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Should Animal Rights Be Included in the Progressive Agenda?

Animal rights conflict with environmentalism, science and other progressive goals

Mountain goat grazing
Mountain goat in the natural park of La Pedriza, Madrid, Spain. Photo by Hermes Solenzol.

The progressive agenda

Political ideas do not exist in a vacuum. They are interrelated because they are based on a particular worldview and a set of underlying moral values.

Ever since the Enlightenment, progressive politics and the Left have been anchored on the values of humanism, science and rationality. During the 20th Century, these ideas developed into other ideologies like socialism, feminism and environmentalism.

Today, many people define themselves as progressives and fight for a collection of causes which could be called the “progressive agenda”.

These include:

  • Covering our basic needs for air, water, food, shelter, safety and health.

  • Redistribution of wealth to fight against poverty.

  • A fair judicial system and police that treats everybody equally.

  • Freedom from persecution.

  • Freedom of expression.

  • Fight against the exploitation of labor.

  • Equality for the genders (feminism).

  • Equality for the races.

  • Equality of sexual orientations (LGBTQ rights).

  • Environmentalism.

  • Rationality and science. 

  • Freedom of and from religion.

  • Sexual freedom.

  • Reproductive freedom.

  • Democracy: control of the power of the state by the people.

  • Access to knowledge and information.

I may be missing some, but most progressives would subscribe to fighting for these causes.

Progressive values

They belong in the progressive agenda because they derive logically from the values of equality, liberty and safety for all.

Causes like environmentalism, rationality and the defense of science are also connected to these basic premises. Thus, access to safe air, water and food is not possible in a damaged environment.

Most importantly, a reliable source of knowledge upon which we can all agree is fundamental to establish a functioning society, so none of the other goals can be achieved without science.

Animal rights and animal welfare

In this article, I address is whether these goals should be extended beyond the human realm to animals.

But, first, it is necessary to note the difference between animal rights and animal welfare.

The animal rights position is that animals have similar rights to people, specifically the right to life and to freedom. It applies to animals the Kantian principle that says that humans should be treated as an end and not as a means. From that idea, it follows that it is unethical not only to kill animals, but also to use them in any way, including for food (veganism), for clothing (no wearing fur or leather), as pets, for entertainment (zoos or aquariums), for labor (farm animals, police dogs, service dogs, etc.), or for scientific research.

The animal welfare position, on the other hand, says that it is ethical to use animals as long as we don’t cause them unnecessary suffering. While the animal rights position is absolutist (no animal use is allowed), the animal welfare position is flexible and subject to interpretation.

When is animal suffering necessary? How much suffering is allowed? What types of animals are capable of suffering?

Obviously, a life completely free of suffering is not possible for anyone, human or animal, so a certain amount of suffering has to be allowed.

The fallacies behind animal rights

Many progressives take it for granted that animal rights should be in the progressive agenda.

A common rationale for this is the “expanding circle of compassion” idea. It argues that historically there is a progression in recognizing the rights of wealthy people first, then the rights of white men, then those of white women, then of all people regardless of race. Therefore, following this natural progression, we should start to grant some rights to animals as well.

There are many fallacies nested in this argument.

The first one is a categorical mistake. The poor, women and non-whites had rights to start with. Recognizing these rights was not a favor granted to them by an increasingly enlightened society, but the addressing of enormous historical injustices, gained in large part due to the struggle of the oppressed. In contrast, animals cannot understand the concept of “rights”, much less fight for them.

Another fallacy is the extrapolation mistake. The directionality seen is this argument is largely illusory. There is no reason to believe that things will move in the anticipated direction.

All these fallacies are used to avoid addressing the key issues behind animal rights:

Animal rights conflicts with environmentalism

Animal rights proponents cast themselves as part of the environmentalist movement.

They have been so successful that today the Green parties of most countries list animal rights in their agenda.

A superficial view tells us that if one cares about nature one should care about the animals that live in it, right?

However, a more careful consideration shows that caring about the health of ecosystems and keeping species from going extinct (environmentalism) is very different from caring about the well-being of individual animals (animal rights).

This difference keeps popping up in numerous conflicts between environmentalism and animal rights:

Every time that a problem comes up in which animals have to be killed to protect the environment, environmentalists and animal rightists take opposite positions.

Animal rights versus science

But this is not the only issue in which animal rights come against other items in the progressive agenda. Animal rights are one of the biggest threats against science because of their militant opposition to the use of animals in research.

Biomedical research is the largest part of science these days. It is done largely using animals like mice, rats, fish and fruit flies, but also some dogs, cats, pigs and monkeys. Which, of course, it’s violently opposed by animal rights activists, who have attacked labs and vivariums on multiple occasions. They have also perpetrated acts of terrorism against scientists, like burning their cars and flooding their houses.

Without progress in biomedical research, the future health needs of millions of people cannot be met.

The conflict between animal rights and humanism

Modern progressive politics grew out of the humanist philosophy of the Enlightenment. Opposing the religious views of the time, humanism claimed that the happiness of people and the full realization of the potential of humanity should be the foundation of all values.

Animal rights represent a reversal of this humanist ideal by stating that humans are morally equivalent to animals.

Indeed, there is a profound misanthropy at the core of the animal rights ideology. Humans are presented as irredeemably bad, the “cancer of the Earth”, while animals are pure and blameless. In fact, many animal rightists will unabashedly confess that they love animals more than humans.

Therefore, far from being an extension of human rights, animal rights represent an existential threat to their realization. They are an anti-humanist movement with dangerous religious undertones in their dogmatism, their anti-rationalism and their sentimentality.

The conflict between animal rights and social movements

Animal rightists make no commitment to progressive values and have been condemned for making anti-Semitic (offensive images of the Holocaust), racist (comparing eating meat with slavery) and misogynistic (drinking milk is rape) statements.

Sociologically, defenders of animal rights are middle- and upper-class whites who have lived a sheltered life. They have little sympathies for working class or ethnic movements, which have refused to let animal rights activists steal their voice.

Animals don’t talk, so it’s easy to speak in their name. This provides a way for privileged individuals to get a dose of victimism and outrage porn that they cannot claim otherwise.

There are no ties between animal rights ideology and progressivism.

Animal rights alliances with conservatives

We shouldn’t be surprised when animal rights activists ally themselves with conservatives, as in the case of the conservative anti-science organization White Coat Waste.

Unfortunately, several elected Democrats have supported anti-science initiatives proposed by White Coat Waste.

Animal rights organizations have vast resources and have become tremendously influential in politics. This is why is so important that we start to dissociate true progressive causes from the animal rights chimeras.


The animal rights ideology doesn’t fit with progressive values. It actually opposes many of them.

Animal rights have nothing to do with environmental causes like fighting climate change, protecting ecosystems and saving species from extinction.

Animal rights activists have committed numerous acts of violence, especially against scientists. They spout pseudoscience and represent one of the most serious modern threats to biomedical research.

When we are still so far away from creating a truly egalitarian and free society, when millions of human beings continue to suffer horrible pain and deprivation, it should be unethical to divert our energy, money and resources to chase the chimera of animal rights.

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