Not so long ago, there was no such thing as animal rights. The privilege of rights itself was granted to members of society to the extent of their actual or expected contribution to this society. Employees have a right to compensation, citizens have a right to choose their government, children have a right to education, and so on. Every human being has a right not to be killed. But even this last assumption exists not for so long: women, children, mentally ill people, and other social minorities have now much more rights than they had in the recent past. As human society develops, the spectrum of moral consideration expands, so now we approach the issue of animals’ rights. The major controversy here is between our dependence on materials of animal origin and our moral maxima stating that every living creature must not be killed. Although I acknowledge that an ideal world where people treat all animals as equals is out of reach, I tend to believe that human society is inevitably moving in this direction. This essay is an attempt to understand what traits a living creature must possess to evoke our sympathy. It is also intended to find a compromise between two opposing parties, pragmatism and humanism, considering animals’ rights.
What determines whether an animal have a right to live? Should we expand this right on fishes, mussels, insects, etc.? Or should we limit this list to those animals that are believed to have consciousness and intelligence comparable to humans’? Phillip McReynolds develops a historical approach towards people’s perception of morality. He suggests that in the past, moral values were attributed to some limited group of people; it was necessary to have some particular social status to have a moral standing. Moral standing was dependent on virtues that were of the highest value in a society (like rational thinking in Ancient Greece), so “women, non-Europeans, and children, though, first denied moral standing because they were thought to lack the morally relevant trait, had moral standing extended to them once the trait had been identified in sufficient numbers of individuals” (McReynolds, p. 4). Provided this, animals can acquire moral traits as soon as they are proved to be similar to us in core values. But the question remains, are there some core virtues that distinguish animals and people?

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There are two possible ways to address this question. From the pragmatic perspective, morality is inextricably linked with a community, and we cannot address some moral issue separately from its historical and situational background. In other words, moral considerations are always subjective, and people cannot adhere to some general principle when considering animals’ rights. Pragmatism encourages not to extend our moral measures and standards on animals but to assume that they have their own systems of values. It is quite possible that sooner or later people learn to understand better animals’ needs and justify animals’ rights.

The humanistic approach is more about action than philosophy. It does not ask question ‘How to define animals’ rights’ but rather seeks new ways and arguments in favor of treating animals like humans. Steven Wise, a famous pro-animals activist, describes major physical, economic, political, religious, historical, legal, and psychological obstacles to better treatment for animals and explains how these obstacles should be overcome. As an animal-protecting lawyer, he makes a distinction between ‘legal things’ and legal persons.’ A legal thing is a property, an instrument, a possession, a thing which has no rights. Up until now, nonhuman animals have been regarded as legal things. Legal persons, on the other hand, have rights, they are acknowledged to be alive, to have their own needs and interests. For a long time, women and children were regarded as legal things: they belonged to a legal person. Today, a corporation has rights of a legal person, but the value of its existence is incomparable to the value of life of a great ape, for example. Why should we treat corporations better than living intelligent creatures? This is part of a greater problem that humanists are trying to solve. Following are the major obstacles to animals’ rights protection that Steven Wise listed.

Economic obstacles. More than 10 billion nonhuman animals are killed for food, clothing, leather, and fur. These are only ‘legal’ type of murdering. Yet huge corporations that are responsible for it have much more powerful legal protection than any nonhuman species. The omnipresence of products of animal origin seems to be the only reason why we continue to ignore animals’ rights. As long as there are no substitutes for these products, our economy will rely on animals.

Political obstacles. To develop this argument, Wise often refers to human slavery. People than acknowledged that human slavery is morally unacceptable, yet they believed that the whole European economic progress and prosperity was impossible without it. But it is because of progress that human slavery is gone. It might as well be possible that animals’ exploitation by food and drug companies will come to an end following this example.

Historical obstacles. Our exploitative attitude towards nonhuman animals takes its roots in stoic philosophy which was adopted by the church, lawyers, rulers, scientists, and has its implications today. This philosophy is based on the assumption that all nonhuman animals were made for people to prosper. It was determined that animals do not have consciousness, they cannot speculate, dream, or invent because they “had life, sensation, and impulse, but lacked emotions, reason, belief, intentionality, thought, and memory apart from the present” (Wise, p. 24). Now it is scientifically proven that some nonhuman animals (like great apes) have emotions, means of communication, and intelligence comparable to that of humans. Even provided they cannot be our equals, it is obvious that they deserve better treatment than they have now.

Pragmatic and humanistic approaches appeared to be not so different. They both manifest animals’ rights protection. However, pragmatic approach is more skeptical. It states that human society is not designed to protect all remaining species. Just like any other species, we are designed to live and prosper using our intellectual superiority and all resources available. Our moral values will be changing as far as we can afford it. But indeed, they are changing. Philosophy promoted by pro-animal rights activists is supported more actively than pragmatic considerations of those who oppose them. Companies manufacturing products of animal origin are striving to preserve their reputation. To give few examples, the fur trade spends triple the total budget of all anti-fur campaigns trying to defend itself; pharmaceutical industry formed a coalition aimed at “direct public relations and legislative activities” against pro-animal rights movement (Jeanne, p. 148). These organizations are striving to justify animal exploitation using all possible means, and the task for human society remains to invent a compromise between progress and affordability of some products and better moral standing.

It is unlikely that we can ever understand what makes an animal worth to claim rights of a human. It is a question of the beginning and end of consciousness, an unsolvable one since we cannot put ourselves in place of an animal. However, it is clear that animals have also some standards of living, and increasing popularity of pro-animal movement and desperate resistance of large corporations signify great changes: human society is gradually moving towards recognizing animals as legal persons rather than legal subjects.

  • McKenna, Erin & Light, Andrew. Animal Pragmatism: Rethinking Human-Nonhuman Relationships. Indiana University Press, 2004.
  • Williams, Jeanne. Animal Rights and Welfare. H. W. Wilson, 1991.
  • Wise, Steven M. “Animal Rights, One Step at a Time.” Animal Rights: Current Debates and New Directions, Cass R. Sunstein & Martha C. Nussbaum (editors). Oxford University Press, 2004.