Both of us are advocates for the rights of nonhuman animals. That doesn’t mean we believe that animals should have all of the same rights as humans—it would make no sense to say that animals should have the right to drive cars or vote (even though we might have better political leadership if they could).
In fact when we talk about animal rights we’re referring to one right in particular: the right not to be property. Why is that so important?
All of us have interests—states of affairs that we prefer, desire, or want. There are two ways to protect these interests. The first is to protect them only to the extent that this produces desirable consequences. The second is to protect them despite these considerations—as rights.
A person’s interest in living is protected as a right; others must respect your interest in continuing to live even if killing you would benefit other people. So even if your organs could be used to save the lives of leading scientists, inventors or artists who will die without organ transplants, your interest in not being used as a forced organ donor would still be protected because you have the right to life.
However much people may disagree about what rights human beings should have, we can all agree that they all have the right not to be chattel slaves. Why is that? Because if a person is a slave, they are not considered to be a being who matters morally—to be, in other words, a person. Instead they become a thing that only has an economic value that is determined by their owner. If a human being is going to count morally, they must have the right not to be property. If they don’t have this right they will be used as a resource whenever other people believe that they will benefit from doing so.
Society extends the right not to be property to all people irrespective of their intelligence, beauty, strength or any other characteristic. It doesn’t matter whether a person is a genius or has a learning disability. No-one should be the property of someone else. Slavery still exists, but no one defends it.
The same reasoning holds for nonhuman animals. If animals are to matter morally, and not be just things, they cannot be treated as property, since if they are property they have no intrinsic moral value. Their only value is that accorded to them by their owners. The only reason we deny this right to nonhumans is that they are not human. But that is no different from using any other morally irrelevant characteristic such as race or sex to justify slavery or otherwise fail to accord equal consideration to others.
The only characteristic that animals must have in order to matter morally is sentience. It is not necessary that they have humanlike minds. If they are sentient, they have interests, including the interest in continuing to live and in not suffering pain or distress. That is all that is necessary.
If we agree that animals matter morally, we are committed to recognizing that all sentient nonhumans have a moral right not to be used as property. This requires that we stop using animals as resources. In other words, we must be morally committed to stop eating, wearing, or otherwise using animals.
This position may sound radical, and in the sense that the rights position requires the abolition of all institutionalized exploitation, it is. But since most people already believe that it is wrong to inflict unnecessary suffering on animals it’s really just an extension of current and widely-shared convictions. If the principle of unnecessary suffering is going to mean more than avoiding the infliction of gratuitous harm, it must rule out any suffering or death that’s imposed for reasons of pleasure, amusement or convenience. But those are the only reasons we have for almost all of our current animal use—uses that are, for the most part, transparently frivolous.
For example, our most numerically significant use of animals is for food. We kill about 60 billion land animals and one trillion sea animals annually. Putting aside any possible situation in which someone will starve if they do not eat animal foods because those are the only foods available, this killing and suffering is completely unnecessary. There is no compulsion. We could all be as healthy—if not healthier—if we ate only plants.
Moreover, animal agriculture causes a good chunk of the ecological damage that is threatening human survival. And we could feed many more humans if we consumed plants directly rather than fed plants to animals who are then consumed.
If we stopped exploiting animals for food, clothing, sport, and entertainment we would get to almost the same point as that which is embraced by advocates of animal rights. So the animal rights position is not especially radical relative to what we say we already believe.
The only use of animals that is not transparently frivolous is in helping to cure serious human illnesses. There is a considerable dispute about whether such use is really necessary for the purpose, but for argument’s sake let’s assume that without animal use we will fail to discover important information that is medically beneficial.
Why do we think animal use in this context is acceptable? The standard response is that nonhumans, unlike humans, are not rational, or otherwise lack the moral value of humans, so unlike human beings they can be ‘sacrificed’ for the sake of some wider social benefit. But we would never say that humans who are not rational or who are otherwise not considered to be cognitively ‘normal’ have a lesser degree of moral value, and can therefore be ‘sacrificed’ to benefit ‘normal’ human beings.
Indeed, we protect people from being used as resources for others even if that use will benefit society, because we recognize that they have an inalienable right not to be so used. To reject this right where nonhumans are involved and where the only difference is species is an example of the speciesism that a rights position prohibits.
If the right not to be used as property was recognized and respected, it would require the abolition of all institutionalized animal use. This would necessitate the end of all domestication, but it would not mean that conflicts between humans and nonhumans would disappear. There would still be non-domesticated animals living away from humans in woods and jungles, as well as those who live amongst us such as squirrels, rabbits, rats, mice, birds, and many other creatures. We would still need a framework to govern our interactions with these creatures but, if we no longer engaged in the exploitation of nonhuman domesticates it would be easier to develop a solid framework for these other situations.
Do we have to recognize the right of animals not to be property? Couldn’t we just do a better job of protecting animals who continue to be owned by human beings? In theory, we could, of course, treat animals better, but there are powerful economic interests that work against doing so in practice. It costs money to protect animal interests, and the more we protect those interests the more expensive it becomes. Someone—usually the consumer—has to pay that cost. The result is that the standard of animal welfare is very low; even supposedly ‘higher welfare’ products involve treatment of nonhumans that, were humans involved, would constitute torture.
However supposedly ‘humanely’ an animal is treated they will still be exploited or killed for purposes for which we think it appropriate to use no humans, and in our view that is morally unjustifiable. The only way to recognize the moral personhood of animals is to accord them a right not to be property—and that means the abolition of animal exploitation.
For more discussion of these issues, please visit our website. This article draws on material in our most recent book, Advocate for Animals!—An Abolitionist Vegan Handbook.