This website uses the term Animal Rights in its broadest possible sense, i.e. as an umbrella term also covering positions such as Animal Liberation/Abolitionism, Ethical Veganism etc. However, it must not be confused with the widely established position of Animal Welfare. Let’s take a brief look at this crucial distinction.
The classic Animal Welfare Position holds that there is a fundamental moral difference between humans and animals. Animals do count in the moral arena, i.e. they are to be considered for their own sake rather than merely with reference to human interests; at the same time, however, they count less than humans. This implies a fundamental moral inequality. The most obvious indication of this inequality is the fact that animals are not accorded moral rights but only some sort of cloudy second-class moral status. Consequently, animals can be used as means to further human ends – on sole condition that they receive what is often called ‘humane’ treatment.
The classic Animal Welfare Position doesn’t question the established practices of animal use (including killing) in principle. What it does reject, however, is the manner in which these practices are currently being carried out. Concretely, this implies the rejection of cruelty and the avoidance of ‘unnecessary’ suffering. This, however, isn’t an absolute demand. For as long as there seem to be ‘good’, ‘reasonable’ or ‘important’ grounds, even causing intensive suffering is considered morally justified. So, basically, the Animal Welfare Position calls for a ‘humane’ reform of established practices, aiming at improvements in these respects.
The Animal Rights Position, by contrast, holds that there is no fundamental moral difference between humans and animals. Instead, humans and animals are basically considered moral equals. Just like humans, animals are accorded certain inalienable basic moral rights. These rights protect individuals against becoming mere means to satisfy human ends and being treated as objects of purely strategic and instrumental considerations of individual moral agents or society as a whole. This holds true regardless of whether this happens in a ‘humane’ fashion or not.
So, basically, the Animal Rights Position calls for a fundamental and radical overhaul of our relation with, and treatment of, animals. It doesn’t simply problematise the manner in which some practices are being carried out but questions the ethical legitimacy of the practices as such. However, within the Animal Rights camp (broadly construed), there is some disagreement as to what exactly this entails. The Animal Liberation Position (Abolitionism) even rejects any form of animal use as a form of abuse.
This website takes the following rather uncontroversial definition of Animal Rights as a basis: the term Animal Rights serves as shorthand for genuine – i.e. basically equal – moral protection of animals as individuals.
Animals qualify for this kind of moral protection because they are sentient and vulnerable or, to put it more accurately, because they are individuals with a subjective, experiential well-being: their lives can fare better or worse for them, they can experience pleasure and pain as well as joy and sorrow, and they have needs, desires and interests of their own. This being the case, animals can be affected by the actions of moral agents and thus deserve moral rights as a form of protection. This protection ought to cover all aspects of animals’ well-being. Animal rights, as it were, function as ‘trumps’ against instrumental and strategic considerations and calculations of moral agents, constituting safe areas for animals and thus constraining moral agents’ scope of action.
Again, the question which rights animals should be accorded is far from uncontroversial within the animal rights camp. Most positions presuppose the right not to suffer as well as the right to life; the Animal Liberation Position goes the extra mile, demanding the right to freedom. This entails that any keeping of animals ought to be abolished.
According to the view advocated here, the attribution of animal rights does not depend on metaphysical notions of intrinsic value, dignity or the like. Instead, it is solely based on the fact that animals are individuals with a well-being of their own and that it is moral agents who attribute, recognise and respect these rights in their actions.