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Rights, Liberation, and the Animals

What do we want?

“Animal Rights!”

Why do we want them?

Being relatively rugged individualists in the U.S., we tend to think in terms of rights and laws, especially those that protect freedoms. Because of this history, those working on behalf of animals often use the term “animal rights” as a convenient shorthand.

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?

“Animal rights!”

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 include “positive rights” – the rights of those less fortunate to receive help from others. For example, in the U.S., one usually has the right to ignore a stranger’s welfare as long as you are not violating his or her “negative rights.” As Arthur Hugh Clough wrote about this problem, “Thou shalt not kill, but need’st not strive officiously to keep alive.” The fixation on negative rights can often fail to protect, and even seriously threaten, the welfare of the poor, hungry, and sick – those who may not have had their negative rights violated but who, nevertheless, suffer as others fail to protect their welfare. (e.g., The Singer Solution to World Poverty).

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 moral consideration.