Do animals have rights?

To follow is an excerpt from this week's CQ Researcher on "Animal Rights" by Marcia Clemmitt, January 8, 2010

Humans have used animals throughout history for food, sport, tasks like hauling and plowing and scientific experimentation, and most people have been comfortable with using animals, even when they suffer and die in the process. Nevertheless, a persistent minority has long questioned whether animals may have a right to be treated with concern for their comfort and welfare.

“To my mind, we shouldn't be thinking of monkeys as commodities, disposable resources” that can be the object of distressing experimentation, for example, says Mark Bernstein, a professor of philosophy and ethics at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. “Just by virtue of their sentience, their capacity to suffer, they should have the minimal right to not suffer,” he says. “We don't treat compromised human beings” — such as people with severe cognitive disabilities — “that way.”

Chickens, for example, “clearly have interests, preferences and desires and are able to act to satisfy their interests and preferences,” a fact that should give them at least some “right” to moral consideration by humans, with whom they share those traits, said Gary L. Francione, a professor of law at the Rutgers University School of Law in Newark, N.J. “When we kill these non-humans, we frustrate their ability to enjoy the satisfaction of their interests, preferences and desires — just as we do when we kill humans.” [Footnote 14]

“Although it is noble” for a human “to undergo a painful bone marrow transplant to save the life of a stranger, we think it would be wrong to require them to undergo that procedure,” but we require animals to suffer intensely for human benefit all the time, wrote Hugh LaFollette, an ethics professor at the University of South Florida, in St. Petersburg, and Niall Shanks, a professor of history and the philosophy of science at Wichita State University, in Kansas. “Each year in the United States nearly 70 million mammals … are expected to make the ultimate sacrifice” in laboratories “to benefit … humans…. “This clashes with the moral presumption against inflicting suffering on one creature … to benefit some other creature.” [Footnote 15]

“If it would be absurd to give animals the right to vote, it would be no less absurd to give that right to infants or to severely retarded human beings. Yet we still give equal consideration to their interests,” said Princeton University philosophy professor Peter Singer, author of the 1975 book, Animal Liberation, which inspired much of the modern animal-advocacy movement. “We don't raise them for food in overcrowded sheds or test household cleaners on them…. But we do these things to non-human animals who show greater abilities in reasoning than these humans … because we have a prejudice in favor of the view that all humans are somehow infinitely more valuable than any animal.” [Footnote 16]

Critics of animal-protection activists overinterpret the word “rights,” as it's used by most animal-welfare advocates, some analysts argue.

The idea of a rights-based philosophy of animal protection is that “in virtue of some of the properties animals have” — notably “sentience,” the ability to be aware of feelings, such as pain — “animals deserve some minimal rights,” says Bernstein. To some critics the phrase “animal rights” calls up visions of “giving pigs driver's licenses,” but “that's not the idea. It's that animals, by virtue of their ability to feel, are not things to be tortured.”

“You're not talking about rights in the philosophical sense” of a civil right related to citizenship, for example, says Kenneth Shapiro, executive director of the Animals and Society Institute, an Ann Arbor, Mich.-based think tank on animal issues. What “animal rights” means to most animal-protection advocates is that “animals have interests, and we don't want to screw them. Most of the people in the established movement don't consider themselves ‘rightists’ in that sense. They're trying to make things better.”

But some analysts from the biomedical-research community and the agriculture industry say that not just some but most animal-protection advocates actually do favor granting animals rights so broad that, if granted, those rights would effectively end all human use of animals.

The Humane Society of the United States has an “extremist” agenda with regard to animal rights, although the public who support the group with donations generally don't realize this, says Trull at the Foundation for Biomedical Research. “On their Web site they say they ultimately want to eliminate all use of animals in research,” an extreme animal-rights position, Trull says.

“The possession of rights presupposes a moral status not attained by the vast majority of living things,” said University of Michigan professor of philosophy Carl Cohen. “We must not infer … that a live being has, simply in being alive, a ‘right’ to its life. The assertion that all animals, only because they are alive and have interests, also possess the ‘right to life’ is an abuse of that phrase, and wholly without warrant.” [Footnote 17]

Most people intuitively understand that animals cannot have “rights” in anything like the way humans do, said Jan Narveson, a professor of philosophy at Canada's University of Waterloo. For example, “most people think that if we could find a cure for cancer by performing on thousands of monkeys in ways that are extremely painful and later fatal to the monkeys, we should still go right ahead,” Narveson said. “Most people think animal experimentation permissible, so long as it could lead to something important for us,” and “when philosophers … deny this … they go against normal intuitions…. We rightly outlaw slavery.” However, “since we don't think animals are people, we don't think of our use of them as ‘enslavement,’ a category only applicable to beings like ourselves.” [Footnote 18]

For more information see the CQ Researcher report on "Animal Rights" [subscription required] or purchase the CQ Researcher PDF.

[14] Gary L. Francione, “Peter Singer and the Welfarist Position on the Lesser Value of Nonhuman Life,” Animal Rights: Abolitionist Approach blog, March 22, 2009.
[15] Hugh LaFollette and Niall Shanks, “Utilizing Animals,” Journal of Applied Philosophy, January 1995, p. 13.
[16] Peter Singer and Richard A. Posner, “Animal Rights,” Slate, June 15, 2009.
[17] Carl Cohen, “The Case for the Use of Animals in Biomedical Research,” The New England Journal of Medicine, Oct. 2, 1986, pp. 865–869.
[18] Jan Narveson, Moral Matters (1999), p. 135.


Clay Barham said...

I don't believe animals have the same Declaration of Independence or Constitution we use, or once used, but I do feel we have an obligation towards those we have domesticated for our own pleasure. We rescue ex-racing Greyhounds and love them as we would our children, but we do accord them rights they have no ability to understand or pursue without our help.

Sarah said...

Anyone wondering what the real position of the HSUS is, should visit our website. You can see it clearly stated that like most scientists, The HSUS advocates an end to the use of animals in research and testing that is harmful to the animals. Accordingly, we strive to decrease and eventually eliminate harm to animals used for these purposes. Our concern encompasses all aspects of laboratory animal use, including their housing and care.
In addition, we focus not on animal rights, but rather on human responsibility, and I would strongly encourage anyone questioning this to visit our CEO's blog on what we do on a daily basis to stop animal cruelty.
Our statement on animal research can be viewed here:
Our CEO's blog at

Hillary said...

Thanks for this thoughtful analysis of animal rights philosophy. So often in the mainstream media, terms like "animal rights" aren't given the nuance and context they deserve. However, I'd like to challenge the statement from the Foundation for Biomedical Research that characterizes the Humane Society of the U.S. as "extremist". I work at the HSUS, and our goals are very much in step with the values of the American public.

Here is an excerpt from our position statement on animals used in biomedical research, which can be found at "We carry out our work on behalf of animals used and kept in laboratories primarily by promoting research methods that have the potential to replace or reduce animal use or refine animal use so that the animals experience less suffering or physical harm. Replacement, reduction, and refinement are known as the Three Rs (or alternative methods). The Three Rs approach, rigorously applied, will benefit both animal welfare and biomedical progress."

Jason said...


"like most scientists, The HSUS advocates an end to the use of animals in research and testing that is harmful to the animals."

Do you have a statistical study to back this claim?


Thank you for this piece. I can immediately tell that you have put a lot of thoughts and effort into the writing, and such attitude is rare in contentious debates such as this.

I will just make one comment on what Singer said. Singer compares the marginal cases of infants and handicapped people with animals and argues that animals are unfairly treated compared to these people.

In the case of an infant, they will almost certainly grow up to a normal person who can make contracts with others (unless there is some accident). This fact alone should make Singer's comparison to be far-fetched and irrelevant.

In the case of a handicapped person, it should be mentioned that it is a marginal case, where we are speaking of general cases in ethics. With that said, handicapped people have family members and other charity organizations that care intensely for them. In Lockian sense, they are heavily homestead, therefore, no one has any right to harm these people.

Anonymous said...

I think the comments by Mark Bernstein are worthy of much thought.