Do Animals Have Rights?
Classic Philosophical Questions Part 8 - Applied Social and Ethical Problems
Peter Singer, from "Animal Liberation at 30"
Kem Stone - 3 July 2008
The issue of Animal rights is often pictured as an irreconcilable battle between those who believe that animals
should not be eaten, used for experiments, kept as pets, or made subservient to human beings in any way, and
those who believe that there is no reason whatsoever to take the interests of animals into consideration and that
we may do with them whatever we please.  This is certainly not the case, as many opinions including my own lie in
between and far from these extremes.  Having always been sympathetic to those who abstain from eating meat or
using animal products for moral reasons, I nevertheless continued to eat meat until reading an article by Peter
Singer, a professor of philosophy at Princeton University and one of the nation’s leading advocates for Animal
Liberation.  I struggled with the issue for quite some time until attending a debate at Princeton between Singer and
Roger Scruton, a conservative writer in favour of eating meat.  Since then my opinion has been more or less
solid—that eating animals is not necessarily wrong, but making them undergo unnecessary suffering in the process
of raising and slaughtering them is wrong and ought to be stopped.  Every point that led me to this opinion is
raised in this article by Singer, in which he examines some of the arguments on both sides of the debate and asks
whether the Animal Rights movement is succeeding or doomed to failure.

The heart of Singer’s position is a proposition I completely accept: that “despite obvious differences between
human and nonhuman animals, we share with them a capacity to suffer, and this means that they, like us, have
interests.  If we ignore or discount their interests, simply on the grounds that they are not members of our species,
the logic of our position is similar to that of the most blatant racists or sexists who think that those who belong to
their race or sex have superior moral status, simply in virtue of their race or sex, and irrespective of other
characteristics or qualities” (541).  Those who believe that animals have no interests that need protecting are
simply wrong—they can feel pain and therefore they have an interest in
not feeling pain.  Whether or not we
believe that we ought to respect their interests is only a matter of attitude, but the attitude that we need not bother
because they are not humans and therefore not worth considering is the same as the attitude of the racist who
believes that the interests of other races need not be considered due to their inferiority.  There are those who claim
that while the different races of the human species are all essentially equal, animals really
are inferior to humans
because they lack certain intellectual capacities that humans possess.  To those people, Singer has the simple
response that not all humans have these intellectual capacities, and if we find it excusable to confine animals in
cages and slaughter them, it is only hypocritical that we would consider it wrong to do the same to the mentally
challenged.

Singer uses the term “speciesism” to designate the opinion that all humans are inherently superior to all animals.  
The questions to be asked are 1) whether speciesism itself can be defended, and 2) if not, are there other
characteristics about human beings that justify giving them greater moral significance?  Singer writes that the only
argument he has come across to defend speciesism is that just as parents have a special obligation to care for the
interests of their own children over those of other children, human beings have a special obligation to care for each
other over members of other species.  This argument rests on the presupposition that moral imperatives can be
rooted in biology.  One advocate of this position, Lewis Petrinovich of the University of California, writes that our
moral loyalties lie in order of preference with children, kin, neighbours, and species.  Singer points out that if we
are to accept this reasoning, we must accept racism as well.  “If the argument works for both the narrower circle
of family and friends and the wider sphere of the species, it should also work for the middle case: race.  But an
argument that supported our preferring the interests of members of our own race over those of members of other
races would be less persuasive than one that allowed priority for only kin, neighbours, and members of our own
species.  Conversely, if the argument doesn’t show race to be a morally relevant boundary, how can it show that
species is?” (542).  The late Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick would have responded that we can not infer
anything from the fact that no adequate theory as to why species membership is morally important because no one
has spent much time trying to formulate such a theory.  Since twenty years have gone by since Nozick wrote this
and philosophers have still failed to come up with a solid argument in defence of speciesism, Singer believes it is
time to consider the likelihood that no such argument exists.

Turning to the second question, if species itself is not morally important, are there any characteristics unique to
human beings that would call for greater moral consideration than all non-humans?  The first suggestion that Singer
examines is an argument by Peter Carruthers that ethics is based on the capacity to reciprocate—an agreement
that I will not harm you if you do not harm me.  Because animals can not participate in this social contract,
Carruthers believes, we have no direct duties to them.  Yet this ethical foundation leads to many undesirable
results, as we find that no moral consideration needs to be given to anyone or anything that can not reciprocate,
including small children and future generations.  By Carruthers’ reasoning, it would be perfectly ethical to drop a
container of radioactive waste into a lake, as by the time the waste eats through the container and pollutes the
lake, it will not be our problem but that of the people alive during that time, who can not do anything for us now as
an incentive not to pollute their lake.

Are there any other morally significant characteristics unique to humans?  “Many other ways of marking the
special moral significance of human beings have been suggested: the ability to reason, self-awareness, possession
of a sense of justice, language, autonomy, and so on.  But the problem with all of these allegedly distinguishing
marks is, as noted above, that some humans are entirely lacking in these characteristics and few want to consign
them to the same moral category as nonhuman animals” (543).  This is known as “the argument from marginal
cases”, which Roger Scruton deals with thoroughly in his writings.  Scruton believes that it is a contradiction to
accept that all humans have the same basic rights regardless of intellectual ability and to deny these rights to
nonhuman animals which do have some of the characteristics listed above.  But rather than say that such animals
should be given these rights, Scruton argues that since we occasionally deny these rights to humans, as in the case
of a “human vegetable” there is no inconsistency in denying them to animals as well.

Singer points out that a “human vegetable” is too convenient and easy an example to make a truly persuasive
argument, as the very distinguishing characteristic of such a person is that he or she has no conscious brain activity,
and without consciousness one cannot have any interests.  “The argument from marginal cases is not limited to the
question of what beings we can justifiably kill.  In addition to killing animals, we inflict suffering on them, in a wide
variety of ways.  So the defenders of common practices involving animals owe us an explanation for their
willingness to make animals suffer when they would not be willing to do the same to humans with similar
intellectual capacities” (543).  Scruton’s response is inadequate, as he admits to a personal belief that human life is
sacrosanct, and even serious abnormalities do not strip a person of the natural rights of all humans.  Thus, Scruton’
s argument collapses into speciesism, which it has already been shown is not rationally defensible.  Any sentient
being, according to Singer, ought to be given the same consideration as human beings because any sentient being
can enjoy life on the one hand, and feel pain or distress on the other.  Singer believes that these should be the only
necessary requirements for moral consideration.

Some in Singer’s camp, such as the Italian animal rights activist Paola Cavalieri, approach the issue from a rights-
based framework, asking what requirements a sentient being must meet in order to be granted rights.  She
responds to an argument that all and only humans should be given rights because unless we draw a clear boundary
around our moral community, we will be on a slippery slope from denying rights to human vegetables, then to the
intellectually disabled, and finally those who are simply a burden to their families or communities.  Cavalieri argues
that drawing a moral boundary that includes all and only humans is no better than the boundaries that were drawn
in slave-owning societies around all and only land-owning citizens, who granted themselves rights while denying
them to all others, including children of mixed descent.  Even if we drew a moral boundary around the human
species, she does not doubt our ability to deny rights to some humans while keeping those of the rest of the
species intact.

Another argument for drawing the boundary around only the human species rests on the proposition that rights can
be granted in virtue of the characteristics a living being “normally” possesses, rather than what it actually
possesses.  Even an irreversibly unconscious human being should be given rights because
if that person were
healthy, he or she would have the capacity to reason and every other quality that people believe qualifies
something as worthy of moral consideration.  Cavalieri points out the unfairness of this argument: those humans
who “fortuitously” fail to meet the requirements will be granted rights anyway because their intellectual
shortcomings are no fault of their own, yet those nonhumans that meet the intellectual requirements will be denied
rights because they fail to meet the
species requirement, which is also no fault of their own.  Cavalieri approaches
the issue from Richard Dworkin’s framework of an “egalitarian plateau”.  Instead of trying to force our ethical
framework to fit our prejudices, she wants “to secure a basic form of equality for all human beings, including the
‘non-paradigmatic’ ones (her term for ‘marginal cases.’) If the egalitarian plateau is to have a defensible
nonarbitrary boundary that safeguards all humans from being pushed off the edge, we must select as a criterion for
that boundary a standard that allows a large number of nonhuman animals inside the boundary as well” (545).  If
we accept Cavalieri’s position, we must acknowledge that any defensible concept of human rights will include
extending those rights to animals with higher brain functions, and we must commit ourselves to call for the abolition
of practices such as factory-farming and deadly experimentation that violate the interests of nonhuman rights-
holders.

Singer’s position is not based on rights, but simply on the idea that difference in species is not an ethically
defensible justification for giving less moral consideration to one sentient being than another.  This view, unlike
Cavalieri’s, is not subject to the objection that no rights, not even human rights, are due to anyone simply because
they exist.  Singer bases his argument on a principle of equal consideration of interests, which turns the attention to
interests rather than rights.  “To take one case of particular ethical significance: the interest a being has in continued
life—and hence, on the interests view, the wrongness of taking that being’s life—will depend in part on whether
the being is aware of itself as existing over time, and is capable of forming future-directed desires that give it a
particular kind of interest in continuing to live” (546).  This claim is not only extremely reasonable, but it serves
both sides.  Those who eat meat can cite the fact that simply killing an animal for food is not wrong
in itself
because the animal has no concept of past and future and therefore it makes no difference to the animal whether it
lives four years or forty.  Those who agree with Singer can point out that the animal’s interest in not suffering is still
violated by factory farming, and that some animals like chimpanzees which do have a concept of the future have a
greater interest in continuing to live than a human vegetable, so this position rises above speciesism.  The only
difficulty here is scientific rather than philosophical, as the methods used to determine the various intellectual
capacities of different animal species are imperfect at best.

Singer takes some time to examine some of the history of the Animal Liberation movement and considers its
chances for success.  One of the earliest successes of the movement was due to Henry Spira, who campaigned
for an end to the testing of cosmetics on animals and swayed enough opinions to reduce the number of animals
used in these tests.  Animal Rights organisations have also succeeded in reducing the demand for fur, but in other
areas little progress has been made.  “These modest gains are dwarfed, however, by the huge increase in animals
kept confined, some so tightly that they are unable to stretch their limbs or walk even a step or two, on America’s
factory farms….Animals used in experiments are numbers in the tens of millions annually, but last year ten
billion
birds and mammals were raised and killed for food in the United States alone” (547).  Outside the United States,
gains are being made more quickly.  In Europe, laws regulating egg production will require that all hens have
access to a perch and nesting box by 2012, and the practice of keeping calves anaemic for veal has been banned
altogether.  Singer does not believe the differences have anything to do with Americans’ attitudes but with the
greater level of corruption in the American government, with more politicians in the hands of industries with an
interest in keeping such laws off the books.  The most successful campaigns in America have targeted
corporations rather than governments, and have achieved some small gains such as pushing McDonalds to adopt
higher standards for their slaughterhouses, thus causing the other fast-food chains to follow suit.  Some grassroots
campaigns aimed at legislatures have succeeded, such as a ballot measure in Florida that changed the state’s
constitution to prohibit the keeping of pregnant sows in narrow containers.  Such examples show that the slower
rate of success for Animal Rights groups in the United States is not due to a difference in the attitudes of the
people.

Singer is under no illusions as to the enormous gap between the currently prevailing attitudes among all people
towards animals and the attitude that must prevail if the movement is to have any chance of success.  In one of his
previous articles that Singer quotes here, he writes that “Animal Liberation will require greater altruism on the part
of mankind than any other liberation movement, since animals are incapable of demanding it for themselves, or of
protesting against their exploitation by votes, demonstrations, or bombs.  Is man capable of such altruism?  Who
knows?” (549). Optimists can take comfort in the fact that millions of people have joined activist movements or
become vegans or vegetarians.  Pessimists can point out that the vast majority of people still eat meat and buy the
cheapest food without giving a thought to the suffering that goes into it.  “In short, the outcome so far indicates that
as a species we are capable of altruistic concern for other beings; but imperfect information, powerful interests,
and a desire not to know disturbing facts have limited the gains made by the animal movement” (550).

My own views are sympathetic to the Animal Movement but I do not go so as far as Singer in my opposition to
the using of animals as a means.  Because the human species has been eating animals for millions of years, and
countless other species eat other animal species, I find the claim that eating meat is morally wrong to be
indefensible.  I would be more willing to consider it wrong based on the fact that it violates the animal’s interest—
which is just as valid and worthy of moral consideration as the interests of any human being—if animals had any
concept of existing over time and therefore had an interest in continuing to live.  Simply killing the animal does not
harm it, but the methods by which we currently raise and slaughter animals for food clearly violate the interests the
animals have in not suffering.  Therefore I do believe it is wrong to eat meat that comes from factory farming
because doing so contributes to needless suffering, but if there were no suffering involved, eating meat would not
be immoral.  I believe that Animal Rights Activists would have a much easier time if they targeted the practices
involved in meat-consumption rather than meat-consumption itself, as while the majority of human beings would
agree that the unnecessary torture of animals is wrong, no majority will ever agree to stop eating meat altogether.  
By advocating the most extreme positions—abolition of all animal captivity including farming, medical experiments,
and pets—the activists damage their own cause by adopting a position that is too adversarial.  I believe there is a
much greater chance of success if we target factory farming.  Corporations will adopt more humane practices if it
is in their economic interest to do so, and if people are made more aware of what goes on in the meat industry,
many would be willing to pay a little extra to reduce the suffering that goes into their food, and boycott companies
that do not implement changes.

My belief that it is okay for humans to eat animals is not in any way based on an idea that humans are superior.  It
is just as moral for a human to eat an animal as it is for an animal to eat a human—these are natural processes that
have been in motion since the dawn of evolution and they transcend morality.  Killing a human being
is immoral,
but not because of an inherent sanctity in human life that animals lack, but because due to the fact that human
beings can have hopes and desires for the future while animals can not, killing them interferes with their interests.  
Animals do not have an interest in continuing to live indefinitely, but they do have an interest in not suffering which
is every bit as real and valid as a human being’s interest in not suffering.  If we honour one it is only hypocritical
not to honour the other.  Therefore I believe that while we may continue to eat meat, we are guilty of a great moral
atrocity if we continue to do so as we have been doing since industrialisation has transformed the industry.  Until
serious reforms are implemented, those who eat meat will carry the weight of the suffering of billions of innocent
creatures who much to their detriment have no voice to protest against their plight.  The horror is too immense to
truly comprehend, but because the victims are voiceless it is easy for people to ignore it completely.  The activists
are the only allies these animals have, and I believe that they must compromise their position—call for the reform
of factory farming rather than the abolition of all meat consumption—in order to serve these animals best.