Can Animals Have Human Rights?

The question seems absurd until you realise that it is an ill-conceived way of putting a deeper point that is harder to refute: what makes human beings so special that they – and they alone among the animals – warrant the protection that flows from being entitled to rights? The usual stock answers to this are not as satisfactory as maybe once they were. First we used to say that humans as possessors of a soul were uniquely special and therefore entitled to things in a way non-humans were not. But the soul idea has taken a bit of a battering of late, and many people who believe in human rights feel they can commit themselves in this way even though they don’t think they have a soul lurking within them.

Often these are the people who turn to the rationality of man/woman as the reason for the uniqueness of this category of animal: unlike the rest of the living things on the planet, we humans can plan our actions, reflect on our life goals and how to achieve them, and generally behave in a thoughtful as well as a feeling way. In other words we have autonomy and as autonomous beings we have an interest in freedom which is nothing like (being far superior than) what other animals can possibly enjoy. This is good so far as it goes but doesn’t deal with two facts. First, many humans are not capable of enjoying their autonomy in this way and yet despite this (perhaps even especially because of this), we persist in thinking of them as human. Second, some non-human animals (eg whales, great apes, but there are others) do show evidence of this kind of personhood, so if this is the criteria that determines which animals have rights, should they not join the human category as rights-holders?

So how do we avoid saying that (certain) animals have rights? Maybe we should not try to. Perhaps there is another narrative under the surface of the religious and rational stories which have linked humans (and humans alone) so indelibly to rights in the past: both faith and reason have been concerned to produce ethical frameworks for good living, and a measure of goodness has in each case being the way we have treated the vulnerable and the weak. Traditionally these have been the human vulnerable and the human weak, but there is no necessary reason why we should allow this species-categorisation unnecessarily to limit our subject. If that is right, then we can talk of supporting the idea of rights for animals as a way of expressing our desire to protect animals from the horrors done to them by the abuse of human power.

Three glosses on this are necessary I think. First, not all animals would enjoy rights in the same way or to the same degree, and certainly the rights aimed at the human animal would not translate automatically to the rest of the animals. It would depend on capacities to feel pain and to engage in rudimentary conscious engagement with the world, in other words (to adapt a phrase while reminding us of the potential exploitation in it) it should be ‘horses for courses’. Second, since many human rights are already susceptible to exceptions based on the greater good of humankind, there should be do difficulty in developing exceptions with regard to particular categories of animals (in the interests of the animals) so as to avoid absurdity. And thirdly, again as is the case with the more ambitious human rights, to frame a right here is not, in the absence of direct enforceable unequivocal legislation, to insist on its immediate application: we can declare and agree animal rights as goals in the way that we already have decided that humans should have a right to food or to shelter: the fact that many don’t is a cause for concern not a basis for refutation.

These thoughts have been provoked by an excellent conference run by Professor Andrew Linzey’s Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics at Keble College Oxford on 18 September. What do you think? Are there gaps in the argument, places where the thesis can be tightened? Or have I got the argument completely wrong? . Is this the right approach for those concerned about animal welfare to take?