On Animal Welfare and Animal Rights
Updated: May 31, 2020
"Other animals, which, on account of their interests having been neglected by the insensibility of the ancient jurists, stand degraded into the class of things…the question is not, can they reason? nor, can they talk? but, can they suffer?” [Jeremy Bentham, Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, 1781]
Is it possible for us to create a world where non-human animals are not valued because they fulfill some human purpose or interest, but because they have inherent value as living things and are therefore deserving of moral consideration? Is there a difference between granting moral standing to individual animals but not to things like whole species or ecosystems? Deep ecologists stress the connection between animal well-being and the health of the natural environment. Is there a relation between animal ethics and environmental ethics?
The scale and intensity of animal use and abuse by humans across the world is nothing short of staggering. We continue to use animals for disease and pharmaceutical testing in labs. There has been a huge uptick in designer pets. Thanks to the many activists who have uncovered the practices of factory farms and slaughterhouses we can no longer ignore the horrors of industrial animal agriculture. When we see the systematic torture of pigs, turkeys and cattle, the barbaric treatment of hens confined to small cages we are morally repelled and many simply refuse to support industrial torture by buying their products. In response, animal industry lobbyists push for laws that both criminalize animal rights activists who expose the brutal practices of animal agriculture and force stores to carry their products, even if doing so is entirely offensive to consumers.
We love our domesticated animal ‘pets’. They meet our leisure needs and enhance our physical, social and mental well-being. We are quite willing to acknowledge our responsibility to the dogs and cats that share our home (and even our bed!) but somehow this sense of care and moral responsibility is not often extended to the animal on the farm or in the lab; the animals forced out of their habitat, made to live in cages and otherwise used as mere commodity for human consumption, entertainment or amusement. In this context, animal welfare is something we address because doing so enables or supports the output of the animal—whether it be food, work, clothing, sport, entertainment or companionship. In other words, animal welfare is often not about the welfare of the animal but rather about human welfare and interests. Is there a moral case that can be made against animals as ‘pets’?
We know animals are sentient creatures many of whom are subjectively aware and have an interest in not experiencing pain or suffering. Increasingly we know that many animals are far more complex and intelligent than we once thought they were—yet in so many cases we act as if all of these interests and capacities do not matter because non-human animals are of lesser importance than human animals. Bentham argued that the fact that that animals were cognitively different from humans is morally irrelevant—what matters morally is whether they can suffer. But Bentham also thought that it was morally acceptable to kill animals as long as we do so without causing them suffering or pain.
This remains the view held by modern animal rights advocates like Peter Singer. However, we might still want to ask whether it is in any way reasonable or morally justifiable to claim that it is wrong to make a sentient being suffer, but not wrong to kill them? Do not sentient beings, by virtue of their being sentient, have an interest in remaining alive. Are they not ‘harmed’ by death? Do they not struggle and fight to remain alive?
If so, is it not time to move beyond mere animal welfare and think about animal rights in a way that is similar to the way we speak of human rights—of beings that have fundamental interests and owed some measure of dignity?