This paper will discuss the question whether animals have rights or not. It will do so by first addressing the geographies of distinction between humans and animals, and the points at which they intersect. Using this understanding, it will develop an evaluation of the ethical need for animal rights. It will then review standpoints arguing both for and against this proposition, before offering its conclusion that society’s need for formulating a degree of anima; rights is inescapable.
Wolch et al. (2003) outline the emergence of the animal geographies in the diagram attached, noting how the development of social theory, cultural studies and environmental studies led to a rethinking of culture, subjectivity and nature respectively. These changes in human geography, and its intersection with new cultural geography led to the development of what we understand as animal geographies.
Different scholars have approached this concept from several different manners. Wolch et al (2002) have written how these developments led to “geographers from various intellectual traditions—political economy, post-structuralism, feminism, and science studies—arguing for animal subjectivity and the need to unpack the “black box” of Nature to enliven understandings of the world. In particular, the focus was animals’ role in the social construction of culture and individual human subjects, the nature of animal subjectivity, and agency itself.”
Therefore, the concept of animal geographies, and treating animals as subjects, flows from two premises – the scientific information regarding the behaviour of animals, and from treating them as groups that have been socially created as outsiders, minorities or subalterns. (Wolch et al. 2003)
Elder et al. (1998) stress the dangers of terms like ”dehumanization” which can lead to the assumption that non-humans (i.e: animals) are therefore inferior and should be treated such. They make the disclaimer however that it is dangerous to omit the acknowledgement of the existence of a difference between humans and animals as to deny a problem leads to inability to recognise, accept and solve it.
“Rather, in our view, stopping the violence requires adopting recipes for le pratique sauvage ‘wild practice’ and extending them to embrace animals as well as people.” (Elder et al. 1998.)
Birke (1995) summarises this position when she writes that
“We need to find ways of expressing concern about what happens to the (suffering) animals that do not express some kind of cultural imperialism.”
Other thinkers have also developed this idea of the suffering faced by animals leading to an application of ethics towards them. Jones (2000) for example claims that every encounter between humans and animals represents a question of ethics with regards to what sort of behaviour is undertaken. In much the same vein, Beauchamp (1997) writes that
“Animals have moral standing; that is, they have properties (including the ability to feel pain) that qualify them for the protections of morality. It follows from this that humans have moral obligations toward animals, and because rights are logically correlative to obligations, animals have rights. ”
In fact, it can be argued that scholars have gone to great lengths to radically question the very distinction between animals and humans. Authors such as Whatmore and Thorne (1998) have used Actor Network Theory to argue that there is no inherent difference between humans and nonhumans, and furthermore that the distinctions between humans and animals are subject to both negotiation and even change. They use this inference to argue for animal agency in the consideration of their behaviours.
Scholars like Patterson (2002) have taken historical cases of institutionalized violence within human societies and argued that their development and implementation has been preceded by the institutionalized violence against animals in the form of farming and rearing for human consumption. He writes that “once animals were ‘domesticated,’ herdsmen and farmers adopted mechanisms of detachment, rationalization, denial and euphemism to distance themselves emotionally from their captive…in slave societies, the same practices used to control animals were used to control slaves ? castration, branding whipping, chaining, ear cropping.”
Wadiwel (2004) coalesces this argument to explain that “Understood in this fashion, human violence represents not only a capacity for dehumanisation alone, but is tied closely to the justification of violence against the non-human. This reflects not only the capacity for humans to harm each other, but draws attention to the sustained incarceration, torture and violence that is directed towards animals in slaughterhouses, experimental laboratories and factory farms.”
Patterson (2002) goes on to cite examples of how the Armenians being shuttled to genocide by Ottoman Turks and the Jews being taken to concentration camps by Germans were both referred to by their captors by animal terms. Moreover, he provides the example of an attack dog used at a concentration camp that was referred to by a human name. He correlates these ideas to argue the volatility of the idea of ‘human’ as a category.
However, not all scholars have embraced this increasing blurriness between the boundaries of humans and animals. Agamben (2004) argues that
“it is more urgent to work on these divisions, to ask in what way ? within man ? has man been separated from non-man, and the animal from the human, than it is to take positions on the great issues, on so called human rights and values.”
He goes on to employ the work of Heidegger to explain the distinction he believes is inherent between humans and animals. He posits that Heidegger believed that animals maintain a sense of “captivation with their discrete environmental elements.” In this situation, the animal cannot conceptualize the act of being, which is distinctly reserved for Heidegger’s concept of the ‘Daesin.’ In contrast, humans are distinct in their ability to locate themselves in their surroundings without requiring any input or cues from their environment. He gives the example of how one would flip through a magazine while waiting for a train – an act that does not involve engagement with the environment, but rather attempts to block out the surroundings. According to Agamben (2004) this “Dasein is simply an animal that has learned to become bored; it has awakened from its captivation to its own captivation.”
Wadiwel (2004) articulates Agamben’s position by writing that “For Agamben the animal is found within the very core of humanity, and thus, the human subject is only achieved through the continual rearticulation of a space beyond animal.”
This idea is similar to those developed by classical scholars, such as Aristotle (1952) who famously proclaimed “Man is by nature a rational animal,” a statement that simultaneously places humans as distinct from animals as well as acknowledging that both categories emerge from a shared conceptual space.
However, there is a general convergence amongst scholars that articulating a difference amongst humans and animals does not necessitate a suspension of the discussion on animal rights. What is crucial is how the articulation of these distinctions (or lack thereof) influences the development of the level of rights afforded to animals.
The arguments for the extension of rights to animals can be divided into three general categories, which are determined by their philosophical approach. These three are utilitarian, rights-based and abolitionist approaches.
Tom Regan (1985) outlines the utilitarian principles with regards to morality as thus: “A utilitarian accepts two moral principles. The first is that of equality: everyone’s interests count, and similar interests must be counted as having similar weight or importance… everyone’s pain or frustration matter, and matter just as much as the equivalent pain or frustration of anyone else. The second principle a utilitarian accepts is that of utility: do the act that will bring about the best balance between satisfaction and frustration for everyone affected by the outcome.”
Peter Singer (1975), one of the earliest proponents of animal rights, based his appeal not on the basis of the capacity for intelligence or the ability to moralize, but rather the ability to experience suffering. As mentioned before, other scholars have developed this line of reasoning as well. What is noteworthy here is to understand why Singer and his adherents chose to focus on suffering as the criteria for animal exclusion in to the rights debate.
Singer posits that the basis for a contractual concept for morality should be the ability to suffer because that immediately creates a consideration against abuse or discrimination that is not bound by exceptions or obligations. Consequently, to exclude animals from such a moral contract would be to engage in what he describes as “speciesism.” (1975)
Regan (1985) however argues that although suffering is deplorable, it is not the fundamental reason for extending rights to animals. He goes on to develop the idea that the exclusion of animals from our moral considerations resides in viewing them as resources.
“The fundamental wrong is the system that allows us to view animals as our resources, here for us — to be eaten, or surgically manipulated, or exploited for sport or money. Once we accept this view of animals – as our resources – the rest is as predictable as it is regrettable. Why worry about their loneliness, their pain, their deathSince animals exist for us, to benefit us in one way or another, what harms them really doesn’t matter.”
Regan (1985) claims that rather than utilitarianism, the basis for extending rights to animals lies in the idea of inherent value, which he believes is possessed by each and every individual. “we are each of us the experiencing subject of a life, a conscious creature having an individual welfare that has importance to us whatever our usefulness to others … As the same is true of those animals that concern us (the ones that are eaten and trapped, for example), they too must be viewed as the experiencing subjects of a life, with inherent value of their own.” The rights-based approach thus seeks to place the calculus of rights extension onto all beings that are a ‘subject of life’ a term which Regan personally bestows to most mammals above the age of one year, but not all sentient animals.
However, the abolitionist approach severely critiques both these ideas, as well as other programs by claiming that they extend practices of animal welfare rather than animal rights. Gary Francione (2011), a principal advocate of this approach, writes that compassion extended to animals on the basis of their ability to suffer implies that it is acceptable to use animals for consumption as long as the process which does so is not inhumane. He claims that were the same principles extended to humans, the act would be defined as torture.
In Francione’s (2011) mind, the principal problem is the treatment of animals not as resources alone, but as property. “Animals are property. They are things. And the whole point of being a thing is that you don’t have an inherent or intrinsic value. Animals are economic commodities; they have a market value. As a general matter, we spend money to protect animal interests only when it is justified as an economic matter—only when we derive an economic benefit from doing so… Virtually all animal welfare laws fit this paradigm. They protect selected animal interests and the effect of protecting these interests is to make the production process more efficient.”
Thus if the extension of rights is based not on the ability to suffer pain nor being a subject of life, but rather on the right not to be treated as property, then the foundation of those rights lies in the idea of sentience – that is any sentient being deserves the extension of those rights upon itself. (Francione, 2000)
The arguments against the extension of rights to animals are largely based around the semantics of rights and obligations, and the relationship between the two concepts. A large number of the critiques of animal-rights campaigners have focused on whether the provision of rights to a group can be made if the group has no comprehension of how these rights apply to them, and what duties and obligations are owed by them if these provisions are extended to them.
Carl Cohen (1986), one of the primary opponents to the animal rights movement, writes that “the holders of rights must have the capacity to comprehend rules of duty governing all, including themselves. In applying such rules, the holders of rights must recognize possible conflicts between what is in their own interest and what is just. Only in a community of beings capable of self-restricting moral judgments can the concept of a right be correctly invoked.”
In a similar vein, Roger Scruton (2000) writes that “In all our dealings with the animals, the inherent mastership of the human race displays itself. And this only goes to show that we alone have the duty to look after the animals, because we alone have duties. The corollary is inescapable: we alone have rights.”
It is important to note that the opponents of animal rights are not implicitly advocating the continuation of ‘inhumane’ or violent practices upon these beings. Carl Cohen for example has been amongst several voices in the opposition camp to condemn the excessive use of animals for laboratory testing for example. However, the theoretical basis for this call is not based on the equivalence of animal and human rights, but rather their relative positions.
John Martin (1990) uses the concepts first articulated by Thomas Aquinas to explain why animal rights need not be the only mechanism for preventing cruelty and institutionalized violence towards animals.
“The view that only man has rights in the absolute sense does not detract from the preciousness and beauty of the rest of nature, but it enhances man. In an age when man’s rights are being questioned because of race or religion, enhancement of his position in nature must be beneficial. In practice Aquinas’s philosophy means that cruelty to animals must not be allowed by society and that caring for animals is to be encouraged. Not however, because animals have rights as man has rights, but because he who is cruel to animals will tend to be cruel to his fellowman: animals have to be protected so that man is protected.”
This logic thus suggests that the prevention of cruelty towards animals is not due to the direct interest for their welfare, but rather to use it as a means of reducing violence amongst humans themselves. Once again, this position stresses the distinction between humans and animals to not only be significant, but also hierarchal so that humans are entrusted with acting in the best interests of animals.
In fact, this position has been seen by some as only an extension of the apparent inviolability of nature itself. Robert Bidinitto (1992) put forth this idea when he said that
“Strict observance of animal rights forbids even direct protection of people and their values against nature’s many predators. Losses to people are acceptable … losses to animals are not. Logically then, beavers may change the flow of streams, but Man must not. Locusts may denude hundreds of miles of plant life … but Man must not. Cougars may eat sheep and chickens, but Man must not.”
The implication here is that the extension of animal rights serves to subvert what appears to be the traditional structure of how nature operates, and instead tries to insert its own paradigms which appear to be counter-intuitive.
In conclusion, what we see is that the case for the extension of rights for animals is predicated upon the deconstruction of existing relationships of the distinctions between animals and humans, as well as the expansion of the understanding of how these newly deconstructed concepts should be allocated moralities and rights. In contrast, the opposition to extending rights to animals seeks to defend against these deconstructivist impulses, and to reify the position of humans at the pinnacle of both rights and obligations.
While the extension of rights approach embraces contemporary ideas and seeks to cleave out new responses, the opposing camp continues to protect traditional stances, and this is where I feel that the argument suffers from a shortcoming.
The following passage from Scruton (2000) offers an intriguing opportunity to deconstruct the pro-animal rights arguments themselves, by exploring how they can be guilty of using anthropomorphic concepts for animals.
“It is at this point that the advocate of animal rights steps in. Like the child, he imagines the rabbit still dressed in its Beatrix Potter trousers, enjoying a quiet domestic life below ground. For him the warren is just like a human community—founded by negotiation and agreement, structured by rights, and entitled to protection from the law. To shoot such defenseless animals seems to him like a crime, and he campaigns vigorously for a law that will make it so.”
I believe this is a major flaw of the pro-animal rights argument, and a primary reason why it is currently divided on qualitative differences in the decision of which animals to extend rights to, as well as the extents of those rights. At the same time, it cannot be denied that the traditional approaches to opposing animal rights suffer from propagating a bundle of values which appear outdated in contemporary society, and hence are problematic in their application.
A successful resolution of this issue would thus require both a reevaluation of the ‘for’ and ‘against’ camps in light of their shortcomings, as well as placing limits on rights provision that display an affinity for scientifically verifiable criteria, rather than those based on personal values and sentiments.
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Beauchamp, T .(1997) ‘Opposing Views on Animal Experimentation: Do Animals Have Rights?’, Ethics & Behavior, Vol. 7: 2, pp 113-120
Bidinitto, R. (1992) Environmentalism or Individualism?” EcoNOT.com — Individualism, Not Environmentalism. Web. 14 Apr. 2011. .
Birke, L. (1995) Exploring the Boundaries: Feminism, Animals and Science. in Carol Adams and Josephine Donovan eds. “Animals and Women” Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, pp 95.
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