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Debate: Animal rights

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Do non-human animals have rights?

Background and context

The claim that animals have ‘rights’ was first put forward by the Australian philosopher Peter Singer in the 1970s and has been the subject of heated and emotional debates ever since. There are many contexts in which the question of ‘animal rights’ comes up. Should we farm animals? If so by what techniques? Should we eat animals? Should we hunt and fish them? Is it morally acceptable to use animals as sources of entertainment in the context of zoos, circuses, horse racing etc.? Often the same organisations that campaign on environmental issues (e.g. Greenpeace) are also concerned for the welfare of animals: both sets of concerns derive from a commitment to the value of Nature and the Earth. The question of animal rights might well come up in a debate on biodiversity, and is one with so many political and social implications that it is also worth having in its own right. This debate is about the ethical principles at issue; the separate debates on biodiversity, vegetarianism, zoos, blood sports, and animal experimentation deal with more of the concrete details.


Thought: Should some animals have rights on the basis of complex thought?


  • Animals should have rights on the basis that they can think and feel pain. Human beings are complex evolved creatures who are accorded rights on the basis that they are able to think and to feel pain. Many other animals are also able to think (to some extent) and are certainly able to feel pain. Therefore non-human animals should also be accorded rights, e.g. to a free and healthy life and safety.
  • Human infants and the mentally handicapped don't have many of the capacities that are argued as warranting humans' exclusive possession of "rights". Chimpanzees may have greater IQs than some infants or mentally handicapped. Yet, infants and the mentally ill are given rights, while chimpanzees are not. Why discriminate in this way, if the above criteria are the basis of "rights"?
  • Setting "standards" such as intelligence for "rights" has the risk of alienating humans without these characteristics If we place high standards (such as the ability to think, speak, or even to enter into a social contract, act dutifully) on the ascription of rights there is also a danger than not only animals, but also human infants and mentally handicapped adults will be excluded from basic rights.


  • The higher complexity of humans warrants that we alone should have "rights". Human beings are infinitely more complex than any other living creatures. Their abilities to think and talk, to form social systems with rights and responsibilities, and to feel emotions are uniquely developed well beyond any other animals. It is reasonable to try to prevent the most obvious cases of gratuitous suffering or torture of animals, but beyond that, non-human animals do not deserve to be given ‘rights’.

Evolution: Should animals be given rights on the basis that humans have rights?


  • Our evolutionary attachment to other animals demands that they receive the respect of "rights" Ever since the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859 we have known that human beings are related by common descent to all other animals. We owe a duty of care to our animal cousins.


  • Offering rights to living creatures on the basis of evolutionary attachment is a slippery slope (a "slippery slope): The fact that we are (incredibly distantly) related to other animals does not mean that it makes sense to talk about them having ‘rights’. This sort of thinking would have absurd consequences: e.g. saying that we should respect the ‘right’ to life of bacteria, or the ‘right’ of the AIDS virus to move freely and without restriction, and to associate freely with other living organisms. We might wish to reduce unnecessary animal suffering, but not because all creatures to which we are distantly related have rights.

Social contract: Are animals capable of engaging in a form of social contract?


  • Many animals do demonstrate an ability to respect the "rights" of humans? Dogs are known for developing a deep bond for humans, perhaps even to the level of "love". In this bond, they respect the "rights" of humans, avoiding, for example, biting or injuring them (for the most part). As such, they are able to enter into a common standard of respect and mutual gain that could be called a social contract. There are other animals that display these characteristics as well, such as dolphins, gorillas, and others. The animals that are capable of respecting basic human "rights" are the ones that should qualify for certain "rights" in human law.


  • Animals do not have the ability to enter into social contracts with duties, so they should not be offered any rights Rights are privileges that come with certain social duties and moral responsibilities. Not all humans fit this criteria, and so not all human beings have full rights. Animals certainly do not have this ability, and, equally importantly, they don't have the potential to have this ability. Infants, the mentally retarded, and convicts all have the potential to be able to assume social responsibilities, which offers them the unique position of having some rights with the prospect of earning full rights. Non-human animals do not have this potential. They are neither moral nor immoral creatures, they are amoral, and without the potential of change. They are incapable of respecting the ‘rights’ of other humans in a social contract. With all of this considered, animals should not be offered any rights.

Food-source: Should animals have rights preventing their consumption?


  • Cruelty to animals (e.g. bull fighting, fox hunting, battery hen farming) is the sign of an uncivilized society. – it encourages violence and barbarism in society more generally. A society that respects animals and restrains base and violent instincts is a more civilised one.


  • It is perfectly natural to use animals for our own nutrition and pleasure. – In the wild there is much suffering as animals struggle to survive, are hunted by predators, and compete for food and resources. Human beings have been successful in this struggle for existence and do not need to feel ashamed of exploiting their position as a successful species in the evolutionary process.
  • It is necessary for humans to use animals as a source of food. There is a hierarchy in the natural world, and some living beings have more value than others. Human beings are more valuable than animals, therefore, it is justified that human beings use animals as a source of food and material.

Pro/con resources:



See also

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