#1 What is
all this Animal Rights (AR) stuff and why should it concern me?
#2 Is the Animal Rights movement different from the
Animal Welfare movement? The Animal Liberation movement?
#3 What exactly are rights and what rights can we give
#4 Isn't AR hypocritical, e.g., because you
don't give rights to insects or plants?
#5 What right do AR people have to impose their beliefs on
#6 Isn't AR just another facet of political correctness?
#7 Isn't AR just another religion?
#8 Doesn't it demean humans to give rights to animals?
#9 Weren't Hitler and Goebbels in favor of animal rights?
#10 Do you really believe that "a rat is a pig is a dog
is a boy"?
are the fundamental principles of the Animal Rights (AR) movement?
The fundamental principle
of the AR movement is that nonhuman animals deserve to live according to their own
natures, free from harm, abuse, and exploitation. This goes further than just saying that
we should treat animals well while we exploit them, or before we kill and eat them. It
says animals have the RIGHT to be free from human cruelty and exploitation, just as humans
possess this right. The withholding of this right from the nonhuman animals based on their
species membership is referred to as "speciesism".
Animal rights activists try to extend the human circle of respect and
compassion beyond our species to include other animals, who are also capable of feeling
pain, fear, hunger, thirst, loneliness, and kinship. When we try to do this, many of us
come to the conclusion that we can no longer support factory farming, vivisection, and the
exploitation of animals for entertainment. At the same time, there are still areas of
debate among animal rights supporters, for example, whether ANY research that harms
animals is ever justified, where the line should be drawn for enfranchising species with
rights, on what occasions civil disobedience may be appropriate, etc. However, these areas
of potential disagreement do not negate the abiding principles that join us: compassion
and concern for the pain and suffering of nonhumans.
One main goal of this FAQ is to address the common justifications that
arise when we become aware of how systematically our society abuses and exploits animals.
Such "justifications" help remove the burden from our consciences, but this FAQ
attempts to show that they do not excuse the harm we cause other animals. Beyond the scope
of this FAQ, more detailed arguments can be found in three classics of the AR literature.
The Case for Animal Rights, Tom Regan (ISBN 0-520-05460-1)
In Defense of Animals, Peter Singer (ISBN 0-06-097044-8)
Animal Liberation, Peter Singer (ISBN 0-380-71333-0, 2nd Ed.)
While appreciating the important contributions of Regan and Singer,
many animal rights activists emphasize the role of empathetic caring as the actual and
most appropriate fuel for the animal rights movement in contradistinction to Singer's and
Regan's philosophical rationales. To the reader who says "Why should I care?",
we can point out the following reasons:
One cares about minimizing suffering.
One cares about promoting compassion in human affairs.
One is concerned about improving the health of humanity.
One is concerned about human starvation and malnutrition.
One wants to prevent the radical disruption of our planet's ecosystem.
One wants to preserve animal species.
One wants to preserve wilderness.
The connections between these issues and the AR agenda may not be
obvious. Please read on as we attempt to clarify this. --DG
"The day may come when the rest of the animal creation may
acquire those rights which never could have been withholden from them but by the hand of
tyranny." --Jeremy Bentham (philosopher)
"Life is life--whether in a cat, or dog or man. There is no
difference there between a cat or a man. The idea of difference is a human conception for
man's own advantage..." --Sri Aurobindo (poet and philosopher)
"Non-violence leads to the highest ethics, which is the goal of
all evolution. Until we stop harming all other living beings, we are still savages."
"The time will come when men such as I will look upon the murder
of animals as they now look on the murder of men." --Leonardo Da Vinci
(artist and scientist)
SEE ALSO #2-#3, #26, #87-#91
Animal Rights vs. Animal Welfare
Animal Rights Versus Animal
Animal welfare theories accept that animals have
interests, but allow these interests to be traded away as long as there are some human
benefits that are thought to justify that sacrifice. Animal rights means that animals,
like humans, have interests that cannot be sacrificed or traded away simply because it
might benefit others. The rights position does not hold that rights are absolute; an
animal's rights, just like those of humans, must be limited, and rights can certainly
conflict. Animal rights means that animals are not ours to use for food, clothing,
entertainment, or to experiment on. Animal welfare allows these uses as long as humane
guidelines are followed.
The Animal Welfare movement
acknowledges the suffering of nonhumans and attempts to reduce that suffering through
"humane" treatment, but it does not have as a goal elimination of the use and
exploitation of animals. The Animal Rights movement goes significantly further by
rejecting the exploitation of animals and according them rights in that regard. A person
committed to animal welfare might be concerned that cows get enough space, proper food,
etc., but would not necessarily have any qualms about killing and eating cows, so long as
the rearing and slaughter are "humane".
The Animal Welfare movement is represented by such organizations as the
Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and the Humane Society.
Having said this, it should be realized that some hold a broader
interpretation of the AR movement. They would argue that the AW groups do, in fact,
support rights for animals (e.g., a dog has the right not to be kicked). Under this
interpretation, AR is viewed as a broad umbrella covering the AW and strict AR groups.
This interpretation has the advantage of moving AR closer to the mainstream. Nevertheless,
there is a valid distinction between the AW and AR groups, as described in the first
Animal Liberation (AL) is, for many people, a synonym for Animal Rights
(but see below). Some people prefer the term "liberation" because it brings to
mind images of other successful liberation movements, such as the movement for liberation
of slaves and liberation of women, whereas the term "rights" often encounters
resistance when an attempt is made to apply it to nonhumans. The phrase "Animal
Liberation" became popular with the publication of Peter Singer's classic book of the
This use of the term liberation should be distinguished from the
literal meaning discussed in question #88, i.e., an Animal Liberationist is not
necessarily one who engages in forceful civil disobedience or unlawful actions.
Finally, intellectual honesty compels us to acknowledge that the
account given here is rendered in broad strokes (but is at least approximately correct),
and purposely avoids describing ongoing debate about the meaning of the terms "Animal
Rights", "Animal Liberation", and "Animal Welfare", debate about
the history of these movements, and debate about the actual positions of the prominent
thinkers. To depict the flavor of such debates, the following text describes one coherent
position. Naturally, it will be attacked from all sides!
Some might suggest that a subtle distinction can be made between the
Animal Liberation and Animal Rights movements. The Animal Rights movement, at least as
propounded by Regan and his adherents, is said to require total abolition of such
practices as experimentation on animals. The Animal Liberation movement, as propounded by
Singer and his adherents, is said to reject the absolutist view and assert that in some
cases, such experimentation can be morally defensible. Because such cases could also
justify some experiments on humans, however, it is not clear that the distinction
described reflects a difference between the liberation and rights views, so much as it
does a broader difference of ethical theory, i.e., absolutism versus utilitarianism. --DG
Historically, animal welfare groups have attempted to improve the lot
of animals in society. They worked against the popular Western concept of animals as
lacking souls and not being at all worthy of any ethical consideration. The animal rights
movement set itself up as an abolitionist alternative to the reform-minded animal
welfarists. As the animal rights movement has become larger and more influential, the
animal exploiters have finally been forced to respond to it. Perhaps inspired by the
efforts of Tom Regan to distinguish AR from AW, industry groups intent on maintaining the
status quo have embraced the term "animal welfare". Pro-vivisection, hunting,
trapping, agribusiness, and animal entertainment groups now refer to themselves as
"animal welfare" supporters. Several umbrella groups whose goal is to defend
these practices have also arisen.
This classic case of public-relations doublespeak acknowledges the
issue of cruelty to animals in name only, while allowing for the continued use and abuse
of animals. The propaganda effect is to stigmatize animal rights supporters as being
extreme while attempting to portray themselves as the reasonable moderates. Nowadays, the
cause of "animal welfare" is invoked by the animal industry at least as often as
it is used by animal protection groups. --LJ
SEE ALSO: #1, #3, #87-#88
exactly are rights and what rights can we give animals?
Rights (whether moral or legal) serve to protect certain
basic interests from being traded away. If I have the right to liberty, that means my
interest in my freedom will be protected and not sacrificed merely because it would be in
the interests of others to ignore it. Animals don't always have the SAME rights as humans,
because their interests are not always the same as ours and some rights would be
irrelevant to animals' lives. For instance, a dog doesn't have an interest in voting and
therefore doesn't have the right to vote, since that right would be as meaningless to a
dog as it is to a child. Animals do, however, have the right to equal consideration of
their interests. For instance, a dog most certainly has an interest in not having pain
inflicted on him or her unnecessarily. We therefore are obliged to take that interest into
consideration and respect the dog's right not to have pain unnecessarily inflicted pain
upon him or her.
Animal rights means that animals deserve certain kinds of consideration --
consideration of what is in their own best interests regardless of whether they are cute,
useful to humans, or an endangered species, and regardless of whether any human cares
about them at all (just as a retarded human has rights even if he or she is not cute or
useful or even if everyone dislikes him or her). It means recognizing that animals are not
ours to use--for food, clothing, entertainment, or to experiment on.
Despite arguably being the foundation
of the Western liberal tradition, the concept of "rights" has been a source of
controversy and confusion in the debate over AR. A common objection to the notion that
animals have rights involves questioning the origin of those rights. One such argument
might proceed as follows:
Where do these rights come from? Are you in special communication with
God, and he has told you that animals have rights? Have the rights been granted by law?
Aren't rights something that humans must grant?
It is true that the concept of "rights" needs to be carefully
It is also true that the concept of "natural rights" is
fraught with philosophical difficulties. Complicating things further is the confusion
between legal rights and moral rights.
One attempt to avoid this objection is to accept it, but argue that if
it is not an obstacle for thinking of humans as having rights, then it should not be an
obstacle for thinking of animals as having rights. Henry Salt wrote: Have the lower
animals "rights?" Undoubtedly--if men have. That is the point I wish to make
evident in this opening chapter... The fitness of this nomenclature is disputed, but the
existence of some real principle of the kind can hardly be called in question; so that the
controversy concerning "rights" is little else than an academic battle over
words, which leads to no practical conclusion. I shall assume, therefore, that men are
possessed of "rights," in the sense of Herbert Spencer's definition; and if any
of my readers object to this qualified use of the term, I can only say that I shall be
perfectly willing to change the word as soon as a more appropriate one is forthcoming. The
immediate question that claims our attention is this--if men have rights, have animals
their rights also?
Satisfying though this argument may be, it still leaves us unable to
respond to the skeptic who disavows the notion of rights even for humans. Fortunately,
however, there is a straightforward interpretation of "rights" that is plausible
and allows us to avoid the controversial rights rhetoric and underpinnings. It is the
notion that a "right" is the flip side of a moral imperative. If, ethically, we
must refrain from an act performed on a being, then that being can be said to have a
"right" that the act not be performed. For example, if our ethics tells us that
we must not kill another, then the other has a right not to be killed by us. This
interpretation of rights is, in fact, an intuitive one that people both understand and
readily endorse. (Of course, rights so interpreted can be codified as legal rights through
It is important to realize that, although there is a basis for speaking
of animals as having rights, that does not imply or require that they possess all the
rights that humans possess, or even that humans possess all the rights that animals
possess. Consider the human right to vote. (On the view taken here, this would derive from
an ethical imperative to give humans influence over actions that influence their lives.)
Since animals lack the capacity to rationally consider actions and their implications, and
to understand the concept of democracy and voting, they lack the capacity to vote. There
is, therefore, no ethical imperative to allow them to do so, and thus they do not possess
the right to vote.
Similarly, some fowls have a strong biological need to extend and flap
their wings; right-thinking people feel an ethical imperative to make it possible for them
to do so. Thus, it can be said that fowl have the right to flap their wings. Obviously,
such a right need not be extended to humans.
The rights that animals and humans possess, then, are determined by
their interests and capacities. Animals have an interest in living, avoiding pain, and
even in pursuing happiness (as do humans). As a result of the ethical imperatives, they
have rights to these things (as do humans). They can exercise these rights by living their
lives free of exploitation and abuse at the hands of humans. --DG
SEE ALSO: #1-#2
#4 Isn't AR hypocritical, e.g., because you don't give rights to
insects or plants?
The general hypocrisy argument appears in many forms. A
typical form is as follows:
"It is hypocritical to assert rights for a cow but not for a
plant; therefore, cows cannot have rights."
Arguments of this type are frequently used against AR. Not much
analysis is required to see that they carry little weight. First, one can assert an
hypothesis A that would carry as a corollary hypothesis B. If one then fails to assert B,
one is hypocritical, but this does not necessarily make A false. Certainly, to assert A
and not B would call into question one's credibility, but it entails nothing about the
validity of A.
Second, the factual assertion of hypocrisy is often unwarranted. In the
above example, there are grounds for distinguishing between cows and plants (plants do not
have a central nervous system), so the charge of hypocrisy is unjustified. One may
disagree with the criteria, but assertion of such criteria nullifies the charge of
Finally, the charge of hypocrisy can be reduced in most cases to simple
speciesism. For example, the quote above can be recast as:
"It is hypocritical to assert rights for a human but not for a
plant; therefore, humans cannot have rights."
To escape from this reductio ad absurdum of the first quote, one must
produce a crucial relevant difference between cows and humans, in other words, one must
justify the speciesist assignment of rights to humans but not to cows. (In question #24,
we apply a similar reduction to the charge of hypocrisy related to abortion. For questions
dealing specifically with insects and plants, refer to questions #39 through #46.)
Finally, we must ask ourselves who the real hypocrites are. The
following quotation from Michael W. Fox describes the grossly hypocritical treatment of
exploited versus companion animals. --DG
"Farm animals can be kept five to a cage two feet square, tied up
constantly by a two-foot-long tether, castrated without anesthesia, or branded with a hot
iron. A pet owner would be no less than prosecuted for treating a companion animal in such
a manner; an American president was, in fact, morally censured merely for pulling the ears
of his two beagles." --Michael W. Fox (Vice President of HSUS)
SEE ALSO: #24, #39-#46
#5 What right do AR people have to impose their beliefs on others?
Just by saying that, you are telling me what I should
and shouldn't do! Everybody is entitled to their own opinions, but freedom of thought does
not always imply freedom of action. You are free to believe whatever you want as long as
you don't hurt others. You may think that animals should be killed, that black people
should be enslaved, or that women should be beaten, but that doesn't give you the right to
put your beliefs into practice. As for telling people what to do, society exists so that
there will be rules governing people's behavior. The very nature of reform movements is to
tell others what to do--don't use humans as slaves, don't beat your wife, etc.-- and all
movements initially encounter opposition from people who want to go right on doing the
There is a not-so-subtle distinction between imposition of
one's views and advertising them. AR supporters are certainly not imposing their views in
the sense that, say, the Spanish Inquisition imposed its views, or the Church imposed its
views on Galileo. We do, however, feel a moral duty to present our case to the public, and
often to our friends and acquaintances. There is ample precedent for this: protests
against slavery, protests against the Vietnam War, condemnation of racism, etc.
One might point out that the gravest imposition is that of the
exploiter of animals upon his innocent and defenseless victims. --DG
"If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell
people what they do not want to hear." --George Orwell (author)
"I never give them hell. I just tell the truth and they think it's
hell." --Harry S. Truman (33rd U.S. President)
SEE ALSO: #11, #87-#91
Isn't AR just another facet of political correctness?
If only that
were true! The term "politically correct" generally refers to a view that is in
sync with the societal mainstream but which some might be inclined to disagree with. For
example, some people might be inclined to dismiss equal treatment for the races as mere
"political correctness". The AR agenda is, currently, far from being a
Also, it is ridiculous to suppose that a view's validity can be
overturned simply by attaching the label "politically correct" or
"politically incorrect". --DG
Isn't AR just another religion?
dictionary defines "religion" as the appeal to a supernatural power. (An
alternate definition refers to devotion to a cause; that is a virtue that the AR movement
would be happy to avow.)
People who support Animal Rights come from many different religions and
many different philosophies. What they share is a belief in the importance of showing
compassion for other individuals, whether human or nonhuman. --LK
#8 Doesn't it
demean humans to give rights to animals?
A tongue-in-cheek, though valid,
answer to this question is given by David Cowles-Hamar:
"Humans are animals, so animal rights are human rights!"
In a more serious vein, we can observe that giving rights to women and
black people does not demean white males. By analogy, then, giving rights to nonhumans
does not demean humans. If anything, by being morally consistent, and widening the circle
of compassion to deserving nonhumans, we ennoble humans. (Refer to question #26 for other
relevant arguments.) --DG
"The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by
the way its animals are treated." --Mahatma Gandhi (statesman and
"It is man's sympathy with all creatures that first makes him
truly a man." --Albert Schweitzer (statesman, Nobel 1952)
"For as long as men massacre animals, they will kill each other.
Indeed, he who sows the seed of murder and pain cannot reap joy and love."
SEE ALSO: #26
Hitler and Goebbels in favor of animal rights?
is absurd and almost unworthy of serious consideration. The questioner implies that since
Hitler and Goebbels allegedly held views supportive of animal rights (e.g., Hitler was a
vegetarian for some time), the animal rights viewpoint must be wrong or dubious.
The problem for this argument is simple: bad people and good people can
both believe things correctly. Or put in another way, just because a person holds one bad
belief (e.g., Nazism), that doesn't make all his beliefs wrong. A few examples suffice to
illustrate this. The Nazis undertook smoking reduction campaigns. Is it therefore dubious
to discourage smoking? Early Americans withheld respect and liberty for black people. Does
that mean that they were wrong in giving respect and liberty to others?
Technically, this argument is an "ignoratio elenchus
fallacy", arguing from irrelevance.
Finally, many scholars are doubtful that Hitler and Goebbels supported
AR in any meaningful way. --DG
SEE ALSO: #54
#10 Do you really believe that "a rat is a pig is a dog is a
Taken alone and literally, this notion is absurd. However,
this quote has been shamelessly removed from its original context and misrepresented by AR
opponents. The original context of the quote is given below. Viewed within its context, it
is clear that the quote is neither remarkable nor absurd. --DG
"When it comes to having a central nervous system, and the ability
to feel pain, hunger, and thirst, a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy." --Ingrid
Newkirk (AR activist)
SEE ALSO: #47