Animal Rights Argument

by Alyssa Reeves
Written for ENGL125 (Honors English II) 

Animal Rights:

The Irrational Response to Self-Reproach

            In the early 1970s, bioethics professor Peter Singer published an argument for universal animal liberation.  He claims animals and humans are equal because they both have the capacity to suffer. As a result, they do not require equal treatment but equal consideration.  One key point Singer focuses on is the fact that animals are treated unethically by humans because humans have adopted speciesism, a favor for their species over another.  Singer offers a resolution for animal liberation: vegetarianism (Singer).  At first glance, Singer’s argument for granting animals the right to a life free of pain and suffering seems acceptable, but further examination proves the argument for animal rights is full of holes and is simply illogical.

            First, equality based on the capacity to suffer is unrelated to rights.  In developing rights for humans, the United Nations recognized rights as a concept based on “inherent human dignity” (“Human Rights”).  Not once did the United Nations reason, “Humans have the capacity to suffer; thus, they deserve to have rights.”  They looked at morally-relevant characteristics like the desire for self-respect, a trait held solely by humans.  Even Singer agrees animals do not have this quality.  “…[T]alk of intrinsic dignity or moral worth does not help,’ he says, ‘because any satisfactory defense of the claim that all and only humans have intrinsic dignity would need to refer to some relevant capacities or characteristics that only human beings have, in virtue of which they have this unique dignity or worth’” (qtd. in Cataldi). 

            Most supporters of animal rights disagree with these standards.  “Intelligence, the capacity for moral responsibility, for virtue, etc., are irrelevant to equality because we would not accept a hierarchy based on intelligence any more than one based on race” (Steinbock).  Perhaps humans would not adopt a pecking order within their own species based on intelligence, but because animal rights is an ethics issue, it must be addressed morally.  In a moral community, it is intelligence which puts humans at a morally superior position than animals; intelligence enables humans to have the capacity to process complex situations and practice free moral judgment.

            Animals (nonhumans) lack the capacity for free moral judgment.  Only creatures meeting a certain level of intelligence hold this ability.  These creatures happen to all be humans.  This reason in itself is sufficient for dismissing animal rights. 

                        [Animals] are not beings of a kind capable of exercising or responding to moral                                          claims.  Animals therefore have no rights, and they can have none . . . . The                                                      holders of rights must have the capacity to comprehend rules of duty, governing                         all including themselves . . . . Only in a community of beings capable of self-                                                     restricting moral judgments can the concept of a right be correctly invoked.                                                      (Cohen)

Humans have the ability to tell the difference between right and wrong.  They are able to recognize that even though an act may be in their interest, it sometimes must not be done because it is simply wrong.  Animals are not able to reason in that way; if a house cat stays off the dining room table, it is because he has learned that such an action will result in scolding or physical pain.  He has no concept of what is morally wrong.  Critics would protest that humans’ ability to make moral decisions obligates them to be kind to animals.  Anti-liberation supporters do not disagree; they simply draw the line of what is morally right in a different place.  While they agree abusing animals is morally wrong, using them for other purposes such as food and labor is simply a part of the natural order.

            What about infant humans, the mentally handicapped, and invalids?  They are obviously unable to tell the difference between right and wrong.  Some animals may even have comparable levels of intelligence.  Does this mean those individuals are undeserving of rights?  No.  There is a significant difference between animals and impaired humans.  Bonnie Steinbock, a philosophy professor at the University of Albany, contends, “We feel a special obligation to care for the handicapped members of our own species, who cannot survive without [specialized] care.  Nonhuman animals manage very well, despite their ‘lower intelligence’ and lesser capacities” (Steinbock).  We feel inclined to care for the severely retarded because we think, “That could be me.”  It is much more difficult for a person to see an animal in distress and to think that he or she, too, could one day be in that animal’s situation.

            Another reason animals cannot have rights is because they are incapable of fulfilling the duties that accompany rights, such as respecting life. 

                        If an eagle has a legal right to life, isn’t he bound to respect the same rights                                                granted to the field mouse?  And if the mouse ends up as a tasty meal for the                                                  eagle, then shouldn’t the eagle be punished for violating the mouse’s right? . . . .                         In the unlikely event of a conviction, what punishment would be imposed—and                                                 for what crime: premeditated murder, or something less, such as mouse-slaughter?                                           (Pulver)

Such a scenario seems simply ridiculous.  The fact that animals eat other species of animals in order to survive prevents them from being able to respect the rights of those species.  Even if carnivorous animals were able to become vegetarians, their instincts would still guide them to eat meat.  They do not have the capacity to view their carnivorous habits as immoral.  Animals cannot have rights if they cannot respect the rights of others.

            One point made by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) concerning animal liberation is that “Animals surely deserve to live their lives free from suffering. . .” (“Why Animal Rights?”).  Even if this claim were true, how would one go about ensuring that animals do not suffer?  In the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, there is no mention that humans deserve to live lives free from suffering.  The word “suffering” holds a plethora of definitions, making it impossible to avoid.  Perhaps PETA should have been more careful in its word choice.  Concepts against cruel and unusual punishment toward humans may parallel the need for the prohibition animal torture, but they do not relate to inevitable suffering.  For example, if an animal falls down a steep hill and breaks a leg or two, is he not suffering?  There is nothing that can be done to prevent similar mishaps.  Not even humans are granted this right.

            Also, some pain is necessary.  Some ends to animal experimentation, such as the advancement of medical knowledge, can be very beneficial.  Humans understand it is not pleasurable to feel pain, and they recognize the need to keep pain at a minimum.  Here, animal rights activists present a line of reasoning that if a being suffers, its suffering ought to be counted equally like the suffering of any other being.  And could the “necessary pain” theory be applied to humans?  Would human experimentation and exploitation be justified if it were considered necessary pain?
            In this case, it is essential to examine a parallel situation: if a starving dog and a starving child show up on your doorstep, which one should be fed?  They are both suffering an equal amount, yet a rational person would choose to feed the child.  This proves true even when the dog is a personal pet and the child is simply a stranger (Steinbock).

            Considering 86% of the world’s population is considered religious, it is reasonable to present the church’s point of view on animal rights (“Brief Summary of the World Religious Statistics”).  All of the world’s major religions believe human life is more valuable than animal life.  First, none of them hold ceremonies to mark the birth or death of animals.  The fact that humans celebrate births, attend funerals, and even throw birthday parties, shows that human life is held as more important than animal life (“Major Religions on Animals and Medical Research”).  Perhaps a child may celebrate his pet’s birthday or bury it underneath a tree with a small ceremony when it dies, but this is irrelevant; if animals have rights, that little boy would not be permitted to own a pet.

            For Christians, it is apparent that God shows his partiality to humans in more than one way.  In Genesis 1:26, God declares, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground” (Holy Bible. . .).  Humans were created in God’s image and given dominion over all the earth.  Also, humans are uniquely responsible and capable of salvation.  Scripture does not declare that Christ died for the sins of animals, too.  And since animals lack the capacity to distinguish between right and wrong, perhaps they are unable to sin.  Even believers of Hinduism and Sikhism value human life most.

                        A human life is distinguished from animal life due to its heavy responsibilities. . .                                                 The human being is given all facilities for a comfortable life by the laws of nature                         because the human form of life in more important and valuable than animal life. . . (“Major                                 Religions on Animals and Medical Research”)

Yet for those who are unconvinced by such theological beliefs, human rights can adequately be viewed as a consequence of the self-conscious participation of human beings in an objective ethical order.  Humans interact within a moral fabric within which animals can never act (Cohen and Regan).

            Moreover, humans’ reactions to animals and other humans differ greatly.  Deliberate the following circumstances: If a man is driving in a car when a squirrel runs into his path, the man would clench his teeth and pray the squirrel died suddenly, without pain.  He would then continue on with the rest of his day, perhaps feeling slightly guilty but knowing there was nothing he could have done to prevent the animal’s injury or death.  If a toddler runs in front of his car, he swerves his car into the ditch to avoid hitting the child but manages to do so nevertheless.  The man would immediately stop his car and make sure the toddler was rushed to a hospital.  As soon as possible, he notifies the toddler’s parents.  Perhaps he would go as far as making arrangements to visit with and bring a small gift to the toddler.  Even though the parents have forgiven him for the unavoidable accident, it will stick in his mind for the rest of his life (Cohen).

            Just like a rational human would feed a starving child before a starving dog, he would seek care for an injured child over an injured squirrel.  Supporters of animal rights may deem this “speciesism,” but every rational person would react this way because there are certain capacities we value that are held by humans and not by animals.  Besides, “we do not subject animals to different moral treatment simply because they have fur and feathers, but because they are in fact different from human beings in ways that could be morally relevant” (Steinbock).

            There would be serious consequences if animals were given rights.  It would, at the very least, be wrong for humans “to kill them, to eat them, to keep them as pets, to make them suffer in any way that is not to their individual benefit—and wrong in just the way that it is wrong to do any of this to a human being” (Scruton).  Do animal rights activists really understand what they are requesting?  Would they support the judgment that farmers attempting to rid their barns of rats are indistinguishable from mass murderers?  That owning a pet is false imprisonment?  Even digging in one’s garden would involve the negligent slaughter of innocent worms, beetles, and moles (Scruton).  What if a family of infectious rats invaded a home and began biting the children?  Would the parents be prohibited from exterminating the rats to protect their children?  Even popular pastimes such as fishing would be prohibited.

            This is only the basic consequences resulting from animal liberation.  Humans would also be forced to become vegetarians.  In fact, they would have to become vegans because would it not be wrong to steal and eat the eggs of a chicken?  Even cows would have no obligation to offer their milk.  Also, such diets can be dangerous to the health of humans.  Studies show that with vegan diets there is an increased risk of hemorrhagic stroke and possible deficiencies of essential fatty acids (Fuhrman).

            Critics of the status quo believe it is immoral to experiment on animals in order to benefit people.  Perhaps they do not realize that animal experimentation is also advantageous to animals.  Advances in veterinary medicine are made in addition to developments in medical science.  So while experimenting on humans would only benefit humans (because they are more complex than animals), experimenting on animals benefits both animals and humans.

          Besides, United States law currently gives animals protection in a wide variety of circumstances.  Humans are bound to obey strict legal duties in dealing with animals.  The Animal Welfare Act (AWA) was passed by Congress in 1966 as has been amended several times since.

                      The AWA requires that minimum standards of care and treatment be provided for certain                                   animals bred for commercial sale, used in research, transported commercially, or exhibited to                           the public. Individuals who operate facilities in these categories must provide their animals with                       adequate care and treatment in the areas of housing, handling, sanitation, nutrition, water,                           veterinary care, and protection from extreme weather and temperatures. (“Animal Welfare Act”)

Even though the requirements set a minimum standard, this standard is not ideal and regulated businesses are encouraged to exceed it.  Also, the Endangered Species Act of 1973 protects approximately 1,200 plants and animals (Pulver).

          But are the laws doing enough?  Animal rights activists suggest the exploitation of animals is tolerated because it is regarded as normal.  A person becomes hardened to reality and he or she “comes to regard animals as statistics rather than sentient beings with interests that warrant consideration” (Singer).

          Finally, the motives behind animal liberation are skewed.  Activists who self-appoint themselves to act as animal rights advocates are unable to understand what animals really want (Steinbock).  Humans in general have a fear of not supporting animal rights because they do care about animals and do not want to be thought heartless if animal rights are denied (Cohen).     This is where widespread confusion lies.  Most humans have a misunderstanding of the relation between our obligations to animals and the claim that animals possess rights.  In his book, The Animal Rights Debate, Carl Cohen addresses the difference between obligations and rights.  First, humans do have obligations to animals.  By law, humans are obligated to treat them humanely.  If a child has a pet, he or she is obligated to feed that animal.  However, denying the reality of animal rights does not entail the denial of our obligations to them.  The logic is distorted.  One cannot conclude the following: all rights entail obligations.  Some obligations arise from rights.  Therefore, all obligations are entailed by rights (Cohen and Regan). 

          For example, if a son decides to become a geologist like his father, the father is obligated to help his son out in any way he can.  However, the son cannot demand aid from his father, as it is not his right.  Humans usually repay debt as the result of another’s right to have the payment of that debt.  So, humans ought to care for animals, not because animals have the right to receive care, but because humans, in their position of superiority, have the obligation to do so.  Current laws already protect animals from inhumane treatment, and if animal rights groups simply want higher standards for animal treatment, they are taking the wrong approach.

            The argument for animal rights is full of holes and is simply illogical.  Animals lack the capacity for free moral judgment and the ability to fulfill accompanying duties necessary for holding rights.  James McGaugh, a professor at the University of California at Irvine, once stated, “‘It’s been said that during war, there are no atheists in the trenches.  I wonder how an animal-rights person dying of a catastrophic illness might feel if one more animal test could find a cure’” (qtd. in Stuller).  Giving animals rights would result in serious consequences, and only when people come to realize this truth will animal liberation become a proposal of the past.


Works Cited

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Cataldi, Suzanne Laba.  “Animals and the Concept of Dignity.” Ethics and the Environment 7.2   (2002):                         104-126.

Cohen, Carl.  “The Case for the Use of Animals in Biomedical Research.”  The New England       Journal of                         Medicine Vol. 315.  1986: 865-870.

- - - and Tom Regan.  The Animal Rights Debate.  Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers,       Inc., 2001.

Fuhrman, Joel, M.D.  “What You Need to Know About Vegetarian or Vegan Diets.” 2004.   , Inc. 29 Apr. 2007 <>

Holy Bible, New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: International Bible Society, 1984.

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Pulver, Charles R.  “Will Animals Have Duties As Well As Rights?” Wanderer 28 Oct. 1999: n.   pag.

Scruton, Roger and Andrew Tyler.  “Do Animals Have Rights?” The Ecologist Vol. 31.  Mar.       2001: 20.

Singer, Peter.  Animal Liberation.  New York: Random House, 1975.

Steinbock, Bonnie.  “Speciesism and the Idea of Equality.”  Philosophy 53.204 (1978): n. pag.

Stuller, Jay.  “Human Needs Are More Important Than Animal Rights.”  Kiwanis. 1988.

“Why Animal Rights?”  People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. 29 Apr. 2007                                             <>.