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Socrates Exchange: Should animals have rights?

RiffRaff via Flickr/Creative Commons

Are non-human animals merely a natural resource for human use? Do we have a responsibility to treat animals with dignity or to consider their suffering? Are we justified killing mosquitoes or pigs while pampering our pets? Do "smarter" creatures deserve more rights? If an animal is more intelligent than a cognitively disabled human, does the animal deserve more rights? Post your thoughts below and respond to other postings.


  • Nick Smith, Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of New Hampshire, Advisor to the Socratic Society at UNH and Project Advisor to the Socrates Exchange


Background Reading

Before we start a Socratic discussion on “Should Animals Have Rights?” we need to establish what do we mean by ‘animals’ and what do we mean by ‘rights’?

Merriam-Webster’s on-line dictionary defines an animal as “any of a Kingdom (Animalia) of living things including many-celled organisms and often many single-celled ones that typically differ from plants.” Some argue that an animal has to have some kind of ‘mind’ or ‘soul’. When talking about rights, the 18th century philosopher, Jeremy Bentham suggested that the capacity to suffer is the vital characteristic that gives a being a right for equal consideration.

How about rights? Merriam-Webster’s defines that as “being in accordance with what is just, good or proper”. That leaves a lot to consider. Are we talking about all animals being treated the same? Is it the right to live, to not suffer or be protected? If animals should be treated the same as humans, should they be able to vote, carry arms and marry?

Questions regarding whether 'animals' should have 'rights,' therefore, require us to consider the presumptions underlying these terms and how they might bias our opinions."

So then should animals have rights? There is one side which would definitely say ‘yes’. That the rights of animals can be easily be compared to the civil rights of blacks, women or homosexuals. In fact, the rights of animals have been used to parody many of those who have fought for their own rights. An anonymous publication in 1792 called A Vindication of the Rights of Brutes satirized a small but growing effort to give women equal rights by stating, “…if sound when (rights) were applied to women, why should the argument not be applied to dogs, cats and horses”. More recently, those against the growing gay marriage movement, argue what’s next after the union of same sex couples, marriage to one’s pets? So these who fight against what’s known as ‘speciesism”, or having prejudice to certain species, say animals are the next or last real fight for rights. In an essay called All Animals are Equal, the modern philosopher Peter Singer wrote “…it may one day come to be recognized that the number of legs, the villosity of the skin or the termination of the os sacrum are reasons not to discriminate and tyrannize”

So those who fight against speciesism say that hunting, killing, or testing on animals should not be acceptable. If an animal can suffer as much as a human can (and it’s been proven that many do suffer as much), then they should be given the same consideration that they would give their fellow man. “Do unto others” they say and that includes cows, cats, rats and deer.

Arguments against the equal right of animals would say that you can’t hold up all the same rights for all animals. Even though a completely vegetarian diet has been shown to be a healthy and livable one, do we ignore the fact that overpopulations of deer is unhealthy for them? Do we not kill birds, rats or that mosquito feasting on your blood even if their presence would mean the growth in disease? Do we live with the bees who have built a hive in the house even if it could mean deadly anaphylactic results to a family member? Do we end rodeos, zoos, polo matches and keeping pets because they exploit animals?

Also, if we humans are asked to apply equal rights to other animals, why shouldn’t we ask the same of them? Do we dole out the same consequences to the lion that has killed the gazelle for food as we would the hunter with a gun? Do we imprison the female praying mantis that many times kills her male partner shortly after making love or the dog or cat that commits an act of infanticide to reduce the litter?

Then there is the other side, those who suggest that there are difference in humans and ‘other’ animals. The hunter who shoots the deer for food, the farmer who raises pigs for a paycheck, the scientist who experiments on the rat so that one day we may be able to cure cancer or HIV. They are the ones who say that there is a difference between humans and other animals.

The religious person may say that humans stand out because they have a soul. Others say that humans are the only who have rational thought or who can truly abide by a code of ethics. How can all animals have equal rights if most of the animals involved can’t understand these rights given to them? Finally, the golden rule for most animals is ‘survival of the fittest’ where the weaker, slower or less intelligent animals are usually the victims of those who are superior. So if humans are the most intelligent animals in the Kingdom, shouldn’t they be able to use the inferior for what they need?

But those who fight against speciesim would argue that if intelligence or superiority is a requirement for more rights; how about the abandoned newborn baby, the severally mentally challenged teenager or the adult injured to the point of a vegetative state. Jeremy Bentham suggests “…a full grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more conversable animal”. So then should we be able to eat the person in the vegetative state? Should we be able to use burning chemicals to test on the abandoned newborn to further science? Should we ‘pen’ up all the mentally challenged teenagers, just giving them enough to survive?

Is it something in between? Should we give certain animals some rights, say we don’t kill them, but also don’t give them the right to vote? Is it OK to test on rats but not dolphins and definitely not our pets? But where would we draw the line and who is the person who should do the drawing?

There are many of the really interesting angles that come up on both sides of this debate,that make it so interesting. Our forum is open; let the discussion begin! 

Laura is well known in New Hampshire for her in-depth coverage of important issues and is widely regarded for her interviews with presidential hopefuls. Laura is a graduate of Keene High School in New Hampshire. Prior to hosting The Exchange, Laura worked in public radio in Washington, D.C. as a local reporter and announcer for WAMU and as a newscaster for NPR. Before her radio career, she was a researcher for USA Today's "Money" section, and a research assistant at the Institute for International Economics. Laura occasionally guest hosts national programs such as The Diane Rehm Show and Here and Now. In 2007 Laura was named New Hampshire Broadcaster of the Year by the New Hampshire Association of Broadcasters.

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