Wednesday, 19 August 2009

The Rights Of Animals

I have always had the view that humans have responsibilities towards animals, rather than animals actually having rights.

But I have been wondering what would be the implications if I this was not correct and that animals did have rights.

Clearly the animal would have the right not to be badly treated by humans; but it would appear to me that the practical effect of this right would be roughly the same as the human merely having responsibility towards the animal.

The implication of "animal rights" which interests me is the extent that humans should intervene to stop animals treating other animals badly.

For it appears to me that if (a) an animal does have rights and (b) humans have the means so as to allow the animal to enforce these rights, then humans should (say) intervene to stop animals being cruel to each other.

So, if an animal does have rights, are they enforceable (via human intervention) against other animals as well as against humans?

If this is the case, do humans have a positive active duty to police the animal kingdom and prevent cruelty between animals?

How far, if at all, should humans go to stop cruelty between animals?

Any help clarifying my thoughts here would be most welcome.

As always, please tag your comment with a name even if you have no url; purely "anonymous" comments may not get moderated.


Richard James said...

"How far, if at all, should humans go to stop cruelty between animals?"

We should certainly endeavour to prevent the cruel streak of the pet cat inflicting itself on the local avifauna. But this reflects more our responsibility to properly control the animals we nominally own than the rights of the birds. We have no right to intervene between the sparrowhawk and its prey.

Pedro Homero said...

(note: i rant and and i rant, in search for an answer to your question. feel free to not approve this comment if it's too boring/useless).

In other matters i usually don't comment, for
a) i agree with everything written
b) i don't really have nothing more to add to the subject.

Not the case this time, though, as i've thought about this subject for several years.

I think you're right that humans, as ethical beings (in the sense that we are responsible for out actions and have a capacity way beyond instinct to choose what to do in normal circumstances) have a responsibility towards sentient beings (the only ones that deserve that responsibility, because if one doesn't feel a thing - a potato, for example - one can't really have rights).

On the issue of rights, and in this case sentient beings rights, one can look at it as a two-way road: "rights" or "duties" exist on an interaction between sentient beings, in which one of the parties is ethical as well.

In that sense, all sentient beings should be conferred rights by ethical beings (in plain English, beasts should have their rights acknowledged by folks) but non-ethical beings (non-human animals) have no place in such a "rights giving scenario", because they are not responsible for their actions.

This, however, is not enough to explain *why* i believe, in my humble opinion, that we should *not* stop other non-human animals from using/abusing other non-human animals. For that, i would use two arguments:

1) The nature-is-as-it-is argument: a predator has no choice but to hunt, its instinct tells it what to do. Why should we interfere?

2) The no-one-responsible-around argument: rights are given *by* responsible, ethical beings. We can't expect a lion to give rights to others, nor should we interfere in his lunchtime hunting.

This leads us to a problem, stated in a sentence like, say, this one:

"A tiger is about to kill a human baby. He is not responsible for his actions, therefore, why should I interfere and stop it from killing the baby?"

Or, if one prefers to stay in the realm of non-human animals:
"A wolf is trying to kill my dog. He is not responsible for his actions, therefore, why should I interfere and stop it from killing my canine friend?"

Here, the fog gets thicker: as in most (all?) tough questions, there's no simple black and white. Sure, we should respect animals' rights, but we need insulin from pigs' stomachs, and we still need to use animals in many scientific/medical trials.
Sure, no reason to interfere with a lion versus gazelle scenario, but humans are "us" and we care about "us" - or about dogs and cats, maybe some other domesticated animals too.

In the end, it is a mixture of reason (rights given to whom deserves, by those that are responsible for their actions) and emotional/egoistic arguments (i crave for ice-cream / we need to test this life-saving drug / not my puppy you won't kill, evil wolf you/ etc, etc.) and there's probably no definitive answer.

Ivan said...

A "right" is meaningless unless someone else has a duty or responsibility to allow you to fulfil it (except in rare cases where you can always fulfil it without that). For example, one only has a meaningful "right of reply" if your interlocutor has a duty to present your reply to the same audience.

So saying that humans should have a responsibility towards animals is a much better definition of animals rights than whatever else it was you sought to distinguish it from.

Pedro Homero said...

Ivan explained it well better than me, and in fewer words!

Stargazy Photography said...

"Cruelty" is a human-invented notion applied to human-involved events. Perceived cruelty is based upon a human viewing such natural behaviours (which we're suppose to be allowing animals to express according to the Animal Welfare Act) as killing prey albeit in a roundabout way.
It's a bit "if a tree falls in a forest does it make a sound" ... if a lion beats up an antelope and lets it go, very badly injured, is it cruel or is it just a way of life?

Was this post inspired by the TV coverage recently of a Big Cat that liked chasing the local rabbit population around its compound? Wasn't any good at killing it but was deemed "cruel" and the rabbits shouldn't have to put up with it. To which I thought the above statements... When did nature become cruel to the point that humans are going to step in? Isn't keeping a Big Cat a bit cruel in itself especially if you're going to tell it off or prevent it from expressing normal traits and behaviours. All cats learn how to kill by playing with their prey. Eventually the big cat in question will figure out how to take out the local rabbit population which will probably be a good thing for any nearby farmers.

Funnily enough, pain is usually regarded as a human only trait as we can only guess as to what sort of pain an animal has due to the lack of communication involved.

Botogol said...

this is an interesting topic.

- I think you err in creating two categories 'humans' and 'animals': in reality there is a scale of animals from bacteria to sea-slugs to worms through to cats and chimps and gorillas. Essentially the more sentient an animal is the more rights it acquires (or the more responsibilities we have toward it, it's the same thing)

Uncomfortably that seems to work in reverse as well: the less sentient the human, the fewer the rights. We can think of coma patients, the mentally disabled, children, a foetus (tho I don't suppose you want to start an abortion thread right now).

It's an interesting, and developing area of ethics and morality, and genetics reveals more and more about the slippery diviion between species, and genetic engineering perhaps breaks down the divisions further) we will hear more and more about it. (perhaps one day even the church will get involved)

Yes - you should intervene to prevent a cat from torturing a frog, that's only kind. But you can't *blame* the cat.

Twaza said...


I would add that it would also be necessary to take into account groups (ie species) as well as individuals.

If we have a duty to not protect the sparrow from the sparrowhawk in their natural habitat, we do have duty to protect the red squirrel species from the alien grey squirrels. And this duty extends to protecting native plants from invaders.

Pedro Homero said...

@ SP - with the exception of some strange and almost plant-like animals, it has been well established by science, i believe, that animals feel pain and pleasure. Especially pain.

Stargazy Photography said...

@PH - It's been proving they have pain receptors, but not if they experience a similar emotional kind of pain as humans (as that's basically impossible to prove).

AndyN said...

I think "inflicting harm for no reason" is a definition of cruelty that works in this situation.

So no, you don't interfere in a lion chasing its prey. Otherwise the logical outcome would be the enforcement of vegetarianism across the animal kingdom. Ironically, that in itself would be a cruel act, since you'd be starving all the carnivores for no reason apart from your own misjudged sense of what you deem to be cruelty.

Rogue Medic said...

What about something like the spider wasp, that paralyzes a spider, lays an egg on the still living spider, and entombs it with the egg. When the egg hatches, the baby spider wasp eats the spider while it is still alive. I would not want to be this version of Prometheus.

An interesting bit of semantics, but don't the terms inhuman and inhumane lose a lot of their significance if not used to describe humans?

Pedro Homero said...

@SP - i see... but surely they *do* feel it, and it is uncomfortable and stressful, wouldn't you agree? You should see my dog's face when i (inadvertently) step on his paws or tail.

@R. Medic - nice bit of trivia about that wasp. OTOH, and regarding inhuman and inhumane, maybe it's related to us as agents of (un)ethical actions and not receivers of actions by others, and therefore they hold ground.

Simon said...

A few thoughts - th spider wasp (Rogue Medic) uses this tactic as it has no others. To decide that that is cruel (and who is to say that that is our right?) would be to deny a species to exist.

I disagree with Botogol - "the more sentient an animal is the more rights it acquires". Such thinking is why countless species have dwindled into extinction, as we simply didn't care enough about them. For sure it is easier to care more about an elephant than an insect, but it isn't a sound enough theoretical argument (as opposed to practical) to justify conservation decisions. We should care as much about our sulphur-crested newts as we do our gorillas - that's my opinion of course.

My main query though is to Jack - how do you define cruelty between animals? The distinction has been made above between inflicting harm for no reason and for food, and the case of the grey squirrel is interesting. So what about the imbalance of populations (such as grey squirrels) brought about by human-induced population changes, which favour one species and imbalance competition?

Mike said...

You might care to read on animals as "moral patients" rather than as "moral agents, for example as described by Mark Rowlands author of The Philosopher and the Wolf.

HB said...

Jack (and others),

My workplace has a pretty good section about this.

Animal Rights and Animal Ethics

paulc said...

Jack: "The implication of "animal rights" which interests me is the extent that humans should intervene to stop animals treating other animals badly."

Interesting topic Jack. I recommend the website of philospher Gary Francione ( for much insight into the issue. His view is that animals need only one right: the right not to be the property of others. In the FAQs section Gary gives his thoughts on your question (see question 17) - his words are far more eloquent than mine, and I certainly wouldn't want to pass his thoughts off as my own!

harangutan said...

It may be worth elaborating on a few terms here. 'Cruelty' may be taken to imply a degree of intent, or at least volition, on the part of the actor. Since most non-human animals may be assumed to be motivated ny instinct, and to be incapable of ethical thinking, the term may be inappropriate in their cases.

What we are talking about is the infliction of suffering. If we assume that certain species are sentient, i.e. capable of suffering (I concede that this is not provable, but then, neither is your sentience ... and that ways lies solipcism), then they at very least possess interests in avoiding that suffering. Whether or not this gives rise to any sort of duty on our part, it does at least give rise to a pro tanto ethical reason to intervene.

Now into that utilitarian calculus, a whole range of other variables must be entered. What is the alternative for the predator animal if it is deprived of its food source? What is the alternative for the prey if it is not killed by the predator? (Is it more likely to die of starvation or exposure to the elements as it grows old and feeble? There are, after all, few retirement homes in the animal world.) And what is the opportunity cost of humans electing to police the aniumal kingdom in this fashion?

A quick attempt to answer all three questions suggests to me that it would certainly be right to stop my cat toying with a mouse. The lion/gazelle example is considerably less clear, but it does occur that - in strictly utilitarian terms - the life of one lion may well count for a little when weighed against the numerous gazelles that it will (violently) kill over its lifetime.

Ben Murphy said...

Simon says:

"I disagree with Botogol - "the more sentient an animal is the more rights it acquires". Such thinking is why countless species have dwindled into extinction, as we simply didn't care enough about them."

Well, I disagree with Simon: he misses Bogotal's point. An unborn baby may have the right to life, but nobody argues that it has the right to vote. I was once part of a group of protesters who chanted "Education is a right, not a privilege", but I don't try to teach dogs to read.

To say that A has more rights than B does not necessarily imply that we should care more about A's rights, nor that A's rights automatically take precedence over B's rights.

Simon said...

Ben Murphy says:

"To say that A has more rights than B does not necessarily imply that we should care more about A's rights, nor that A's rights automatically take precedence over B's rights."

In principle I absolutely agree, but in practice we do tend to focus on those that have more rights, or we seem to allocate more rights by cuteness/kindred connection (for want of a better phrase). Imagine a scenario where both chimpanzees and a slug species were equally critically endangered. Which would we strive to protect first? By your argument we should care about them equally, regardless of the fact that, by Bogotal's reasoning, the chimpanzee has more rights. But would we care about them equally? I suspect we wouldn't.

Rogue Medic said...

If we do not discriminate according to sentience, then what?

I do not think that we should deprive humans, who lack the capacity to make informed decisions, of rights. In stead, we should encourage those, who may not be able to continue to make decisions for themselves, to make clear how they wish their rights to be respected, ahead of time.

Suppose we discriminate among species without using sentience as a guide. How can we justify having humans kill members of any other species? Smallpox would have just as much right to exist outside of a zoo as humans. Smallpox would also decrease the amount of competition for resources between humans and other species.

If we do not use sentience to discriminate, then what do we use?

Mike said...

Sentience is part of the criteria for being a moral agent rather than a moral patient (like infants, brain-damaged adults, animals). A moral patient has no moral responsibilities but may have moral rights. There's a lot written on this area.

MikeB said...

See Adlai Stevenson's take on cat vs. bird, and indeed on bird vs. worm at

marcusbailius said...

Nature does tend to be a bit "red in tooth and claw", doesn't it?! Animals basically do what they do. So do plants... A new species of pitcher plant has just been discovered, which is large enough that it could digest a rat. So could one speak in any real sense, about the pitcher plant or the venus flytrap, being cruel?

Are we in danger of assigning human emotions to utterly non-human situations?

Simon King tells a story of how, after completing filming killer whales taking seals off a beach, he sat on the shore, and watched as a seal pup swam along towards him. Then he saw the fin...

The orca came out, grabbed the pup, saw King sat there, and then proceeded to show off, by realeasing the pup immediately opposite King in the water. The pup swam desperately towards him, before being caught a metre or so from him, and King was of course drenched in the process. This playing and showing off went on for quite a while.

Was the orca being cruel? Or was it just having some fun, playing with its dinner, showing off, and the human-assigned emotion of cruelty completely absent from its head?

I guess if you get the chance to put an animal out of some misery, then fine; otherwise, it's just nature doing what it does. After all, pretty much every deer you see in the wild in Africa, will eventually end up as dinner for something...

Ben Murphy said...

One of the earliest uses recorded by the OED dates from 1330, where a knight is described as "cruelle als a leon". What this conjures up in my mind is not a sadistic knight, who takes joy from inflicting as much pain as possible, but a knight who perhaps enjoys the exercise of skill in battle, but is simply indifferent to the pain he causes. Or think of "The Cruel Sea": the point of that title, as I take it, is the sea's absolute indifference to the suffering it inflicts - and the real cruelty is that anyone whose life is spent at sea must take on some of that quality in order to survive.

I'm not saying that sadism and cruelty are mutually exclusive, only that they are not the same thing, and that cruelty can encompass a lack of emotional response.

db said...

This debate has brought to mind another question: what is the point of conservation?

People may argue over rights, but it seems to me that conservation is a selfish act. We, as humans, (try to/should) protect our atmosphere so that we can continue to exist, protect our fish stocks so we can continue to eat fish, etc.

Otherwise, we end up in ethical debates. Should we protect the large mammal which cannot adapt to changing conditions; should we protect the small mammal which has been driven out by a foreign invader (red vs grey squirrel). Surely any organism which becomes extinct as it fails to adapt is merely a victim of natural selection, (even if human caused) and should only be saved if there is an advantage to us as humans, or for a 'genetic record'.

Is it ethical to defend one animal population (eg red squirrels) against another (grey squirrels), when there is a limit to the number who can survive, and in fact maintaining the status quo will cause a weaker population over time?

This is important for animal rights/human responsibility issue, as animal rights fail to answer these questions, whereas human responsibility (and selfishness) perhaps can make a start.

Ben Murphy said...

db: There's long been a divide between those who engage in conservation for utilitarian reasons, and those who engage in it for other reasons. The case of the O'Shaughnessy Dam in the Hetch Hetchy Vally is the classical example. The dam is a source of hydroelectric power - a good source of energy from an environmental perspective. However, creating the dam meant flooding an area of wilderness.

For an environmentalist whose motive is the preservation of the natural human habitat, the dam is a good thing. For the environmentalist whose motive is to preserve nature as an end in itself, the dam is a bad thing.

So, you're damned if you do and damned if you don't...

Simon said...

I'd add to that that adaptation and evolution are slow processes. Human-induced changes in environments and population balance occur too quickly for most animals to adapt - those that do happened to already have residual adaptations that weren't being used but came to the fore as we interfered. Therefore, I wouldn't say the species that perish as a result of human activity are victims of natural selection. Selection yes, but certainly not natural.

I disagree also that we should only save a species if there is an advantage to us, although that is just my opinion and has little to do with any specific philosophy or legal thinking.

Pedro Homero said...

@ Ben oh, that was a fine pun, there, with the dam and the damned!

db said...

@Simon: By natural selection, I meant natural as opposed to sexual selection, rather than a reference to the cause, although I do accept your point.

I find it quite interesting that 'natural' never seems to include humans. Ok, there are some valid reasons, like our lack of (genetic) selective pressures where vaccination and other such interventions are available, and our unique ability to destroy our planet. John Stuart Mill wrote the essay 'On Nature' (partly) on this topic, and it is relevant to this issue, as he discusses the issues involving 'evil' in 'nature'; he wrote far more eloquently on this than I ever could, even though he focused on religious implications which aren't the main focus here.

Most people though, apart from quite extreme anti-vivisectionists and Peter Singer, value human life as more important than animal life; hence animal testing, domestication and the species specific legal concept of 'human' rights.

On the subject of conservation, my opinion is that we should preserve species because the extra opportunity cost to preserve just a few members is much smaller than losing, for example, the perfectly adapted mass source of meat to a different climate.

We don't know which species would be worth saving, and that is a good reason to try to save them all.

I don't agree that there is an objective reason to prevent extinction, and I can't think of any alternative to the very loose form of selfishness I have described.

Andrew Gilbey said...

Stargazy Photography said...
@PH - It's been proving they have pain receptors, but not if they experience a similar emotional kind of pain as humans (as that's basically impossible to prove).

Andrew Said: Probably we should set out to prove that they do not!