In my essay, I will defend the position that the concept of human rights should be extended so as to include animals.
The entire problem of whether animals should have rights arguably only emerges if we hold to a strict separation between human life and animal life. Now, this is clearly problematic to the extent that it essentially means that human beings are not animals. However, also there are problems related to the fact that human beings do clearly have differences with animals, and that we degrade human existence somehow by putting animals on the same level as human beings. However, the exact opposite claim could be made that human beings show a concern to the vulnerable, animals, by giving them rights and therefore fulfill an ethical concept of justice. Rights are a way of protecting vulnerability.
Thus, the main argument of my paper is based on the claim that the very reason why human rights exist is to protect the vulnerable. One of the key concepts from the readings that have influenced my argument is the article from Edmundson “Do Animals Need Rights?” Edmundson distinguishes between different types of rights. There are rights, for example, to vote. But, as Edmunson notes, there is also a type of right which has a “protective function.” This is the type of right I would like to employ the rights of animals. This notion of a protective function ties into various other readings, such as the concept of justice advanced by Rawls as well as Donaldson and Kymlicka. A just society is ultimately one that we would want to live in, to paraphrase Rawls, if we had the status of the disadvantaged in this society, the marginalized and the powerless. In other words, human rights exist because there are imbalances of power in society: there are the marginalized and the powerless who exist in an unequal relationship with those who possess autonomy, power, and status in society. A just society is therefore one that protects the powerless, the vulnerable. Rights is a way by which the instruments of power in society are used to protect the powerless and the vulnerable. Animals clearly also are vulnerable to human beings and should be afforded the same rights according to this definition.
Some of those who would oppose this definition would say that human beings are fundamentally different than animals and therefore we cannot compare them and furthermore extend such a fundamental concept of rights to animals. We cannot say that animals are vulnerable in the same way as we say human beings are vulnerable. Certainly, another counter-argument in this regard is that there are concepts of duties, which serve the role rights play. Edmundson writes specifically about this objection. Namely, we already have mechanisms in society that address this vulnerability, and this is sufficient.
With regard to the first point, if vulnerability means powerlessness, one cannot exclude a group that cannot defend or speak for itself from the definition of vulnerability and powerlessness: they are vulnerable by definition. Therefore, I think this is already a logically unsound claim. The issues regarding duties, however, is more complex, since the mechanisms do seem to exist to protect animals. However, duties, I will argue, are not sufficient because vulnerability is the product of imbalances in socio-political relationships. Therefore, the very mechanisms that have power in society should be used to correct this imbalance: in short, power should be used to protect the powerless. Duties, following Edmundson, are insufficient to serve the protective function to the vulnerable.