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What are Animal Rights?

Do animal rights activists want animals to have the same rights as people?

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An animal rights activist shouts at guests as they enter the Dennis Basso Fur Fashion Show at Cipriani's restaurant May 28th, 2003
Keith Bedford/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

Animal rights is the belief that animals have a right to be free of human use and exploitation, but there is a great deal of confusion about what that means. Animal rights is not about putting animals above humans, or giving animals the same rights as humans. Also, animal rights is very different from animal welfare.

To most animal rights activists, animal rights is grounded in a rejection of speciesism and the knowledge that animals have sentience (the ability to suffer). (Learn more about the basic tenets of animal rights.)

Freedom from Human Use and Exploitation

Humans use and exloit animals in myriad ways, including meat, milk, eggs, animal experimentation, fur, hunting, and circuses.

With the possible exception of animal experimentation, all of these uses of animals are frivolous. People don't need meat, eggs, milk, fur, hunting or circuses. The American Dietetic Association recognizes that people can be perfectly healthy as vegans.

Regarding animal experimentation, most would agree that testing of cosmetics and household products is unnecessary. A new furniture polish or lipstick seems a frivolous reason to blind, maim and kill hundreds or thousands of rabbits. Many would also say that scientific experimentation on animals for the sake of science, with no immediate, obvious application to human health, is unnecessary because the suffering of the animals outweighs the satisfaction of human curiosity. This leaves only medical experiments. While animal experimentation may lead to human medical advancements, we cannot morally justify exploiting animals for experiments any more than experiments on mental patients or babies can be justified.

Justifications for Animal Exploitation

The most common justifications for animal use are:

  • Animals are not intelligent (cannot think/reason).
  • Animals are not as important as people.
  • Animals have no duties.
  • God put animals here for us to use.

Rights cannot be determined by the ability to think, or we'd have to give intelligence tests to determine which humans deserve rights. This would mean that babies, the mentally disabled and the mentally ill would have no rights.

Importance is not a good criteria for rights holding because importance is highly subjective and individuals have their own interests that make each individual important to him/herself. One person may find that their own pets are more important to them than a stranger on the other side of the world, but that doesn't give them the right to kill and eat that stranger. The President of United States might be more important than most people, but that doesn't give the president the right to kill people and mount their heads on the wall as trophies. One could also argue that a single blue whale is more important than any single human being because the species is endangered and every individual is needed to help the population recover.

Duties are also not a good criteria for rights holding because individuals who are incapable of recognizing or performing duties, such as babies or people with profound disabilities, still have a right not be eaten or experimented on. Furthermore, animals are routinely killed for failing to follow human rules (e.g., the mouse who is killed in a mousetrap), so even if they have no duties, we punish them for failing to abide by our expectations.

Religious beliefs are also an inappropriate determination for rights holding because religious beliefs are highly subjective and personal. Even within a religion, people will disagree about what God dictates. We shouldn't impose our religious beliefs on others, and using religion to justify animal exploitation imposes our religion on the animals. And keep in mind that the Bible was once used to justify slavery of Africans and African Americans in the United States, demonstrating how people often use religion as an excuse to further their personal beliefs.

Because there will always be some humans who don't fit the criteria used to justify animal exploitation, the only true distinction between humans and non-human animals is species, which is an arbitrary line to draw between which individuals do and don't have rights. There is no magical dividing line between humans and non-human animals.

The Same Rights as Humans?

There is a common misconception that animal rights activists want nonhuman animals to have the same rights as people. No one wants cats to have the right to vote, or for dogs to have the right to bear arms. The issue is not whether animals should have the same rights as people, but whether we have a right to use and exploit them for our purposes, however frivolous they might be.

Animal Rights v. Animal Welfare

Animal rights is distinguishable from animal welfare. In general, the term "animal rights" is the belief that humans do not have a right to use animals for our own purposes. "Animal welfare" is the belief that humans do have a right to use animals as long as the animals are treated humanely. The animal rights position on factory farming would be that we do not have a right to slaughter animals for food no matter how well the animals are treated while they are alive, while the animal welfare position might want to see certain cruel practices eliminated. "Animal welfare" describes a broad spectrum of views, while animal rights is more absolute. For example, some animal welfare advocates might want a ban on fur, while others might believe that fur is morally acceptable if the animals are killed "humanely" and do not suffer for too long in a trap. "Animal welfare" may also be used describe the speciesist view that certain animals (e.g. dogs, cats, horses) are more deserving of protection than others (e.g. fish, chickens, cows).

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