Are the ways humans subject animals to our own needs and wants justified?

Humans regularly impose our own demands on the animal world, whether it’s eating meat, scientific testing, keeping pets, sport, entertainment, or protecting ourselves. But is it reasonable or ethical to do so?

Humans and animals

We often talk about humans and animals as though they are two separate categories of being. But aren’t humans just another kind of animal?

Many would say “no”, claiming humans have greater moral value than other animals. Humans possess the ability to use reason while animals act only on instinct, they say. This ability to think this way is held up as the key factor that makes humans uniquely worthy of protection and having greater moral value than animals.

“Animals are not self-conscious and are there merely as means to an end. That end is man.” – Immanuel Kant

Others argue that this is “speciesism” because it shows an unjustifiable bias for human beings. To prove this, they might point to cases where a particular animal shows more reason than a particular human being – for example, a chimpanzee might show more rational thought than a person in a coma. If we don’t grant greater moral value to the animal in these cases, it shows that our beliefs are prejudicial.

Some will go further and suggest that reason is not relevant to questions of moral value, because it measures the value of animals against human standards. In determining how a creature should be treated, philosopher Jeremy Bentham wrote, “… the question is not ‘Can they reason?’, nor ‘Can they talk?’, but ‘Can they suffer?’”

So in determining whether animal rights should trump human interests, we first need to figure out how we measure the value of animals and humans.

Rights and interests

What are rights and how do they correspond to interests? Generally speaking, you have a right when you are entitled to do something or prevent someone else from doing something to you. If humans have the right to free speech, this is because they are entitled to speak freely without anyone stopping them. The right protects an activity or status you are entitled to.

Rights come in a range of forms – natural, moral, legal and so on – but violating someone’s right is always a serious ethical matter.

“Animals are my friends. I don’t eat my friends.” – George Bernard Shaw

Interests are broader than rights and less serious from an ethical perspective. We have an interest in something when we have something to gain or lose by its success or failure. Humans have interests in a range of different projects because our lives are diverse. We have interests in art, medical research, education, leisure, health…

When we ask if animal rights should trump human interests we are asking a few questions. Do animals have rights? What are they? And if animals do have rights, are they more or less important than the interests of humans? We know human rights will always trump human interests, but what about animal rights?

Animal rights vs animal welfare

A crucial point in this debate is understanding the difference between animal rights and animal welfare. Animal rights advocates believe animals deserve rights to prevent them being treated in certain ways. The exploitation of animals who have rights is, they say, always morally wrong – just like it would be for a human.

Animal welfare advocates, on the other hand, believe using animals can be either ethical or, in practice, unavoidable. These people aim to reduce any suffering inflicted on animals, but don’t seek to end altogether what others regard as exploitative practices.

As one widely used quote puts it, “Animal rights advocates are campaigning for no cages, while animal welfarists are campaigning for bigger cages”.

Are they mutually exclusive? What does taking a welfarist approach say about the moral value of animals?

Animal rights should trump human intereststook place on 3 May 2016 at the City Recital Hall in Sydney.

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Should animal rights trump human interests?