ANIMAL RIGHTS FAQS
Question 1: What is all this Animal
Rights (AR) stuff and why should it concern me?
The fundamental principle of the AR movement is that nonhuman animals
deserve to live according to their own natures, free from harm, abuse,
exploitation. This goes further than just saying that we should treat
animals well while we exploit them, or before we kill and eat them. It
says animals have the RIGHT to be free from human cruelty and
exploitation, just as humans possess this right. The withholding of this
right from the nonhuman animals based on their species membership is
referred to as "speciesism".
Animal rights activists try to extend the human circle of respect and
compassion beyond our species to include other animals, who are also
capable of feeling pain, fear, hunger, thirst, loneliness, and kinship.
When we try to do this, many of us come to the conclusion that we can no
longer support factory farming, vivisection, and the exploitation of
animals for entertainment. At the same time, there are still areas of
debate among animal rights supporters, for example, whether ANY research
that harms animals is ever justified, where the line should be drawn for
enfranchising species with rights, on what occasions civil disobedience
may be appropriate, etc. However, these areas of potential disagreement
not negate the abiding principles that join us: compassion and concern
for the pain and suffering of nonhumans.
One main goal of this FAQ is to address the common justifications that
arise when we become aware of how systematically our society abuses and
exploits animals. Such "justifications" help remove the burden
consciences, but this FAQ attempts to show that they do not excuse the
harm we cause other animals. Beyond the scope of this FAQ, more detailed
arguments can be found in three classics of the AR literature.
The Case for Animal Rights, Tom Regan (ISBN 0-520-05460-1)
In Defense of Animals, Peter Singer (ISBN 0-06-097044-8)
Animal Liberation, Peter Singer (ISBN 0-380-71333-0, 2nd Ed.)
While appreciating the important contributions of Regan and Singer, many
animal rights activists emphasize the role of empathetic caring as the
actual and most appropriate fuel for the animal rights movement in
contradistinction to Singer's and Regan's philosophical rationales. To
reader who says "Why should I care?", we can point out the following
One cares about minimizing suffering.
One cares about promoting compassion in human affairs.
One is concerned about improving the health of humanity.
One is concerned about human starvation and malnutrition.
One wants to prevent the radical disruption of our planet's ecosystem.
One wants to preserve animal species.
One wants to preserve wilderness.
The connections between these issues and the AR agenda may not be obvious.
Please read on as we attempt to clarify this.
The day may come when the rest of the animal creation may acquire
those rights which never could have been withholden from them but by the
hand of tyranny.
Jeremy Bentham (philosopher)
Life is life--whether in a cat, or dog or man. There is no difference
there between a cat or a man. The idea of difference is a human
conception for man's own advantage...
Sri Aurobindo (poet and philosopher)
Non-violence leads to the highest ethics, which is the goal of all
evolution. Until we stop harming all other living beings, we are still
Thomas Edison (inventor)
The time will come when men such as I will look upon the murder
animals as they now look on the murder of men.
Leonardo Da Vinci (artist and scientist)
see also questions 2-3, 26, 87-91
Question 2: Is the Animal Rights movement
different from the Animal Welfare movement?
The Animal Welfare movement acknowledges the suffering of nonhumans
attempts to reduce that suffering through "humane" treatment,
but it does
not have as a goal elimination of the use and exploitation of animals.
Animal Rights movement goes significantly further by rejecting the
exploitation of animals and according them rights in that regard. A person
committed to animal welfare might be concerned that cows get enough space,
proper food, etc., but would not necessarily have any qualms about killing
and eating cows, so long as the rearing and slaughter are "humane".
The Animal Welfare movement is represented by such organizations as the
Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and the Humane Society.
Having said this, it should be realized that some hold a broader
interpretation of the AR movement. They would argue that the AW groups
in fact, support rights for animals (e.g., a dog has the right not to be
kicked). Under this interpretation, AR is viewed as a broad umbrella
covering the AW and strict AR groups. This interpretation has the advantage
of moving AR closer to the mainstream. Nevertheless, there is a valid
distinction between the AW and AR groups, as described in the first paragraph.
Animal Liberation (AL) is, for many people, a synonym for Animal Rights
(but see below). Some people prefer the term "liberation" because
to mind images of other successful liberation movements, such as the movement
for liberation of slaves and liberation of women, whereas the term "rights"
often encounters resistance when an attempt is made to apply it to nonhumans.
The phrase "Animal Liberation" became popular with the publication
of Peter Singer's classic book of the same name.
This use of the term liberation should be distinguished from the literal
meaning discussed in question #88, i.e., an Animal Liberationist is not
necessarily one who engages in forceful civil disobedience or unlawful
Finally, intellectual honesty compels us to acknowledge that the account
given here is rendered in broad strokes (but is at least approximately
correct), and purposely avoids describing ongoing debate about the meaning
of the terms "Animal Rights", "Animal Liberation",
and "Animal Welfare",
debate about the history of these movements, and debate about the actual
positions of the prominent thinkers. To depict the flavor of such debates,
the following text describes one coherent position. Naturally, it will
attacked from all sides!
Some might suggest that a subtle distinction can be made between the
Liberation and Animal Rights movements. The Animal Rights movement, at
least as propounded by Regan and his adherents, is said to require total
abolition of such practices as experimentation on animals. The Animal Liberation
movement, as propounded by Singer and his adherents, is said to reject
the absolutist view and assert that in some cases, such experimentation
can be morally defensible. Because such cases could also justify some experiments
on humans, however, it is not clear that the distinction described reflects
a difference between the liberation and rights views, so much as it does
a broader difference of ethical theory, i.e., absolutism versus utilitarianism.
Historically, animal welfare groups have attempted to improve the lot
animals in society. They worked against the popular Western concept of
animals as lacking souls and not being at all worthy of any ethical
consideration. The animal rights movement set itself up as an abolitionist
alternative to the reform-minded animal welfarists. As the animal rights
movement has become larger and more influential, the animal exploiters
finally been forced to respond to it. Perhaps inspired by the efforts of
Regan to distinguish AR from AW, industry groups intent on maintaining
status quo have embraced the term "animal welfare". Pro-vivisection,
hunting, trapping, agribusiness, and animal entertainment groups now refer
to themselves as "animal welfare" supporters. Several umbrella
goal is to defend these practices have also arisen.
This classic case of public-relations doublespeak acknowledges the issue
of cruelty to animals in name only, while allowing for the continued use
abuse of animals. The propaganda effect is to stigmatize animal rights
supporters as being extreme while attempting to portray themselves as the
reasonable moderates. Nowadays, the cause of "animal welfare"
is invoked by
the animal industry at least as often as it is used by animal protection
see also questions: 1, 3, 87-88
Question 3: What exactly are rights and
what rights can we give animals?
Despite arguably being the foundation of the Western liberal tradition,
the concept of "rights" has been a source of controversy and
in the debate over AR. A common objection to the notion that animals have
rights involves questioning the origin of those rights. One such argument
might proceed as follows:
Where do these rights come from? Are you in special communication
with God, and he has told you that animals have rights? Have the
rights been granted by law? Aren't rights something that humans
It is true that the concept of "rights" needs to be carefully
It is also true that the concept of "natural rights" is fraught
philosophical difficulties. Complicating things further is the confusion
between legal rights and moral rights.
One attempt to avoid this objection is to accept it, but argue that
if it is not an obstacle for thinking of humans as having rights, then
should not be an obstacle for thinking of animals as having rights. Henry
Salt wrote: Have the lower animals "rights?" Undoubtedly--if
That is the point I wish to make evident in this opening chapter... The
fitness of this nomenclature is disputed, but the existence of some
real principle of the kind can hardly be called in question; so that
the controversy concerning "rights" is little else than an academic
battle over words, which leads to no practical conclusion. I shall
assume, therefore, that men are possessed of "rights," in the
of Herbert Spencer's definition; and if any of my readers object to
this qualified use of the term, I can only say that I shall be
perfectly willing to change the word as soon as a more appropriate
one is forthcoming. The immediate question that claims our attention
is this--if men have rights, have animals their rights also?
Satisfying though this argument may be, it still leaves us unable to
respond to the sceptic who disavows the notion of rights even for humans.
Fortunately, however, there is a straightforward interpretation of
"rights" that is plausible and allows us to avoid the controversial
rights rhetoric and underpinnings. It is the notion that a "right"
flip side of a moral imperative. If, ethically, we must
refrain from an act performed on a being, then that being can be said to
have a "right" that the act not be performed. For example, if
tells us that we must not kill another, then the other has a right not
be killed by us. This interpretation of rights is, in fact, an intuitive
one that people both understand and readily endorse. (Of course, rights
interpreted can be codified as legal rights through appropriate
It is important to realize that, although there is a basis for speaking
of animals as having rights, that does not imply or require that they
possess all the rights that humans possess, or even that humans possess
the rights that animals possess. Consider the human right to vote. (On
view taken here, this would derive from an ethical imperative to give humans
influence over actions that influence their lives.) Since animals lack
capacity to rationally consider actions and their implications, and to
understand the concept of democracy and voting, they lack the capacity
vote. There is, therefore, no ethical imperative to allow them to do so,
and thus they do not possess the right to vote.
Similarly, some fowls have a strong biological need to extend and flap
their wings; right-thinking people feel an ethical imperative to make
it possible for them to do so. Thus, it can be said that fowl have the
to flap their wings. Obviously, such a right need not be extended to humans.
The rights that animals and humans possess, then, are determined by their
interests and capacities. Animals have an interest in living, avoiding
and even in pursuing happiness (as do humans). As a result of the ethical
imperatives, they have rights to these things (as do humans). They can
exercise these rights by living their lives free of exploitation and
abuse at the hands of humans.
see also questions: 1-2
Question 4: Isn't AR hypocritical, e.g.,
because you don't give rights to
insects or plants?
The general hypocrisy argument appears in many forms. A typical
is as follows: "It is hypocritical to assert rights for a cow but
not for a plant;
therefore, cows cannot have rights."
Arguments of this type are frequently used against AR. Not much
analysis is required to see that they carry little weight. First, one
can assert an hypothesis A that would carry as a corollary hypothesis
B. If one then fails to assert B, one is hypocritical, but this does
not necessarily make A false. Certainly, to assert A and not B would
call into question one's credibility, but it entails nothing about the
validity of A.
Second, the factual assertion of hypocrisy is often unwarranted. In
the above example, there are grounds for distinguishing between cows
and plants (plants do not have a central nervous system), so the charge
of hypocrisy is unjustified. One may disagree with the criteria, but
assertion of such criteria nullifies the charge of hypocrisy.
Finally, the charge of hypocrisy can be reduced in most cases to
simple speciesism. For example, the quote above can be recast as:
"It is hypocritical to assert rights for a human but not for a plant;
therefore, humans cannot have rights."
To escape from this reductio ad absurdum of the first quote, one
must produce a crucial relevant difference between cows and humans,
in other words, one must justify the speciesist assignment of rights
to humans but not to cows. (In question #24, we apply a similar reduction
to the charge of hypocrisy related to abortion. For questions dealing
specifically with insects and plants, refer to questions #39 through #46.)
Finally, we must ask ourselves who the real hypocrites are. The following
quotation from Michael W. Fox describes the grossly hypocritical treatment
of exploited versus companion animals.
Farm animals can be kept five to a cage two feet square, tied up
constantly by a two-foot-long tether, castrated without anesthesia, or
branded with a hot iron. A pet owner would be no less than prosecuted for
treating a companion animal in such a manner; an American president was,
fact, morally censured merely for pulling the ears of his two beagles.
Michael W. Fox (Vice President of HSUS)
see also questions: 24, 39-46
Question 5: What right do AR people have
to impose their beliefs on others?
There is a not-so-subtle distinction between imposition of one's
and advertising them. AR supporters are certainly not imposing their views
in the sense that, say, the Spanish Inquisition imposed its views, or the
Church imposed its views on Galileo. We do, however, feel a moral duty
present our case to the public, and often to our friends and acquaintances.
There is ample precedent for this: protests against slavery, protests
against the Vietnam War, condemnation of racism, etc.
One might point out that the gravest imposition is that of the exploiter
of animals upon his innocent and defenseless victims.
If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people
they do not want to hear.
George Orwell (author)
I never give them hell. I just tell the truth and they think it's
Harry S. Truman (33rd U.S. President)
see also questions: 11, 87-91
Question 6: Isn't AR just
another facet of political correctness?
If only that were true! The term "politically correct"
to a view that is in sync with the societal mainstream but which some might
be inclined to disagree with. For example, some people might be inclined
to dismiss equal treatment for the races as mere "political correctness".
The AR agenda is, currently, far from being a mainstream idea.
Also, it is ridiculous to suppose that a view's validity can be
overturned simply by attaching the label "politically correct"
Question 7: Isn't AR just another religion?
No. The dictionary defines "religion" as the appeal to
power. (An alternate definition refers to devotion to a cause; that is
a virtue that the AR movement would be happy to avow.)
People who support Animal Rights come from many different religions
and many different philosophies. What they share is a belief in the
importance of showing compassion for other individuals, whether
human or nonhuman.
Question 8: Doesn't it demean humans to give
rights to animals?
A tongue-in-cheek, though valid, answer to this question is given
David Cowles-Hamar: "Humans are animals, so animal rights are human
In a more serious vein, we can observe that giving rights to women and
black people does not demean white males. By analogy, then, giving rights
nonhumans does not demean humans. If anything, by being morally consistent,
and widening the circle of compassion to deserving nonhumans, we ennoble
humans. (Refer to question #26 for other relevant arguments.)
The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by
the way its animals are treated.
Mahatma Gandhi (statesman and philosopher)
It is man's sympathy with all creatures that first makes him truly
Albert Schweitzer (statesman, Nobel 1952)
For as long as men massacre animals, they will kill each other.
Indeed, he who sows the seed of murder and pain cannot reap joy and love.
see also questions: 26
Question 9: Weren't Hitler and Goebbels
in favor of animal rights?
This argument is absurd and almost unworthy of serious consideration.
The questioner implies that since Hitler and Goebbels allegedly held views
supportive of animal rights (e.g., Hitler was a vegetarian for some time),
the animal rights viewpoint must be wrong or dubious.
The problem for this argument is simple: bad people and good people
both believe things correctly. Or put in another way, just because a person
holds one bad belief (e.g., Nazism), that doesn't make all his beliefs
wrong. A few examples suffice to illustrate this. The Nazis undertook smoking
reduction campaigns. Is it therefore dubious to discourage smoking?
Early Americans withheld respect and liberty for black people. Does that
mean that they were wrong in giving respect and liberty to others?
Technically, this argument is an "ignoratio elenchus fallacy",
Finally, many scholars are doubtful that Hitler and Goebbels supported
AR in any meaningful way.
see also questions: 54
Question 10: Do you really believe that
"a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy"?
Taken alone and literally, this notion is absurd. However, this
quote has been shamelessly removed from its original context and
misrepresented by AR opponents. The original context of the quote is
given below. Viewed within its context, it is clear that the quote
is neither remarkable nor absurd.
When it comes to having a central nervous system, and the ability
feel pain, hunger, and thirst, a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy.
Ingrid Newkirk (AR activist)
see also questions: 47