T15 – Beware Speciesism

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Animals And Human Rights

Guest Writer: Dr Alasdair Cochrane (LSE)

The treatment of animals is rarely discussed in human rights theory and practice.  When animals are mentioned by the human rights community it is usually to highlight some awful and terrible treatment of human beings: ‘they were rounded up like cattle’, ‘they were beaten like dogs’, ‘they were stripped of their humanity’, and so on.

But these kinds of statements neglect some extremely important ethical issues.

  • Why can animals, but not humans, be treated in these awful and terrible ways?
  • What about the everyday, routine and institutionalised abuse that is meted out to sentient non-human animals in contemporary societies?
  • And then there are the exclusions inherent in the contemporary understanding of human rights: the exclusion of each and every creature who does not belong to the species Homo sapiens.

Interestingly, the manifesto of this project does seek to include animals.  It claims that ‘rights are for more than humans’.  It even goes on to tell us to ‘beware of speciesism’.

This brief essay offers support for the claim that rights are for more than humans and goes on to argue that the plight of animals is indeed a legitimate human rights concern.

It claims that the species exclusivity built into the notion of human rights is arbitrary and unjustified.

It argues that if the future of human rights is to be fair, compassionate and rationally justifiable, it must be radically reconceptualised to include the basic entitlements of sentient non-human animals.

Animals As Rights-Holders

Most people agree that we have certain moral obligations to non-human animals.  Most people also probably agree that those obligations mean that we ought to treat farm animals, lab animals, zoo animals, wild animals and so on better than we do in most contemporary societies.  But the question of whether we ought to treat those animals better because of their rights is much more controversial.

Can non-human animals even possess rights?

Rights are sometimes denied to animals because they are not moral agents.  That is to say, it is sometimes argued that animals cannot have rights because they can neither respect the rights of others, nor claim their rights for themselves.  This makes animals importantly different from human beings, and for some, disqualifies them from the possession of rights.

The problem with this position, of course, is that the same rationale would disqualify many human beings from the possession of rights.  After all, young infants and the seriously mentally disabled cannot respect the rights of others, or claim their rights for themselves.  And yet it seems absurd to deny these individuals all and any rights.  Surely a child has the basic entitlement not to be tortured, just as her parents do, irrespective of whether she is capable of understanding her own duty not to torture, and irrespective of whether she can go to court to claim that right for herself.

In fact, this example illustrates that rights possession does not depend on the capacity for moral agency, but on the capacity for interests.

Children, the seriously mentally disabled, and animals all possess a right not to be tortured quite simply because they all have a compelling basic interest in not suffering terribly.  The possession of interests, rather than moral agency, is the sufficient condition for holding rights. The classic statement to this effect is made by in a famous essay by Joel Feinberg.

Crucially, all that one needs to possess interests is some form of conscious experience – to have some stake in how one’s own life fares.

As such, all sentient animals possess interests, meaning that all sentient animals can possess rights.

Animal Rights As A Human Concern

But even if animals can and do possess rights, it might be asked what any of this has to do with human rights.

Sentient animals may well have certain rights, but that does not necessarily mean that those animal rights are a human rights concern.  Indeed, some might argue that human and animal rights are qualitatively different.  After all, it would be strange to think that animals have rights to freedom of speech, to freedom of association, to take part in government, to self-determination, and so on.  Human and animal rights, so it might be claimed, are of a different order.

But I want to argue that animal rights and human rights are part of the same ethical enterprise.

At bottom, human rights are about protecting those goods that allow us to lead minimally decent lives: see many earlier tracks in this project, especially track one.  Since sentient animals can also lead minimally decent lives, and since our actions and institutions routinely threaten their ability to lead such lives, they too are a human rights concern.

It certainly does not matter that animal rights and human rights are not identical in content.  For one, some human and animal rights are shared: the right to life, liberty and security of the person, the right not to be enslaved, the right not to be tortured, the right to be recognised as a person before the law, and so on, all seem plausible candidates.

Moreover, the basic rights of humans also differ in content: adults possess certain human rights that children do not have, children possess certain human rights that adults do not have, women possess certain human rights that men do not have, disabled individuals possess certain human rights that able-bodied individuals do not have, and so on.

What secures a minimally decent life for a child is sometimes different to what secures it for an adult – hence some of their human rights are different.  But given that both children and adults can lead minimally decent lives, both are a human rights concern.

Since sentient animals can also lead minimally decent lives, they too are a human rights concern.

The basic rights of humans and animals are part of the same ethical enterprise.

The Priority Of Human Rights?

At this stage, some of you may object that human and animal rights cannot be part of the exact same ethical enterprise quite simply because humans and their rights are more important than animals and theirs.  Human rights and animal rights may well both protect the conditions for a minimally decent life – but some will claim that ensuring that humans are able to lead such lives must come first.

The argument in favour of prioritising humans and their rights usually assumes that the inclusion of animals necessarily involves the sacrifice of humans – that by turning our attention to the plight of animals, we necessarily turn our attention away from the plight of humans.

But we should be extremely wary of such arguments.

When the ‘rights of man’ and the ‘rights of the citizen’ were opened up to disenfranchised human beings – evolving into the present notion of ‘human rights’ – the entitlements of white male property-owning nationals did not exactly wither away.

Instead, our circle of compassion and the scope of our legal norms expanded to include all humans.

Just as we can respect the rights of foreigners without eroding the rights of co-nationals, so we can respect the rights of animals without eroding the rights of humans.  Our aim should not be to sacrifice humans for the sake of animals, but to expand our circle of compassion and the scope of our legal norms to include all sentient creatures.

We should do so because the cruelties perpetuated upon non-human animals by contemporary societies cannot sensibly be regarded as trivial or as of low priority.  The misery that animals suffer in modern industrial agriculture, for example, must be considered as amongst the most pressing and urgent ethical issues of our time.  And it is especially pressing given the ever-expanding global consumption of animal-derived products: to illustrate, consider that global per capita consumption of meat has more than doubled between 1961 and 2007, and is expected to double again by 2050.

We need urgently to rethink the meat guzzler.

The animal-dominated diet that many human beings now enjoy is not normal – obviously, it is unprecedented in human history.  Such a diet is also unnecessary – in fact, humans can lead much healthier lives without deriving so much of their protein from the flesh, eggs and milk of animals.  The diet is also extremely inefficient – as is well-documented, we can feed far more people with far less impact on land, using plant-based proteins: Peter Singer and Jim Mason have written a stimulating book about this.

Crucially, however, this diet is also based on the routine institutionalised abuse of billions of sentient animals.

The vast majority of the food we eat does not come from the idyllic and friendly farms we see in picture books for children.  It comes from factories where animals are mechanically processed – bred, confined, mutilated, fattened and slaughtered – for our plates. If you don’t believe this glance through the web site of one of the key NGOs in this area, Compassion in World Farming.These animals have become simple production units whose sentience, lives, interests and rights are totally sacrificed for the sake of cheap meat, dairy and eggs – and, of course, for profit.

It is unclear to me why these kinds of routine abuses and rights violations should be of low priority.

If human rights are about ensuring that individuals are able to lead minimally decent lives, then the plight of many animals in contemporary societies is a legitimate and pressing human rights concern.

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8 Responses to T15 – Beware Speciesism

  1. Richard Buck says:

    I agree that honouring interests is a good way to look at both human and animal rights. We have been talking about human dignity being the fundamental basis for human rights. According a human his/her rightful dignity means honoring the individual’s interests. A human has interests in life, liberty and happiness. Likewise animal dignity would mean treating an animal in accordance with its interests. Any animal capable of feeling pain has an interest in not being subjected to pain. This would certainly include all animals with nervous systems and brains. Except for humans (although some would include other primates and cetaceans as well), animals do not have a sense of or interest in the future. Peter Singer, using this distinction, would allow for the killing of non-human animals if it is done without causing pain. This distinction also leads in a direction that many human rights supporters would decry: that is, permitting the euthanizing of human beings who will never be mentally capable of having a sense of or interest in a future. It is argued that taking away the future of a being that will never be capable of desiring a future would not be a violation of its interest, or rights. With animals we can imagine interests beyond absence of pain, such as an interest in living in circumstances that fit their natures; e.g., a cow ought to be able to roam freely in a pasture and eat grass all day, and a chicken ought to be able to wonder freely scratching the ground for insects and seeds. I think that we can scientifically show that confining a cow or a chicken causes elevated levels of stress hormones, perhaps analogous to causing the animal pain.

    Granting all sentient beings the right to pursue their interests provides a sound basis for human rights, and avoids trying to justify a fundamental difference between animals and humans relative to rights. I agree that expanding the “circle of compassion” to include animals strengthens our human rights position. However, the pragmatic reasons cited for reducing the high level of meat consumption that leads to cruel treatment of farm animals brings us back to arguing for animal rights based on the benefits to humans. However logical the argument based on all sentient beings might be, Lily Megaw in Track 16 makes the point that “humans are fundamentally self-interested and it would be more effective to construct rights for nature in terms of how humans are affected.” We no doubt should push both of the arguments.

  2. Paul Bernal says:

    Huge questions here – and important ones. At one level, what immediately springs to mind is that in some ways we all draw lines as to what is acceptable and what is not, and what is respected and what is not, and those lines have shifted as we have become more aware, more ‘developed’. Equality first between men of a certain status has expanded incrementally to now include (at least theoretically) all mankind, so why not animals too?

    Where I have a problem with the article is that there seem to be lots of different arguments going on, all in some ways to support the same thing – and some of them are far more compelling than others. The first questions I have are about definitions – and in particular, the definition of sentience. Do you have a strict idea of what you mean? The levels of ‘intelligence’ and ‘sensitivity’ of different creatures vary immensely – anyone who has a pet cat or dog can recognise a great deal of both in their companions, but anyone who (like me) has also kept reptiles and amphibians must also recognise that whatever the other attractions of those creatures as pets, their intelligence and sensitivity don’t come high up on the list. Does that matter? Should it matter? If not, then where DO we draw the line? Insects? Or, to be even more extreme, bacteria?

    Another issue that concerns me is the question of diet: the idea that the meat-guzzling diet is not ‘natural’ is a strong one for me – but the idea that a meat-free diet is the ‘natural’ consequence seems to me to be a stretch. Similarly, the idea that our intensive farming is deeply damaging is clear – but the idea that we should therefore abandon all animal farming is again a stretch. Is there not some kind of a balance that’s possible? If we’re looking at what is ‘natural’, then looking at some of our closest relatives, the chimpanzee, they are far from the idyllic frugivores that they are sometimes portrayed – they hunt, kill and eat meat, even the meat of monkeys. When a film of this kind of activity was shown on British TV a few years ago, there were many complaints by shocked viewers – but it’s real, and it makes it a little hard to accept the idea that if we were all natural, we would all be vegetarians. And if we decide that we can eat meat at all, then where does that leave the idea of animals in general having a ‘right to life’?

    Maybe I’m too primitive, maybe my willingness to be an omnivore will seem barbaric in a few decades in the same way that smokers are viewed by many as barbaric now, but right now it doesn’t feel that way. Living a super-size-me diet of junk food is to me clearly barbaric – but a life based primarily on lentils and muesli is to me a joyless one, and one far from a spirited and positive idea of human ‘flourishing’. Again, this may well reflect my own barbarism – but I have tried it both ways, and I know which one feels the more natural to me – and the more joyful. Perhaps I’m just a victim of my upbringing, and enjoy meat through being brainwashed or unduly influenced – but I do enjoy it, and my years as a vegetarian were some of the least happy of my life. That may, of course, have been for reasons entirely unconnected to the diet…..

  3. One of the things that Alasdair Cochrane’s guest post makes abundantly clear is the significance of the discussion about why it is that we are said to have rights. He argues – correctly in my view – that a capacity for interests is the sufficient condition to have rights, and that this clearly gives the grounds that are needed for animals to have rights.

    As always, I think one of the things we need to be careful about here is disaggregating what we mean by “rights”. As I’ve said before, when people talk about human rights, they tend to lump them all in together as if we are always talking about the same thing, or the same kind of thing, when we discuss one human right as opposed to another. Clearly this is not the case: the right to freedom from torture for example is a very different right from the right to education.

    Similarly, I think with animal rights, part of the discussion here has to be not just about rights for animals in the abstract, but which specific rights are we talking about, and how are they justified vis-à-vis the interests of the particular animals in questions. It is quite possible, I suppose, that I the same way that different categories of human have different rights (parents, children for eg), so to do different types of animals.

    Back to the question of grounds/foundations…. I think that the interests account here shows its real value. But I am not sure that I am therefore comfortable with abandoning a moral agency account of rights for humans. I have not thought this through, so bear with me, but it seems to me that the moral agency account plays a key role in the justification of many of the standard list of human rights which cannot be replaced by using an interests account only (particularly those rights which have to do with preserving the political space in which one makes free choices about ones moral, political, intellectual, religious etc afiliations and commitments – ie where one is most explicitly using one’s moral agency).

    I am working on a response at the moment to another author’s arguments in favour of an interests based account, and it seems to me that it lends itself too easily to a kind of paternalism (and at worst case, imperialism), when one group of people end up being able to determine the futures of another based on what the first group thinks are the second group’s interests. Complex models of democratic global governance and accountability and representative delegation can be brought in to try and resolve the problem, but it seems to me that it does not go away.

    Rights for creatures who are capable of moral agency, it seems to me, need to have that moral agency built into the foundation of why they have rights, in order to protect that agency from being usurped by others who think they know what everyone’s interests are. Clearly, for creatures not capable of moral agency, the story will be different –much more like what Alasdair has argued in his excellent contribution here.

  4. Comparing human rights to any possible animal rights to my mind reiterates that it is all a question of degrees; while pretty much everyone would agree animals are inherently different to humans, some are far more different than others. It may be the concept of sentience that leads us to feel cruelty against animals such as dogs or cattle far more strongly than, say, fish. On the other hand, it may be that a dog seems less different to a human than a fish does.

    Anthony is of course correct in saying that there are a variety of types of right; a fish needs a fair and public hearing like it needs a bicycle. Some rights are clearly appropriate to animals whereas others are not. I believe there are few people who are entirely happy with careless cruelty to animals, which suggests that the vast majority of people have some concept of animal rights. It is a matter of degree as to what rights you think animals have. It may also be related to the extent to which we feel we ‘need’ animals and so have a valid reason for overruling their rights; while many people are happy to be vegetarian, I expect considerable numbers would be unwilling to live entirely without meat products.

  5. Craig Valters says:

    I think many people, particularly those who take an interest in human rights, will find your arguments regarding the ‘interests’ of animals compelling – and rightly so. As you make clear, there aren’t a great deal of logical distinctions to be made between humans and animals, at least not enough in many cases to suggest that animals should be disregarded as unworthy of decent treatment.

    Linking these arguments back to the track on business: we need to remember that the supply of meat is driven by demand. As the article I post below mentions, ‘When consumers demand a higher quality of life from the animals they eat, feedlots will become a black stain of our agricultural past’.


    However, whilst I definitely agree with your overall sentiment that ‘The basic rights of humans and animals are part of the same ethical enterprise’, I can’t help but feel that you conflate the two types of rights a little. Being part of the same ethical enterprise is not the same as animal rights being a ‘pressing human rights concern’. The radical reconceptualisaton that you mention could only happen if the name of ‘human rights’ was reversed back to just ‘rights’, and perhaps there is a strong quality to the ability people have of championing ‘human rights’ and ‘animal rights’ separately whilst recognising their common ground. This isn’t a question of priorities, or an argument against the fact that animal rights are a very pressing concern, simply that actually drawing them into ‘human’ rights discourse risks making them a footnote to a broader project, rather than one in its own right.

  6. Lily Megaw says:

    I struggle to conceptualise human rights since I am one of the ‘barbaric omnivores’ who deplores the ill treatment of animals in industrial agricultural systems but continues to eat meat. Can animals to have a right to not be tortured and a right to not be enslaved, but not have a right to life? What justification would allow this? Surely every foundation mentioned thus far – equal moral worth, sentience, interest, and the ability to lead a minimally decent life – necessitates a guarantee of the right to life. Maybe the balanced option is that, rather than all become vegetarians, we come up with a foundation-less approach that requires humans to respect animal rights but also allows them to continue their (reduced) meat-eating habits.

    • Richard Buck says:

      In my post above, I mentioned some ideas of Peter Singer that could be a useful foundation for dealing with animal rights. It is based essentially on the level of the nervous system of the animal. An amoeba does not have much of a nervous system, so it would not have interests or rights. A fish is capable of feeling pain, but has no conception or expectation of a future; nor would it feel loss if you caught and ate one of its relatives. So the fish would have an interest or right not to suffer pain, but would not have a right to life for itself or its relatives. You could feel free to catch and eat the fish and its children as long as you did not cause it physical pain. At the other end of the spectrum would be humans who feel physical pain, emotional pain when relatives are killed and have an expectation of a future. Therefore, humans have a right to not be tortured, to not have their relatives killed and to not be killed themselves. In the middle might be the elephant. Elephants apparently do understand and mourn the death of members of the herd; while they probably do not have a conception of a personal future. Therefore, they would have a right not to be tortured and not to have their relatives killed. An individual elephant would not have the right to life–as long as its death was accomplished without inflicting pain. With humans, interest in a future would be extended to babies, because they will have such an expectation when they mature. The Singer position has one controversial implication from a human rights perspective. It implies that a human with a profoundly deficient brain who is incapable of understanding the concept of a future would not have an interest in continued life–that is, no right to life. Well, that is an issue of human rights, not animal rights, so I think it can still serve as a good foundation for animal rights.

  7. Lee says:

    I agree with you in the “same ethical enterprise” point. I see the force of grounding a theory of animal rights in the possession of interests and I think, adopting Anthony’s concerns about imposing our conception of interests on others, Richard’s criticism takes too far the threshold level of concious thought within the interests model. However, I think you (possibly deliberately to provoke debate) stretch the argument too far with statements like: “sentient animals … are a human rights concern”.

    In all of your explanations about the debates in human rights and differences in classifications (for want of a better word) of humans and how rights differ between them, there is a link to the human. In some future, past, potential, physical or mental sense there is a connection to being human, no matter where you draw your line on the mentally incapacitated, the foetus etc. You cannot make the same point for a hedgehog.

    The parallels to human rights are helpful and add credibility and rigour to the foundations of the animal rights cause. However, over-playing this as a human rights concern only detracts from the credibility. Speciesism is important for the intellectual honesty of the exercise and to consider what particular rights flow from the common ethical underpinning. I share the concerns above about sentience (Paul) and making this idea of rights real. What rights would you give a elephant foetus? A mentally incapacitated dolphin? Frogspawn? Perhaps you don’t have the basis of a system of rights in the model of human rights but of entrenched compassion with penalties for breach – the current system, perhaps more widely crafted.