Rights, Liberation, and the Animals
What do we want?
Why do we want them?
Being relatively rugged individualists in the
There are those who believe that animal rights must be our first and only goal. However, the consequences of this view of working for animals are rarely explored. Consider the familiar chant:
What do we want?
When do we want them?
But think about what happens when we substitute “why” in the second question: Why do we want animal rights?
One answer offered is: “Because humans have inalienable rights.” There are several interesting questions that follow this answer. The first is: From where did these “inalienable rights” come? Were they handed down by some Divinity? Are they features of the universe that are imbued into certain lifeforms?
Historically, “rights” were created and defended by those in power, starting with the “Divine” Rights of Kings. These were inventions intended to protect the well-being – the welfare – of those already in power. These rights have been fought for and achieved by whatever group is “next in line.”
For these and a variety of reasons and accidents, our inherited concept of
‘rights’ is generally applied only to those with something to protect. In other
words, “rights” usually includes only “negative rights” – rights of protection
against interference from others. In this country, “rights” usually do not
“positive rights” – the rights of those less fortunate to receive help from
others. For example, in the
Another answer to “why rights” is “As long as animals remain property, they will suffer.” However, this is not a forgone conclusion. It might be that further moral or legal restrictions will be placed on the treatment of animals as property, until the matter of their being property is academic. After all, whether or not someone has the abstract and artificial notion that they 'own' an animal is irrelevant -- what matters is how that person treats the animal, and how the animal feels as a result. Humans can no longer be considered property in the U.S., but even with this legal right, millions of people endure poverty and disease, with hundreds of millions more suffering around the world. The solutions to human suffering thus involve a discussion of welfare, not just rights. The same is true for animals.
A final examination shows that the difference between rights and welfare is often simply a matter of semantics. Various “rights” can be seen as a means of protecting welfare, and various welfare reforms can be phrased in terms of rights (e.g., the right not to be force-molted; the right against cruel and unusual punishment).
Legal rights may be one way to improve the lives of animals, but they are
not ends in themselves. As Dr. Kaufman points out, the principal issue isn’t
one of fundamental differences in underlying philosophy. Rather, the discussion
should be about the appropriate tactics for lessening suffering. For example,
it is extremely unlikely that the liberation of 99% of animals killed every
year in this country – farm animals – will be won in the legislature
or courts anytime soon. More likely it will be won in the supermarket aisles,
with improvements in treatment as these beings’ interests are given greater