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The Case Against Animal Rights

Updated: Sep 26, 2022

A discussion of animal rights in terms of the mental properties that make humans ends-in-themselves and able to enter a Social Contract

cat peeking out from under a sleeping bag
“Does this mean mice get rights, too?" Photo by the author.

In this article, I argue that animals do not have rights and should not have rights. I must emphasize that I am not saying that animals should be subject to unnecessary suffering. What I am saying is that giving animals rights analogous to human rights is the wrong way to accomplish this goal. Instead, animals should be given legal protections, which are different from rights.

Legal protections and rights are different things

I have seen authors - intellectuals who I admire like Sam Harris and Steven Pinker - state categorically that animals have rights. However, this is factually wrong. No legal system in the world recognizes the rights of animals. What legal systems do is to grant legal protections to some animals, which is something entirely different.

There are many things that are granted legal protections:

  • A national park is a legally protected piece of land. You cannot take animals, plants or even rocks from it. Building on it is generally prohibited, and even visiting it can be restricted.

  • An endangered species is protected by law. You cannot kill endangered plants or animals. The environment in which they live is also protected, to the point of prohibiting building in it or even visiting it.

  • A public monument is protected by the law against theft or vandalism.

  • This article is protected by law against plagiarism and censorship, because these things would infringe on my rights as an author.

As we can see, legal protections are put in place to protect things - tangible things like parks and monuments or intangible things like species and books - because they benefit society or persons to do so. They protect the rights of people or the common good, but the things being protected do not have rights themselves.

Today, the law of most countries gives some animals legal protections. You cannot torture a stray dog. Even if the dog has no owner whose rights are being infringed on by what you do to it, society has decided that it is unethical to make a dog suffer. However, this does not apply to a roach or a starfish, because most people agree that these animals do not suffer. Therefore, legal protection of animals is species specific. They are also context specific. A sewer rat can be given a poison that will kill it slowly and painfully, but the same thing cannot be done to a lab rat.

The human right to freedom of thought at the United Nations.
Most human rights are meaningless for animals. The Human Rights posters at the United Nations building. Photo by the author.

Human rights

“Human rights are moral principles or norms for certain standards of human behavior and are regularly protected in municipal and international law. They are commonly understood as inalienable, fundamental rights ‘to which a person is inherently entitled simply because she or he is a human being’ and which are ‘inherent in all human beings’, regardless of their age, ethnic origin, location, language, religion, ethnicity, or any other status. They are applicable everywhere and at every time in the sense of being universal, and they are egalitarian in the sense of being the same for everyone.” Wikipedia.

In Western societies, we take human rights for granted. However, human rights are still not respected in a large part of the world. Many countries, notoriously Russia, North Korea and Islamic countries, have legal systems that violate human rights. Other countries, like China, respect human rights in principle but not in practice. We have a long way to go to make human rights a universal moral code.

Human rights are also a recent invention.

Many of the basic ideas that animated the human rights movement developed in the aftermath of the Second World War and the events of the Holocaust, culminating in the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Paris by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. Ancient peoples did not have the same modern-day conception of universal human rights. Wikipedia.

One reason why animals should not have rights is that this would undermine our ongoing fight for human rights.

Moreover, most human rights are meaningless when applied to animals.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights consists of 30 articles. Article 1 states that these articles apply to human beings because “they are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

Of these 30 articles, only a few could be potentially applied to animals:

  • Article 3: right to life, freedom and security.

  • Article 4: no one should be held in slavery or servitude.

  • Article 5: “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

Basically, people who want animal rights think that they should not be killed, imprisoned or used for human benefit. Full application of these principles would mean abolishing the use of animals for food (meat, fish, cheese and dairy), clothing (fur, wool, leather, feathers and silk), in exhibits (zoos and aquariums), to hunt and fish, as pets, and for scientific research. In addition, we would not be able to fight animals that attack us, invade our cities and our homes, or are parasites (rats, mice, roaches, ants, mosquitoes, ticks, worms, etc.)

This is not a trivial matter. It would entail profound changes in our societies affecting the well-being of every single human being. Future generations would not enjoy the benefit of new medication produced by biomedical research. Many poor countries would simply not be able to afford these changes.

Of course, we could also choose to give animals partial rights, so we could still use for worthwhile endeavors (I think scientific research should come first) while still protecting them from unnecessary suffering. But this is my position, known as “animal welfare” as opposed to “animal rights.” Protecting animals from suffering does not require giving them rights. It just requires giving them legal protections.

An often forgotten question is which animals should be given rights. Most people would cringe at the idea that they would have the same rights as roaches. However, granting different rights to different species would be “speciecist.” Any principles (brain size, consciousness, ability to suffer, etc.) that we put forth to make these distinctions would inevitably put human at the top of the legal protections.

Therefore, it is important that we carefully examine the philosophical and scientific basis for why human have rights and animals should or should not have them.

Kant’s categorical imperative as a foundation to human rights

Humans have rights because of who we are: conscious, autonomous beings with free will. It goes back to the philosopher Immanuel Kant and his categorical imperative (second formulation):

“You act with reference to every rational being (whether yourself or another) so that it is an end in itself in your maxim” (Wikipedia).

Humans are ends in themselves, so it is unethical to treat them solely as means to an end.

The problem with this is that we treat other human beings all the time as means to an end. If I go get a haircut, isn’t the barber a means to my end? Well, not exactly, because in the process I also take into consideration the barber’s own goals, like getting paid for the haircut. I may also engage in conversation with him, partaking of his life experience as an Apache (this actually happens). By talking to him, I recognize his humanity.

Why animals are not “ends in themselves”

At this point, you may think of your favorite pet and say: “Wait a second! Why is not my Fido an end-in-itself?”

After all, animals appear to have their own goals, just like we do. They want to come and go as they please, to eat, to drink, to nap… And most of all, they want to stay alive. How are those goals different from ours? Isn’t denying their goals while protecting ours an act of species egoism, of “speciesism”?

According to scientists like Stuart Kaufmann - in his latest book, A World Beyond Physics: The Emergence and Evolution of Life - agency is a feature of all living beings. He calls agency the ability of life to organize its functions in order to survive and reproduce itself. He points out that without this idea, it is hard to explain saying things like “the function of the heart is to pump blood.” The pumping of the blood seems to serve a goal - moving the blood to oxygenate and nourish the organs of the body - which is just part of the larger goal of keeping the body alive.

From this point of view, all living beings are agents because their essence is to keep on living, to survive. Reproduction is just an extension of this: to keep life going in future generations. However, having this sort of agency doesn’t make living being ends in themselves because they do this in an unconscious, automatic way. There is no more purpose to their agency than there is purpose in the Earth turning around the Sun.

When scientists say that the goal of living beings is to survive, the word “goal” is used as a metaphor. Having goals implies conscious planning, and this is something that only humans can do.

Only humans? Aren’t some animals capable of planning, too? The key word in that sentence is “conscious.” Animal consciousness is an extremely hard scientific and philosophical problem that hasn’t been solved yet. However, we know about some differences between the human and the animal minds that shed light on whether animals can formulate goals in a way that makes them end-in-themselves.

Unique properties of the human mind that allow us to have conscious goals

I explored the characteristics that differentiate humans from animals in another article: Not just intelligence: Why humans deserve to be treated better than animals. The most important ones for this discussion are:

  • Extended Consciousness: This is a term coined by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio (Damasio, 1999) that refers to our capacity to see ourselves as selves that existed in the past and will continue to exist in the future. Some animals - like dogs and cats - have what Damasio calls “core consciousness”: they have a sense of self limited to the present. Extended consciousness is not the same as having memories. It is realizing that the entity that we see in those memories is the same self that we perceive now (Suddendorf and Corballis, 2007). Without realizing that we are a self that persists over time, it is not possible to have a conscious goal, because that means planning for a future state of our self. Although some animals may be conscious, they have what Antonio Damasio calls “core consciousness” - feelings of the present moment -, not extended consciousness.

  • Theory of mind: This is the ability to model the minds of other people in our own minds. For example, we are able to imagine the emotions of a friend who we see crying, the next move of our chess adversary, or whether our business partner plans to cheat us. Novelists can keep alive in their minds characters who think, feel and act in ways very different from the writer. Theory of mind is not having the abstract idea that other people have minds, but the ability to make a model of their minds inside our mind that includes their emotions. Therefore, theory of mind encompasses both cognition and emotion, it is what allows us to feel the emotions of other people. We try to model the minds of animals, too, but in doing so we make the mistake of believing that the minds of animals are similar to our own minds, an error called anthropomorphizing. Animals and young children do not have a theory of mind (Penn and Povinelli, 2007). Recent research found a vestigial theory of mind in chimps (Krupenye et al., 2016), but this is a far call from the multiple recursive theory of mind that we have: “I know that you know that I know that you are lying.” Since theory of mind let us feel the emotions and the suffering of others, it is the basis of human empathy and compassion (Gu et al., 2010; Preis et al., 2013) - to walk in somebody else’s shoes - and not the mere contagion of emotions that we find in animals. It also allows us to understand the consequences of our actions, how what we do may cause happiness or suffering in others. Hence, it is the foundation of our moral sense, our conscience.

  • Social emotions, like shame, pride, guilt, envy, fairness, loyalty, awe and regret, are absent in animals. They also form the foundation of our social behavior, our ethics and our conscious planning. Emotions are our motivators, the drivers of our actions. Human emotions are what give human goals their meaning.

In the past, the idea that humans and animals had a different moral status was based on religious beliefs. Humans had souls and animals didn’t.

In a scientific worldview, we abandoned those religious beliefs, leading a lot of people to think that humans and animals are basically the same. If humans and animals had the same moral status, then there is no logical reason why they should not be treated the same way. If humans have rights, animals should have them, too.

However, science is starting to show that the minds of humans and animals differ in ways that are ethically meaningful. Of course, since we are the products of evolution, these unique properties of the human mind show gradually in the most complex mammals and birds. Still, some epic change must have happened in the evolution of our ancestors that changed their minds into ours. It was not just intelligence, or language, or even theory of mind and extended consciousness, but a synergy of changes that produced an entirely new type of being: the human being.

Neuroscientists like Bud Craig have mapped the growth of certain regions of the brain cortex during human evolution that seem to be responsible for these changes: the anterior insula (Craig, 2009, 2011), the anterior cingulate cortex and the prefrontal cortex (Craig, 2010). For example, while the posterior insula integrates sensations and emotions, the anterior insula is able to imagine hypothetical sensations and emotions: “if I hit my toe with this hammer, this is what it would feel like.” This can form the basis for theory of mind. Likewise, the anterior cingulate cortex is in charge of formulating complex goals, which are evaluated by the prefrontal cortex for their social and ethical value.

One of the main benefits of having rights is that they make us feel safe about our future because we know that a society with human rights will protect us from being harmed by others. Extended consciousness allow us to see ourselves as beings with a future. Theory of mind lets us peek into the minds of other people and partake of their suffering and their happiness. Social emotions like guilt and shame make other people feel bad if they harm us. All that forms the psychological frame that motivates us to fight for our rights and the rights of other people. Animals, not having these mental properties, cannot conceive what rights are, do not feel the need to have rights, and do not derive any feeling of safety from having rights. Animals live in the present and only care about how they feel in the present, not about what may happen to them in the future.

The Social Contract as a foundation to human rights

Apart from the Kantian end-on-itself view, a more practical foundation for human rights is the idea of the Social Contract.

“In moral and political philosophy, the social contract is a theory or model that originated during the Age of Enlightenment and usually concerns the legitimacy of the authority of the state over the individual. Social contract arguments typically are that individuals have consented, either explicitly or tacitly, to surrender some of their freedoms and submit to the authority (of the ruler, or to the decision of a majority) in exchange for protection of their remaining rights or maintenance of the social order.” Wikipedia.

Basically, the idea is that I respect your rights if you agree to respect mine, and we both agree that the State is the ultimate arbiter to resolve our differences. In the process, we grant the State the monopoly of violence to enable it to administer rights and responsibilities. Laws, armies, police, jails and the whole paraphernalia of the modern State follows from this.

Discus fish in an aquarium
“Social Contract? Where do I sign?” Photo by the author.

Animals are unable to enter a Social Contract

According to this view of human rights, animals do not have rights because they are intrinsically unable to enter a social contract. If you agree with a lion that you won’t shoot it if it doesn’t try to eat you, the next thing you know is that the lion is pouncing on you when you turn your back on it. It has been tried with different animals and in different ways, and it just doesn’t work. The human always ends up being bitten, clawed, gored, mauled or stomped.

Entering a social contract requires extended consciousness to see how it benefits our future self; theory of mind to understand how the suffering of others is identical to our own suffering; human emotions like shame, pride, guilt and fairness to understand its meaning, not just intellectually, but emotionally. The animal brain is incapable of even beginning to understand a social contract. You might as well ask a rock to sing.

Without understanding the social contract, an animal cannot reciprocate any rights we give it. This is important, because our social order is one made not just of rights but of responsibilities. We acquire rights at the same time we accept responsibility. We may be born with a right to life, but all our other rights are granted as we take on responsibilities. Thus, we get the right to open a bank account at the same time that we get the responsibility to pay taxes. We get a driver’s license and the responsibility of paying fines or going to jail if we drive recklessly. It doesn’t make sense to give animals rights when they cannot take on any responsibility.

But there is more. Having a right only really makes sense if you understand that you have that right. You may give dogs and cats all the rights you want; they will never get it. Without the mental properties that I list above, animals would never understand that they have rights. Therefore, they will not get the psychological benefits that humans get from knowing that we have rights.

There is also a practical concern: since an animal doesn’t understand that it has rights, it cannot defend them. What would happen, in practice, is that some humans would appoint themselves as defenders of animal rights. In fact, this is what animal rights activists do. The result would be a transfer of power to the activists, who are likely to use it for their own benefit. They would become a new priestly class who, instead of interpreting the will of God, will translate to the rest of us the wishes of the animals under their protection.

Not a bad racket, when you think about it.

Utilitarianism: “But do they suffer?”

Another major body of ethical philosophy is Utilitarianism.

“In ethical philosophy, utilitarianism is a family of normative ethical theories that prescribe actions that maximize happiness and well-being for all affected individuals. Although different varieties of utilitarianism admit different characterizations, the basic idea behind all of them is, in some sense, to maximize utility, which is often defined in terms of well-being or related concepts.” Wikipedia.

For some reason, utilitarian philosophers like Jeremy Bentham and Peter Singer have been the most staunch proponents of animal rights. Peter Singer is credited for having launched the animal rights movement.

I think the link between utilitarianism and animal rights is due to two basic ideas:

  1. They assume that animals have the same moral status as humans.

  2. Since utilitarianism pursues the wellbeing of all individuals, and animals qualify as individuals, then the wellbeing of animals must be taken into consideration.

The first assumption is not explicitly stated, much less justified, by the utilitarians. I have argued against it above.

It is also absurd on its face because, if animals have the same moral status as humans, then all animals have the same moral status. This would make us treat a mosquito the same way we treat a dog. This is absurd and would prevent us from being able to fight parasites, as pointed out in the article Speciesism and the “Fleas on Dog” Ethical Dilemma.

The problem of animal suffering in a serie is addressed s of articles in Speaking of Research:

The main idea in these articles is that pain is not the same as suffering, and that humans suffer in particular ways in which animals do not. I call this “deep suffering” because it requires extended consciousness, theory of mind and culture. Moreover, since suffering requires consciousness, only some species of animals can suffer. This solves the problem of why it is ethical to treat some animals better than others. It also justifies why we should prioritize human suffering over animal suffering.

Therefore, even if we adopt the utilitarian perspective of maximizing wellbeing, we cannot equate human wellbeing with animal wellbeing. For many animals - ants, corals, clams, barnacles, shrimp, jellies, starfish - the concept of wellbeing is not appropriate at all. Even if they have agency - all living beings do - they do so as unconscious automatons.

Animal rights are not necessary to treat animals well

Giving animals rights is not the best way to ensure their wellbeing.

The concept of rights is not useful at all when applied to animals because rights only make sense when the being who has them understands them.

The best way to ensure animal wellbeing is to give them legal protections.

This is the position of animal welfare, as opposed to animal rights.

Having the law protect animals against suffering, abuse and mistreatment bypasses the difficult philosophical problems of them being ends-in-themselves, conscious and able to suffer. We can simply determine that it is wrong to treat animals a certain way because of who we are, not because of who they are.

It is wrong to make animals suffer, just like it is wrong to destroy a national park or cause a species to go extinct.

We value things - national parks, species, monument, works of art and animal wellbeing - because it is in our human nature to do so.

Isn’t that enough?


Further reading:


References

  • Craig AD (2009) How do you feel--now? The anterior insula and human awareness. Nat Rev Neurosci 10:59-70.

  • Craig AD (2010) The sentient self. Brain Struct Funct 214:563-577.

  • Craig AD (2011) Significance of the insula for the evolution of human awareness of feelings from the body. Ann N Y Acad Sci 1225:72-82.

  • Damasio AR (1999) The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. San Diego, New York, London: Harcourt, Inc.

  • Gu X, Liu X, Guise KG, Naidich TP, Hof PR, Fan J (2010) Functional Dissociation of the Frontoinsular and Anterior Cingulate Cortices in Empathy for Pain. Journal of Neuroscience 30:3739-3744.

  • Krupenye C, Kano F, Hirata S, Call J, Tomasello M (2016) Great apes anticipate that other individuals will act according to false beliefs. Science 354:110-114.

  • Penn DC, Povinelli DJ (2007) On the lack of evidence that non-human animals possess anything remotely resembling a 'theory of mind'. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci 362:731-744.

  • Preis MA, Schmidt-Samoa C, Dechent P, Kroener-Herwig B (2013) The effects of prior pain experience on neural correlates of empathy for pain: An fMRI study. Pain 154:411-418.

  • Suddendorf T, Corballis MC (2007) The evolution of foresight: What is mental time travel, and is it unique to humans? Behav Brain Sci 30:299-313; discussion 313-251.

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