101 Guide to Animal Rights
written by Mara
We have to shift the paradigm from one of unimaginable violence in disguise to one of empathic and sane peacefulness.
Imagine you are on your way cycling to uni and you see a person tossing a sack full of kittens into the Maas. Outrageous, right? But what is the difference between killing kittens and slaughtering a pig, or a chicken, or a cow? How do we reconcile the strong feelings we have toward certain animals (predominantly the cute ones, like kittens) with the way we actually use animals for our daily lives? How we use them almost always harms them, be it for cosmetics, fashion, food, or fun. We’re here to offer you an introduction to the (sometimes grossly oversimplified) ethics and rationales underlying animal rights, the main ideas and personas behind the animal rights movement, and some tips on how to get involved as an individual in Rotterdam. It is enormously clear that we have an abundance of work to do, and we have to shift the paradigm from one of unimaginable violence in disguise to one of empathic and sane peacefulness.
The Animal Rights Movement
Whether you call it animal liberation, animal rights movement, or animal advocacy, what we’re talking about is perhaps one of the most misunderstood social movements of our time and worthy of exploring in a bit more depth. As a post-citizenship movement, it pursues the utterly altruistic goal to protect non-members – in this case: non-human animals. In simple words, the animal rights movement aims to abolish the rigid distinction, be it morally and legally, between human and non-human animals (hereafter simply called animals) and their status as property. In essence, acceptance of the doctrine means:
- Experiments on animals
- Breeding and killing animals for food, medicine, clothing
- The use of animals for entertainment (e.g., zoos and aquariums)
- Selective breeding of animals if not for the benefit of the animal
- Using animals for hard labour
What are animal rights?
Simply put, animals have a right to not be used and exploited by humans. It does, however, not mean animals should have the same rights as humans (a dog that votes) or be put above humans (a dog as a deity). Essentially, it is not about giving animals equal rights, but whether we as humans have the right to exploit animals for frivolous purposes and use them as if they are at our disposal.
Another distinction to make is that between animal welfare and animal rights. Where animal welfare purports the belief that we are free to use animals as long as we treat them in a “humane” way, animal rights is the absolute belief that we have no right to slaughter, exploit, use and abuse any animal, regardless of how well it was treated.
We’d never dream of using another human being in the way we use animals. So, how do we let ourselves do that?
Treating humans differently based on their species (i.e., human animals and non-human animals), Singer uses the word “speciesism” to describe giving preference to our own species over another in the absence of morally relevant differences. In Singer’s words: “the mere difference of species cannot in itself determine moral status”. In a nutshell, this means that if it’s not okay to do it to a human, it’s not okay to do it to an animal. But, how do we defend and try to justify the belief that human beings have a superior moral status than animals? What morally relevant differences could there be that justify treating animals in a way we would never treat another human being?
There are a few commonly cited differences that try to underpin a case against animal rights.
An obvious candidate is that without a question, as a species, our intelligence trumps that of every other. However, is the superior cognitive capability of humans a good reason or a good way to decide how to get treated? Bad idea. For one, dividing human society into an intelligence-based caste system does not sound great. Think of human beings with profound mental retardation – would it be right to treat members of our own species differently based on their intelligence? If the answer is no, why would it be okay to treat animals differently based on the same basis? (Read an elaboration here and watch an interesting TED talk here.)
“This is how it has always been”
Humans have been dominating animals for a long, long time. Surely, there are entire ways of lives, business structures, cultural characteristics, and traditions based on it. Yet, arguing based on tradition always is suspect: just because something has always been a certain way tells us nothing about whether it is good or bad.
The Argument of Need
Doing something cruel and necessary in order to survive (e.g. killing someone in self-defence) is one of the strongest and most cited arguments in the case against animal rights. But… what about the non-necessary things (like cosmetics testing)? Yet, eating is a necessity for us to survive, but we know that as humans we can be perfectly healthy on a vegan plant-based diet. Yes, we need to eat, but we don’t need to eat animals.
Bottom line – the equal consideration of interests and sentience
Singer stresses the moral principle of equally considering interests, regardless of what type of species they occur in. The principle should be applied when calculating the right or wrong of an action and include and weigh all interests equally. What does this mean in plain language?
Well, humans have interests that animals might not have, like going to university or getting married. However, there is an interest we all share: the interest in avoiding pain. Humans and animals are alike in the capacity to suffer – and we want to avoid it. Like us, animals are sentient beings with the capacity to feel, perceive, and experience subjectively. Singer's philosophical ancestor Jeremy Bentham famously pointed out that “The question is not, Can they reason?, nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? Why should the law refuse its protection to any sensitive being?”. If we were then to act accordingly, it is unjustified to give preference to solely the human interest of avoiding suffering. So, if eating animals is not about need, but conveniently and simply about taste and “the way how things always have been done” – it is morally not justifiable.
Lastly, one might say “these reasons don’t matter to me!” – but if these reasons don’t, why would any? We cannot opt out of rational discourse altogether but have to scrutinize our own actions - based on reason and morale.
How to get involved in Rotterdam and the Netherlands?
Fighting together for animal rights gives a sense of cohesion, but finding an animal rights organization can be difficult if you’re just getting started. For you to get involved, here’s a list of active animal rights organizations:
- The Save Movement (Netherlands)
Click on the hyperlinks featured in the article to find out more, and don't hesitate to reach out to us via firstname.lastname@example.org for more sources to quench your thirst for understanding more.