape Project,”Great Ape Project.” founded by philosophers Paola Cavalieri and Peter Singer, currently campaigns for the United Nations to adopt a Declaration on Great Apes,”Declaration on Great Apes.” which would see gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees and bonobos included in a “community of equals” with human beings, extending to them the protection of three basic interests: the right to life, the protection of individual liberty, and the prohibition of torture (Singer 1994).

The animals rights movement has spawned terrorist groups such as the Animal Liberation Front that have used intimidation, violence and even murder to try to stop animal experimentation and farming.

Animal rights is fundamentally a philosophical debate because the concept of a right is a moral concept and so belongs to ethics. There are many problems with the concept of rights, and the attribution of them to animals can appear arbitrary and lead to unreasonable conclusions.

Up until recently the discussion of animal rights has ignored the religious perspective. However religious philosophers have discussed the place of animals for thousands of years. There are a variety of religious perspectives on the question of animal rights. Jains as well as being strict vegetarians also try to avoid causing any suffering, even if accidental, to all living things. While not using the language of rights, there are Biblical discourses and theological teachings which promote respect for all sentient beings while also distinguishing the relative positions of human beings and animals in terms of the purposes of God.

See also: Animal ConsciousnessAnimal Welfare and Pain in Animals

Hunting is not sport

Hunting is not sport

History of the concept

Main article: History of animal rights

The oldest and most influential extant account of the rights of animals occurs in the Jewish Torah. In Genesis human beings are given dominion over animals (Gen. 1:28) and are expected to name them and care for them (Gen. 2:15). Initially people were expected to be vegetarian but after the time of Noah they were allowed, with certain conditions, to eat animals. It is written (Genesis 1:29-30):

“Behold I have given you every herb … and all trees … to be your meat, and to all beasts of the earth”: and again (Genesis 9:3): “Everything that moveth and liveth shall be meat to you.”

In the Torah animals can be used for legitimate purposes: they can be eaten and their hides used for clothing. However they should not be caused unnecessary suffering. Kosher slaughter is designed to be as fast and painless as possible. Hunting for sport is prohibited and the two best known hunters in the Bible – Nimrod and Esau – are depicted as villains. Biblical heroes such as Jacob, Moses and David were all shepherds who cared for their flocks. Rabbinic writings and Christian school texts praise Noah for his exemplary care of animals (Tanhuma, Noah 15a).

Under Jewish law animals share certain rights with human beings – they have to rest on the Sabbath. Indeed the rules of the Sabbath are to be relaxed to rescue an animal which is in pain or at risk of death. There are other rules which show a concern for the physical and psychological suffering of animals. A person is required to relieve an animal’s burden if it is not his own and a mother bird should be sent away before taking its eggs so as not to cause distress. The Talmud dictates that a person may not buy an animal unless he can provide for it and furthermore a person should feed his animals and pets before he feeds himself. All these rules stress the importance of looking after animals and treating them with great respect and sensitivity. Still, human beings as children of God, created in the image of God, are more valuable than animals. So although animals have rights, in the Biblical tradition they do not have equality of rights with people as there is an ontological distinction between human beings and animals. The rights animals could be said to have are not abstract but quite specific and derived from the laws that govern their treatment. Jews promote respect for animals as part of the Noahide Laws which they say are a universal code.

Christianity did not inherit this respect for animals and for many centuries animals were treated very cruelly in blood sports such as cockfighting and dog fighting and the hunting for pleasure which has decimated wild animals in Africa and North America. It wasn’t until the eighteenth century that sensitivity for the feelings of animals reappeared in the West. When it did it owed more to the rationalist tradition.

Greek and Roman

Some ancient Greek philosophers, such as Empedocles (495-435 B.C.E.)—the creator of the doctrine that everything is composed of earth, air, fire, or water (Parry 2005)—and Eudoxus of Cnidus (395-337 B.C.E.)—a student of Plato (429-347 B.C.E.) and the first Greek to mathematize planetary orbits—argued for vegetarianism as a dietary restriction due to strong beliefs in the reincarnation of human souls into animals after mortal death. In fact, Porphyry (243-305 C.E.)—a neo-Platonist philosopher from Phoenicia—has a record of Dicaearchus (350-285 B.C.E.)—a student of Aristotle (384-322 B.C.E.)—saying the following about Eudoxus, “he not only abstained from animal food but would also not come near butchers and hunters” (Huffman 2006).

One might suspect Pythagoras (570-490 B.C.E.)—an Ancient Greek philosopher and discoverer of the Pythagorean theorem—urged respect for animals because he also believed in a human reincarnation similar to Empedocles and Eudoxus. However, according to Aristotle, “the Pythagoreans refrain from eating the womb and the heart, the sea anemone and some other such things but use all other animal food” (Huffman 2006). The latter suggests that Pythagoras forbade eating certain parts of animals and certain species of animals, which was consistent with contemporaneous Greek religious rituals instead of a vegetarian philosophy (Huffman 2006).

Interest in animal rights reappeared in Europe under the guise of the Enlightenment which sought to construct ethics on a rational non religious foundation. In the seventeenth century, the French philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650) argued that animals had no minds due to “the failure of animals to use language conversationally or reason generally” (Allen 2006). Furthermore, given Descartes’s ethics in his seminal moral work The Passions of the Soul, only conscious beings are moral agents since moral actions arise from passions that dispose one’s mind to will specific actions (Rutherford 2003). Since passions are “perceptions, sensations or emotions of the [mind]” according to Descartes (1984), not only are animals not moral agents, but they are not even equipped with the precursor motivational states for moral action. Thus animals would not have equal moral status with human beings under Descartes’s ethics, although all human beings would have equal moral status, which was quite progressive for the time period.

Eighteenth century

By the eighteenth century, philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) were developing philosophical arguments that made animals right-bearers even if animals could not be moral agents. The following excerpt from the preface of Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin of Inequality expresses his deep commitment to animal rights:

By this method also we put an end to the time-honored disputes concerning the participation of animals in natural law: for it is clear that, being destitute of intelligence and liberty, they cannot recognise that law; as they partake, however, in some measure of our nature, in consequence of the sensibility with which they are endowed, they ought to partake of natural right; so that mankind is subjected to a kind of obligation even toward the brutes. It appears, in fact, that if I am bound to do no injury to my fellow-creatures, this is less because they are rational than because they are sentient beings: and this quality, being common both to men and beasts, ought to entitle the latter at least to the privilege of not being wantonly ill-treated by the former (Rousseau 1754).

German philosopher Immanuel Kant

German philosopher Immanuel Kant

However, by the late eighteenth century, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) developed a very influential deontological ethics, now known as Kantian ethics, that categorized animals as mere things and instruments for rational agents. Even though humans have an indirect duty under Kantian ethics to not partake in animal cruelty—since it can harden our dealings with humans—animals do not have a right to equal moral respect with rational agents such as human beings due to a lack of free will and dignity (Kant 2002).

But also in the late eighteenth century, a new ethical system known as utilitarianism was being developed under the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). In his seminal moral work, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation in 1789, Bentham challenged Kant’s contemporaneous ethics insofar as it expanded the moral community to include sentient agents in addition to rational agents (Bentham 1789). Thus under Bentham’s utilitarian ethics, humans come to have duties toward animals insofar as they are also sentient beings and deserve equal consideration in moral deliberations.

The animal rights debate among philosophers diminished during the early twentieth century due to the philosophical difficulties in defending utilitarianism. For example, when early twentieth century academic philosophy took a linguistic turn and focused on analyzing language, the subfield of metaethics was born. However, one preeminent metaethicist, George Edward Moore (1873-1958), argued that utilitarianism harbored a fatal flaw since it committed a fallacy of reasoning that Moore referred to as the naturalistic fallacy. It was not until a new semantic theory of reference was developed in the early 1970s along with a more robust form of utilitarianism known as preference utilitarianism—developed under the British philosopher Richard Hare (1919-2002)—that the animal rights debate had a chance to resurface under a utilitarian defense.

During the mid-1970s when bioethics arose as a distinct subfield in academic philosophy, philosophers began to appreciate the importance of considering specific and practical moral dilemmas concerning biology. The pioneer of this applied ethics approach with respect to animal rights was undoubtedly the Australian philosopher Peter Singer (1946-present), who—as a former student of Richard Hare—was quick to use preference utilitarianism to construct original ethical arguments for animal rights.

Singer’s fundamental arguments are found in his seminal animal rights book in 1975, Animal Liberation. There he uses a concept from Oxford psychologist Richard Ryder, known as “speciesism” to articulate a discrimination argument against not acknowledging animal rights, utilizing analogies to the American Suffrage and Civil Rights movements to emphasize his point. Singer (1975) also articulates what animal rights should amount to under a preference utilitarian ethics in order to remove various stereotypes about what animal rights are. From there, some philosophers—such as Tom Regan (1983) and James Rachels (1990)—have developed supporting arguments for Singer’s original plea for animal rights, while other philosophers—such as Carl Cohen (1997)—have developed counterarguments against animal rights.

Philosophical Arguments: Pro and Con

For animal rights

The utilitarian approach

animal abuse

animal abuse

Perhaps the most famous contemporary philosophical argument for animal rights is the one Peter Singer presents in Animal Liberation. In a chapter entitled “All Animals Are Equal,” Singer argues that the principle of equality demands equal consideration of morally relevant interests to each and every being that possesses such interests. Since from the viewpoint of preference utilitarianism, sentience counts as a morally relevant interest and because animals other than humans possess sentience, it follows that the principle of equality should apply to animals as well as humans.

Furthermore, not giving animals equal consideration with respect to sentient interests qualifies as a unique form of discrimination known as “speciesism,” and is no different from racism or sexism (Singer 1975). Finally, Singer presents a controversial “rule of thumb” for how humans ought to treat animals. We ought to treat an animal the same way we would normally treat an infant with irreversible brain damage since both have the same moral status under preference utilitarianism. In this way, Singer arrives at a moral basis for vegetarianism as well as a prohibition against certain sorts of animal experimentation.

Using the principle of equality in this way has radical implications and raises problematic questions: Is there any moral difference between killing a human being and killing a cow or a rat? If not should rat killers be prosecuted for murder? Should cannibalism be allowed? Should crocodiles be prosecuted for violating the right to life of impalas? If one was driving a car and had a child and a dog ran into the road is there any reason for swerving to avoid the child if that resulted in running over the dog?

Peter Singer’s work has given rise to the Animal Rights Movement which campaigns for equal rights for animals. This has a violent section such as the Animal Liberation Front which uses intimidation, violence and even murder to advance its cause. Scientists who use animals in experiments have been targeted as well as their families and any other people associated with such laboratories. Mink farms have been attacked and the mink ‘liberated’ with devastating effect on the local wildlife.

The rights-based approach

Despite Singer’s clever utilitarian argument, Tom Regan (1997) claims that Singer does not go far enough. Regan (1997, 107) distinguishes between “animal welfare” and “animal rights.” He claims that utilitarianism does not guarantee animal rights—and rather requires animal welfare—because all that is morally imperative under any version of utilitarianism is a maximization of one or other intrinsic goods—such as pleasure or preferences. But then this minimal constraint makes it permissible to violate someone’s so-called rights if the negative consequences of such an act do not outweigh the positive consequences.

In fact, Regan (1997, 106) constructs a thought experiment to show how it would be permissible under utilitarianism for four teenage boys to sexually abuse a “seriously retarded teenage girl.” This prompts Regan (1997, 106) to conclude that “utilitarianism is…a fundamentally mistaken way to think about morality.”

Instead, Regan begins with the moral truism that humans have rights. Then he searches for some characteristic about humans that makes it the case that humans have rights. Regan (1997, 109) denies that Kant’s (2002) criterion of being a “rational autonomous” agent is what gives all humans rights because it does not account for the right the four boys infringed upon when sexually abusing the mentally handicapped girl in the thought experiment. Rather, Regan claims that sentience is what accounts for the mentally handicapped girl’s right not to be sexually abused. Furthermore, since sentience is a basis for human rights, it is a basis for rights for all sentient beings. Hence all sentient beings (which includes sentient animals) have a right not to be used as instruments if it causes them pain or suffering. Thus according to Regan, not just vegetarianism but veganism is a moral requirement, and not just some, but all animal research is morally impermissible.

But should such an ethic be applied to carnivors? Would it be ethical to exterminate carnivors to prevent them from harming other sentient beings that are herbivors.

Against animal rights

The most well known philosophical critic of animal rights is Carl Cohen. Cohen claims to have developed a conception of rights that restricts rights to moral agents such as human beings. According to Cohen (1997, 91), rights are “potential claims” that can be made against a target. Furthermore, since rights are claims, giving something a right that cannot possibly make a claim is what Cohen (1997, 98) calls a “category mistake.” Category mistakes are errors of attribution due to confusion about the type of thing that can have the attribute. So asking whether animals have rights is analogous to asking whether cells eat. Since eating is a complex activity that only multicellular organisms can perform, it does not make sense to ask whether cells can eat anymore than it makes sense to ask whether humans can phagocytize.

Cohen (1997, 94) attributes the confusion about animal rights to another confusion involving the relationship between rights and obligations. Cohen claims that animal rights enthusiasts have confused themselves into such a position due to a conflation between rights and obligations. As stated before, rights are potential claims one can make against someone else, whereas obligations are duties one has toward others (or even oneself). Thus rights entail obligations, but obligations do not entail rights.

For example, a person born within the U.S. has a right to U.S. citizenship due to the 14th amendment, and so the U.S. government has an obligation to ensure that no person’s right to U.S. citizenship is violated. In contrast, suppose a parent imposes on herself an obligation to pay her child’s college tuition. The latter does not mean that her child has a right to have her parent pay her college tuition. Hence rights entail obligations, but obligations do not entail rights. Cohen (1997, 94) argues that the obligations humans have toward animals (e.g., to ensure animal welfare) have confused animal rights enthusiasts into thinking that animals somehow have a right to human obligations.

The challenge that remains is to explain how all humans and no animals have rights. For instance, how do human infants and mentally handicapped people deserve rights, since neither group possesses an ability to make claims. Cohen’s (2001, 283) first answer to this challenge is to cite human infants’ potential for making claims. In other words, human infants can have rights because they have a realizable capability for making claims. Cohen’s second and more infamous answer to this challenge concerns how to explain rights for mentally handicapped people. Cohen’s (2001, 283) reply is that mentally handicapped people are members of a kind of being that have a capability for making claims, namely, human beings. Thus mentally handicapped people should be part of the same moral community as other humans and should receive similar rights. In this way, Cohen (2001) separates speciesism as justified differential treatment and different in kind from racism and sexism. Hence Cohen’s (2001, 284) infamous declaration: “I am a speciesist. Speciesism is not merely plausible; it is essential for right conduct.”

The middle position

Not all philosophers adopt extreme views such as Regan’s or Cohen’s. In fact, one philosopher, Edwin Hettinger (2001) argues for a moderate position similar to Singer’s but without a basis in utilitarian ethics. First, Hettinger (2001, 290) rejects Cohen’s defense of speciesism. Hettinger calls differential treatment based on membership of a kind instead of individual characteristics as the defining feature of discrimination. Thus speciesism is one and the same kind of treatment as racism and sexism and should not be practiced.

Second, Hettinger adopts Singer’s principle of equality under a rights-based interpretation instead of a utilitarian one. So only after equal moral consideration has been achieved should we use a cost/benefit analysis of animal use.

Hettinger (2001, 289-291) claims that equal consideration of morally relevant factors includes a consideration of capabilities to value or plan for one’s future life, exercise free choice or moral agency, and to experience pain or suffering. Thus extending equal moral consideration to animals should significantly reduce animal use in all aspects of human life—such as scientific experimentation as well as food and clothing production—although it would not prohibit animal use.

Unfortunately, this moral stance also extends to comatose, mentally handicapped, and infant humans and leads us into the utilitarian dilemma. Thus as long as there are borderline cases among humans and animals, the animal rights debate will continue to flourish. Nevertheless, philosophers have reached a consensus about at least ensuring animal welfare during our institutional uses of animals.

A teleological perspective

The Abrahamic religions analyze the relationship between human beings and animals and their respective rights through the prism of the purpose for which God created them. Everything can be thought of as having an individual purpose to grow, flourish and reproduce. At the same time it can be thought of as having another purpose to serve and support other beings. So everything can be thought of as interconnected in a hierarchy of relationships that has been described as a great chain of being. This is the philosophical basis of the modern science of ecology. Thus minerals are elevated to a higher level of existence when they are absorbed by and become part of living organisms such as plants. Plants in their turn are elevated when they are eaten by and become part of an animal. The Abrahamic religions regard human beings as the pinnacle of God’s creation. Jews and Christians regard people as God’s children for whom God created the natural world. The first people – Adam and Eve – were told to name the animals signifying that they belonged to them. For Muslims, people are God’s Kalifahs or vice-regents on earth with responsibility for taking care of the natural world. In the New Testament the creation is described as ‘groaning in travail waiting the revealing of the true sons of God’. (Romans 8:19)

Thomas Aquinas developed this argument supplementing it with insights from Aristotle:

There is no sin in using a thing for the purpose for which it is. Now the order of things is such that the imperfect are for the perfect, even as in the process of generation nature proceeds from imperfection to perfection. Hence it is that just as in the generation of a man there is first a living thing, then an animal, and lastly a man, so too things, like the plants, which merely have life, are all alike for animals, and all animals are for man. Wherefore it is not unlawful if man use plants for the good of animals, and animals for the good of man, as the Philosopher states (Politics. i, 3).

Likewise in the Zohar of the Jewish mystical tradition describes the purpose of all living things as completed by humans, through whom their powers can be used to praise the almighty God:

When God created the world, He endowed the earth with all the energy requisite for it, but it did not bring forth produce until man appeared. When, however, man was created, all the products that were latent in the earth appeared above ground… So it is written, “All the plants of the earth were not yet on the earth, and the herbs of the field had not yet sprung up, for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was not a man to till the ground.” (Gen. 2.5)… When, however, man appeared, forthwith “all the flowers appeared on the earth,” all its latent powers being revealed; “the time of song has come,” (Song of Songs 2:12) the earth being now ripe to offer praises to the Almighty, which it could not do before man was created. (Zohar, Gen. 97a)

A Godly person would love the natural world and feel at one with it and it would respond in kind. An example of such a person was Francis of Assisi about whom there are many stories of the way he interacted with animals. So when such a Godly person eats one can imagine the animals and plants rejoicing as they are eaten as they are becoming part of a higher form of life and thus fulfilling the purpose for which God created them. The important point here is that the natural world longs to be appreciated and treated with respect and not exploited or mistreated. For example in some cultures where the people are very close to nature it is customary for hunters to offer a prayer of thanks to an animal they have killed for food.


One critical issue that divides people regarding animal rights is whether the criterion for animal rights is sentience or moral agency. Those who support animal rights say that animals deserve their rights because they are sentient just like humans are. This is questionable as there is a spectrum of sentience across the animal world from amoebas to humans. Those who don’t support animal rights maintain that animals don’t deserve their rights as they lack moral agency which only humans have. But why should only moral agents be deserving of rights?

A challenging question to animal rights supporters would be: Why do they give rights only to animals and not to plants as well, because it is possible for plants also to be sentient? People such as Cleve Backster and Christopher O. Bird have strongly argued for plants’ sentience based on experimentation, although this argument has also been questioned by skeptics. (The Skeptic’s Dictionary) “Plant Perception.” Albert Schweitzer’s philosophy of “reverence for life” would not deny plants some kind of sentience. If plants could have rights because of their sentience, it could be said that vegetarians violate plant rights.

Some even say that minerals also have their way of being sentient, and animism, panpsychism, and religions such as Buddhism would support this. If so, animal rights supporters could also be asked why they don’t give rights to minerals also. According to Alfred North Whitehead, all actual occasions at all levels in the world are each composite of mental and physical poles, thus being able to “feel” mentally and physically. The well-accepted philosophy of Aristotle, which maintains that every substantial being, whether, it is a human, an animal, a plant, or a mineral, is composite of “form” and “matter” (hylomorphism), is similar to Whitehead’s doctrine of the dipolarity of reality, although Aristotle may not explicitly attribute sentience to minerals. According to Whitehead, the problem is the “bifurcation of nature,” which dissociates “matter” from “form,” as in the dualism of Descartes and modern scientism, thus defeating the hylomorphism of Aristotle. (Whitehead, 30).

The above points would be a challenge also to those who deny animal rights because they believe that only humans, who are moral agents, deserve rights which are called human rights. It appears that the language of rights is inadequate to provide a satisfactory, reasonable and workable account of the relationship between human beings and other forms of life.

Perhaps, humans are obliged to love and care for all things, not abusing them, whether they are animals, plants, or minerals. This ecological and environmental issue, related to our attitude of love towards all things, seems to be a much bigger and broader issue than just giving them “rights” or just refraining from eating animals or plants.

See Also

Adapted from New World Encyclopedia 

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