The Animal Rights Position

University Essays: Lesson 8, Reading 2

by Tom Regan

The other animals humans eat, use in science, hunt, trap, and exploit in a variety of ways, have a life of their own that is of importance to them apart from their utility to us. They are not only in the world, they are aware of it. What happens to them matters to them. Each has a life that fares better or worse for the one whose life it is.

That life includes a variety of biological, individual, and social needs. The satisfaction of these needs is a source of pleasure, their frustration or abuse, a source of pain. In these fundamental ways the non-human animals in labs and on farms, for example, are the same as human beings. And so it is that the ethics of our dealings with them, and with one another, must acknowledge the same fundamental moral principles.

At its deepest level, human ethics is based on the independent value of the individual: The moral worth of any one human being is not to be measured by how useful that person is in advancing the interests of other human beings. To treat human beings in ways that do not honor their independent value is to violate that most basic of human rights: the right of each person to be treated with respect.

The philosophy of animal rights demands only that logic be respected. For any argument that plausibly explains the independent value of human beings implies that other animals have this same value, and have it equally. And any argument that plausibly explains the right of humans to be treated with respect also implies that these other animals have this same right, and have it equally, too.

It is true, therefore, that women do not exist to serve men. blacks to serve whites, the poor to serve the rich, or the weak to serve the strong. The philosophy of animal rights not only accepts these truths, it insists upon and justifies them. But this philosophy goes further. By insisting upon and justifying the independent value and rights of other animals, it gives scientifically informed and morally impartial reasons for denying that these animals exist to serve us.

Once this truth is acknowledged, it is easy to understand why the philosophy of animal rights is uncompromising in its response to each and every injustice other animals are made to suffer. It is not larger, cleaner cages that justice demands in the case of animals used in science, for example, but empty cages; not “traditional” animal agriculture, but a complete end to all commerce in the flesh of dead animals; not “more humane” hunting and trapping, but the total eradication of these barbarous practices.

For when an injustice is absolute, one must oppose it absolutely. It was not “reformed” slavery that justice demanded, not “reformed” child labor, not “reformed” subjugation of women. In each of these cases, abolition was the only moral answer. Merely to reform absolute injustice is to prolong injustice. The philosophy of animal rights demands this same answer-abolition-in response to the unjust exploitation of other animals. It is not just the details of unjust exploitation that must be changed. It is the unjust exploitation itself that must be ended, whether on the farm, in the lab, or among the wild, for example. The philosophy of animal rights asks nothing more, but neither will it be satisfied with anything less.


1. The philosophy of animal rights is rational.

EXPLANATION: It is not rational to discriminate arbitrarily. And discrimination against nonhuman animals is arbitrary. It is wrong to treat weaker human beings, especially those who are lacking in normal human intelligence, as “tools” or “renewable resources” or “models” or “commodities.” It cannot be right, therefore, to treat other animals as if they were “tools,” “models” and the like, if their psychology is as rich as (or richer than) these humans. To think otherwise is irrational.

2. The philosophy of animal rights is scientific.

EXPLANATION: The philosophy of animal rights is respectful of our best science in general and evolutionary biology in particular. The latter teaches that in Darwin’s words,

humans differ from many other animals “in degree, not in kind.” Questions of line drawing to one side, it is obvious that the animals used in laboratories, raised for food, and hunted for pleasure or trapped for profit, for example, are our psychological kin. This is not a fantasy; this is fact, proven by our best science.

3. The philosophy of animal rights is unprejudiced.

EXPLANATION: Racists are people who think that the members of their race are superior to the members of other races simply because the former belong to the (“superior”) race. Sexists believe that the members of their sex are superior to the members of the opposite sex simply because the former belong to the (“superior”) sex. Both racism and sexism are paradigms of unsupportable bigotry. There is no “superior” or “inferior” sex or race. Racial and sexual differences are biological, not moral, differences.

The same is true of speciesism—the view that the members of the species Homo Sapiens are superior to members of every other species simply because human beings belong to one’s own (the “superior”) species. For there is no “superior” species. To think otherwise is to be no less prejudiced than racists or sexists.

4. The philosophy of animal rights is just.

EXPLANATION: Justice is the highest principle of ethics. We are not to commit or permit injustice so that good may come, not to violate the rights of the few so that the many might benefit. Slavery allowed this. Child labor allowed this. Most examples of social injustice allow this. But not the philosophy of animal rights, whose highest principle is that of justice: No one has a right to benefit as a result of violating another’s rights, whether that “other” is a human being or some other animal.

5. The philosophy of animal rights is compassionate.

EXPLANATION: A full human life demands feelings of empathy and sympathy— in a word, compassion—for the victims of injustice, whether the victims are humans or other animals. The philosophy of animal rights calls for and its acceptance fosters the growth of, the virtue of compassion. This philosophy is, in Lincoln’s words, “the way of a whole human being.”

6. The philosophy of animal rights is unselfish.

EXPLANATION: The philosophy of animal rights demands a commitment to serve those who are weak and vulnerable-those who, whether they are humans or other animals, lack the ability to speak for or defend themselves, and who are in need of protection against human greed and callousness. This philosophy requires this commitment, not because it is in our self-interest to give it, but because it is right to do so. This philosophy therefore calls for, and its acceptance fosters the growth of, unselfish service.

7. The philosophy of animal rights is individually fulfilling.

EXPLANATION: All the great traditions in ethics, both secular and religious, emphasize the importance of four things: knowledge, justice, compassion, and autonomy. The philosophy of animal rights is no exception. This philosophy teaches that our choices should be based on knowledge, should be expressive of compassion and justice, and should be freely made. It is not easy to achieve these virtues, or to control the human inclinations toward greed and indifference. But a whole human life is impossible without them. The philosophy of animal rights both calls for, and its acceptance fosters the growth of individual self-fulfillment.

8. The philosophy of animal rights is socially progressive.

EXPLANATION: The greatest impediment to the flourishing of human society is the exploitation of other animals at human hands. This is true in the case of unhealthy diets, of the habitual reliance on the “whole animal model” in science, and of the many other forms animal exploitation takes. And it is no less true of education and advertising, for example, which help deaden the human psyche to the demands of reason, impartiality, compassion, and justice. In all these ways (and more), nations remain profoundly backward because they fail to serve the true interests of their citizens.

9. The philosophy of animal rights is environmentally wise.

EXPLANATION: The major cause of environmental degradation, including the greenhouse effect, water pollution, and the loss both of arable land and top soil, for example, can be traced to the exploitation of animals. This same pattern exists throughout the broad range of environmental problems, from acid rain and ocean dumping of toxic wastes, to air pollution and the destruction of natural habitat. In all these cases, to act to protect the affected animals (who are, after all, the first to suffer and die from these environmental ills), is to act to protect the earth.

10. The philosophy of animal rights is peaceloving.

EXPLANATION: The fundamental demand of the philosophy of animal rights is to treat humans and other animals with respect. To do this requires that we not harm anyone just so that we ourselves or others might benefit. This philosophy therefore is totally opposed to military aggression. It is a philosophy of peace. But it is a philosophy that extends the demand for peace beyond the boundaries of our species. For there is a war being waged, every day, against countless millions of nonhuman animals. To stand truly for peace is to stand firmly against speciesism. It is wishful thinking to believe that there can be “peace in the world” if we fail to bring peace to our dealings with other animals.


1. You are equating animals and humans, when, in fact, humans and animals differ greatly.

REPLY: We are not saying that humans and other animals are equal in every way. For example, we are not saying that dogs and cats can do calculus, or that pigs and cows enjoy poetry. What we are saying is that, like humans, many other animals are psychological beings, with an experiential welfare of their own. In this sense, we and they are the same. In this sense, therefore, despite our many differences, we and they are equal.

2. You are saying that every human and every other animal has the same rights, which is absurd. Chickens cannot have the right to vote, nor can pigs have a right to higher education.

REPLY: We are not saying that humans and other animals always have the same rights. Not even all human beings have the same rights. For example, people with serious mental disadvantages do not have a right to higher education. What we are saying is that these and other humans share a basic moral right with other animals—namely, the right to be treated with respect.

3. If animals have rights, then so do vegetables, which is absurd.

REPLY: Many animals are like us: they have a psychological welfare of their own. Like us, therefore, these animals have a right to be treated with respect. On the other hand, we have no reason, and certainly no scientific one, to believe that carrots and tomatoes, for example, bring a psychological presence to the world. Like all other vegetables, carrots and tomatoes lack anything resembling a brain or central nervous system. Because they are deficient in these respects, there is no reason to think of vegetables as psychological beings, with the capacity to experience pleasure and pain, for example. It is for these reasons that one can rationally affirm rights in the case of animals and deny them in the case of vegetables.

4. Where do you draw the line? If primates and rodents have rights, then so do slugs and amoebas, which is absurd.

REPLY: It is often not easy to know exactly where to “draw the line.” For example, we cannot say exactly how old someone must be to be old, or how tall someone must be to be tall. However, we can say, with certainty, that someone who is eighty-eight is old, and that another person who is 7’1” is tall. Similarly, we cannot say exactly where to draw the line when it comes to those animals who have a psychology. But we can say with absolute certainty that, wherever one draws the line on scientific grounds, primates and rodents are on one side of it (the psychological side), whereas slugs and amoebas are on the other-which does not mean that we may destroy them unthinkingly.

5. But surely there are some animals who can experience pain but lack a unified psychological identity. Since these animals do not have a right to be treated with respect, the philosophy of animal rights implies that we can treat them in any way we choose.

REPLY: It is true that some animals, like shrimp and clams, may be capable of experiencing pain yet lack most other psychological capacities. If this is true, then they will lack some of the rights that other animals possess. However, there can be no moral justification for causing anyone pain, if it is unnecessary to do so. And since it is not necessary that humans eat shrimp, clams, and similar animals, or utilize them in other ways, there can be no moral justification for causing them the pain that invariably accompanies such use.

6. Animals don’t respect our rights. Therefore, humans have no obligation to respect their rights either.

REPLY: There are many situations in which an individual who has rights is unable to respect the rights of others. This is true of infants, young children, and mentally enfeebled and deranged human beings. In their case we do not say that it is perfectly alright to treat them disrespectfully because they do not honor our rights. On the contrary, we recognize that we have a duty to treat them with respect, even though they have no duty to treat us in the same way. What is true of cases involving infants, children, and the other humans mentioned, is no less true of cases involving other animals. Granted, these animals do not have a duty to respect our rights. But this does not erase or diminish our obligation to respect theirs.

7. God gave humans dominion over other animals. This is why we can do anything to them that we wish, including eat them.

REPLY: Not all religions represent humans as having “dominion” over other animals, and even among those that do, the notion of “dominion” should be understood as unselfish guardianship, not selfish power. Humans are to be as loving toward all of creation as God was in creating it. If we loved the animals today in the way humans loved them in the Garden of Eden, we would not eat them.

8. Only humans have immortal souls. This gives us the right to treat the other animals as we wish.

REPLY: Many religions teach that all animals, not just humans, have immortal souls. However, even if only humans are immortal, this would only prove that we live forever whereas other animals do not. And this fact (if it is a fact) would increase, not decrease, our obligation to insure that this—the only life other animals have—be as long and as good as possible.

9. If we respect the rights of animals, and do not eat or exploit them in other ways, then what are we supposed to do with all of them? In a very short time they will be running through our streets and homes.

REPLY: Somewhere between 4–5 billion animals are raised and slaughtered for food every year, just in the United States. The reason for this astonishingly high number is simple: there are consumers who eat very large amounts of animal flesh. The supply of animals meets the demand of buyers. When the philosophy of animal rights triumphs, however, and people become vegetarians, we need not fear that there will be billions of cows and pigs grazing in the middle of our cities or in our living rooms. Once the financial incentive for raising billions of these animals evaporates, there simply will not be billions of these animals. And the same reasoning applies in other cases—in the case of animals bred for research, for example. When the philosophy of animal rights prevails, and this use of these animals cease, then the financial incentive for breeding millions of them will cease, too.

10. Even if other animals do have moral rights and should be protected, there are more important things that need our attention—world hunger and child abuse, for example, apartheid, drugs, violence to women, and the plight of the homeless. After we take care of these problems, then we can worry about animal rights.

REPLY: The animal rights movement stands as part of, not apart from, the human rights movement. The same philosophy that insists upon and defends the rights of nonhuman animals also insists upon and defends the rights of human beings. At a practical level, moreover, the choice thoughtful people face is not between helping humans or helping other animals. One can do both. People do not need to eat animals in order to help the homeless, for example, any more than they need to use cosmetics that have been tested on animals in order to help children. In fact, people who do respect the rights of nonhuman animals, by not eating them, will be healthier, in which case they actually will be able to help human beings even more.

from The Animal Rights Position: The Philosophy of Animal Rights. Raleigh, NC: Culture and Animals Foundation. Reprinted by permission of the author and the Culture and Animals Foundation.

This reading is from The Class of Nonviolence, prepared by Colman McCarthy of the Center for Teaching Peace, 4501 Van Ness Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20016 202.537.372.

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