AR Philosophy > Opinionatedly Yours

"Opinionatedly Yours"
#1: July 2, 1997
What Do We Mean by Animal Rights?
By Barry Kent MacKay

Variants of a question often heard include, "Is she animal rights?" or "Are they animal rights?" It is as if "animal rights" was an understood, more or less well defined state of being, rather like being tall, or Jewish, or highly educated, a snappy dresser, or bald.

I suggest the words "animal" and "rights" should be defined before considering their meaning when lumped together as the phrase, "animal rights." At the end of this essay you will find my definition, which I urge you to read even if you can not be bothered reading what precedes it. I say this because you may be impatient with wading through discussion, but I think that an acceptable short and simple definition is of great value in eliminating much of the misunderstanding that impedes progress in helping bring about "animal rights," however they are defined.

"Animal" can be difficult to define considering all living things. At the level of the virus, even "living" becomes something not entirely certain. Without involving ourselves with technical considerations and definitions, I would suggest that animals are living beings that are not plants. The distinction between plants and animals is not always entirely clear. Both react to their environs. Plants don't have central nervous systems, but neither do some animals. Plants can be assumed not to suffer pain as it is defined in humans as they lack the mechanisms by which to do so; animals' ability to suffer pain varies from species to species and from individual to individual. Regarding those animals with well developed nervous systems and complex responses we can safely assume pain can be felt, although that is something some people still choose to deny.

The dictionary says an animal is: "Any of a kingdom (Animalia) of living beings typically differing from plants in capacity for spontaneous movement and rapid motor response to stimulation." Although it is one I do not agree with, for future reference we might also note a second definition: "One of the lower animals as distinguished from man."

Plant is defined, in part, as: "any of a kingdom (Plantae) of living beings typically lacking locomotive movement or obvious nervous or sensory organs and possessing cellulose cell walls."

These are literary, not biological or legal, definitions. Some animals are immobile through their adult lives (although having mobile earlier stages, a barnacle would be one example) while some plants can move quickly in response to stimuli (for example, the Venus flytrap's ability to survive depends on it being able to move faster than the animal it entraps upon receipt of appropriate stimulus). However, for practical purposes these definitions will do.

The same dictionary defines "rights" as "with reason or justice: properly -- in one's own right: by virtue of one's own qualifications or properties." Perhaps more helpfully, "right" is defined, in part, as "1: qualities (as adherence to duty or obedience to lawful authority) that together constitute the ideal of moral propriety or merit moral approval. 2: something to which one has a just claim: as (a:) the power or privilege to which one is justly entitled ..."

For a legal definition we turn to Black's Law Dictionary (5th edition, 1979) and read:

Right: As a noun, and taken in an abstract sense, means justice, ethical correctness, or consonance with the rules of law or the principles of morals. In this signification it answers to one meaning of the Latin "jus," and serves to indicate a law in the abstract, considered as the foundations of all rights, or the complex of underlying moral principles which impart the character of justice to all positive law, or give it an ethical content. As a noun, and taken in a concrete sense, a power, privilege, faculty, or demand, inherent in one person and incident upon another. Rights are defined generally as "powers of free action." And the primal rights pertaining to men are enjoyed by human beings purely as such, being grounded in personality, and existing antecedently to their recognition by positive law. But leaving the abstract moral sphere, and giving to the term a juristic content, a "right" is well defined as "a capacity residing in one man of controlling, with the assent and assistance of the state, the actions of others."

Thus for a right to be established, controls on human behavior must be enacted. Although animals are precluded from this working definition, if there is a "complex of underlying moral principles which impart the character of justice to all positive law, or give it an ethical content," then the question asked by the animal rights movement is: Why should those moral principles not apply to animals? Reasons given (including lack of reciprocity) fail when applied to humans, leading to the conclusion that the dichotomy derives entirely from bias not different in kind from that which has so often denied "rights" to certain groups of humans.

Whole books and university courses have been dedicated to the question of whether or not "animals" should (or already do) have "rights." Most of us supporting the concept of animal rights (usually without defining what it means) would, I trust, agree that either some or most animals possess "qualifications or properties" that justify "moral approval."

The dictionary definition implies that one must be able to respect a right in order to be able to be the subject of one. Animals generally lack the ability to respect or acknowledge a right, the argument goes, and thus cannot posses a similar right.

The animal rights philosophers dismiss that concern by pointing to society's willingness (albeit an often hard-won willingness within the historical context) to allow some basic rights to humans who cannot reciprocate the "rights" they "should" have. A comatose person or a mentally retarded person may be less a "moral agent" than a chimpanzee, but will nevertheless have "rights" the chimpanzee lacks, as such rights are identified for most people and established by law.

In many societies I'm afraid we tend to take such rights for humans for granted. As an aside, in my opinion we ought never presume such rights. These rights are often hard won and easily lost. Too often, even in well enlightened and regulated societies those rights don't exist at all.

Or do they? It seems to me that there is an assumption within the animal rights movement that such rights are inherent, for people and for animals. They may be violated with or without impunity, but they do exist.

I once held essentially that view; that certain rights were inherent to both animals and people. And I still hold the view that people are animals, as defined biologically, if not necessarily socially or traditionally.

What changed my mind about the concept of rights being inherent was the sheer unworkableness of the concept. If rights were inherent, the recognition of them became a moral responsibility for those of us who can be considered moral agents. That means people, and only people, are capable of recognizing rights.

That was not a problem for me as far as people were concerned, but if an animal has a right not to be killed, than all killers of animals ... robins with their worms; starfish with their clams; wolves with their deer, and so on ... are innocent and unknowing violators of the rights of such things as worms, clams and deer. The problem was that one set of rights (for example, the right of an animal not to be killed) could interfere with another right (for example, the right to kill an animal ... a right that is a deeply held concept and absolute need of some people -- acting as moral agents -- as well as many animals, such as the predators I named). The paradox is what defeats the concept for me, personally.

With the concept of rights being inherent, what one group of people found to be morally imperative -- the allocation of a right not to be killed -- became immoral to another group of people, such as farmers dependent upon the killing of animals for their livelihood. Indeed, this has led to much hostility directed from the animal rights movement toward the very society whose conversion to agreement on the concept is essential if "animal rights" are ever to be significantly established -- another paradox. Fortunately such hostility is by no means universal within the animal rights movement.

Many people live in regions where survival depends on some killing of animals (and even people in extreme instances -- remembering that most, perhaps all, societies do not hold the human right not to be killed by another human as inviolate.)

What does all this mean?

Animal rights supporters can (and do) endlessly debate such concepts. They can (and do) endlessly fight for "rights," too often with contempt for anyone who does not see such fundamental rights as the right not to be killed as absolute and inherent for "all" animals. Animal rights are compared to human rights that have been won against subjective bias. Such subjective bias is perceived as the chief impediment to our ability to win rights for animals.

But that brings us back the question of what we mean by rights as they apply to animals.

As a pragmatist working to establish actual and effective rights for animals I find that the concept of inherent rights is meaningless, and, to the degree that it isolates humans (as the only species capable of recognizing rights) from other animals, or gives rise to antagonistic polarization, the concept is rather unhelpful. If humans really are fundamentally different from animals (as opposed to being different in matters of degree) then by recognizing rights as something inherent that only humans can recognize we create a two-tier system of moral responsibility, one for other humans and one for all other species. That produces another paradox if you realize that it is the very differences that are believed to exist between humans and animals as something fundamental that serve, in the minds of so many, to justify the dominance of humans over animals.

But my rejection of the concept of rights as something absolute and inherent does not mean that rights cannot be established. On the contrary, if we are to succeed in helping animals, the rights of those animals must be established. By that I mean that a right must be established, either as a law or a custom. And that law must be enforced; that custom must be enacted, or else neither has any use to the animals.

Just as we may say that a woman has the "right" to pay equal to that given to a man doing equal work; or that a black child has the same "right" to an education of equal standard as a child of any other color, so are such "inherent" rights of no value unless they are established by law and the law enforced.

Thus, my simple definition of animal rights is: "A right that is established in law or custom that is adequately enforced or adhered to." No other rights matter for humans or animals than those that are adhered to by the society in which they occur.

In a future edition of "Opinionatedly Yours" I will explore how and why this definition works.