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Animal Rights

Animal Rights

The opinions regarding animals and their rights greatly vary. To some, animals have no rights and are merely a form of property that exists only to fulfill human needs. To others, they are creatures that can be used or owned by people, but which also have feelings and are not to be subjected to needless suffering or pain. (Some would say that people with this belief are animal welfare, as opposed to animal rights, advocates.) Finally, there are those who believe that at least certain animals, such as those with sophisticated levels of intelligence and emotions (including nonhuman primates such as monkeys and chimpanzees), are not property at all nor meant to be utilized by man in any way. Such people believe that these animals are entitled to fundamental moral and legal rights that are currently accorded only to humans.

The animal rights movement includes many different organizations. In the United States alone, more than 100 groups are interested in the welfare of animals, and the focus of their activities and their tactics vary widely. For example, the Humane Society uses public education to promote responsible pet ownership, eliminate pain and cruelty in hunting and animal research, and advance similar causes. In contrast, the Animal Liberation Front commits illegal acts such as break-ins, the destruction of property, and the releasing of animals in its efforts to end all forms of what it considers to be animal exploitation.

Opponents to the animal rights movement also vary. Some see it as a group of do-gooders who are interfering with their right to treat or use their property as they wish. Others believe that the movement (or at least a part of it) consists of extremists who threaten the economic, political, and religious institutions in our country. Virtually every other country has one or more anticruelty statutes that prohibits the mistreatment of animals, but the provisions and effectiveness of those laws vary greatly. Many nations also have organizations that are interested in protecting the welfare of animals. Aside from the United States, the animal rights movement is most active in Canada, Western Europe, Australia, and New Zealand.

Historical Groundwork

Humans have long used animals for a variety of purposes. For hundreds of thousands of years, people have hunted for food and clothing. Between 10,000 and 18,000 years ago, humans began to domesticate animals such as dogs, goats, sheep, and chickens as beasts of burden and as food. For at least 2,500 years, animals have been used in circuses and other forms of entertainment. In the second century C.E., the Greek scientist Galen conducted some of the first medical experiments on living animals.


The ancient Greeks believed that nonhuman creatures were created by the gods to be used however people wished. According to the Bible, God gave man dominion "over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the Earth and over every creeping things that creeps on the Earth" (Gen. 9.1-3). This statement reflects the understanding of the ancient Israelites of how the world began, of why humankind hunted and domesticated the animals for food and clothing, and of how God provided for the human race which He made in His image. These same principles were in the laws of the ancient Greeks and Romans, which then evolved into or influenced the laws of the various western European countries (including England's common law) and those nations in the New World that were settled by western Europeans. For hundreds of years, no act committed upon an animal was prohibited, no matter how cruel or unnecessary.

New ideas.

The concept that animals have rights is relatively new. The first animal-protection law in western civilization was adopted in 1641 by the Massachusetts Bay Colony. This law made it illegal to "exercise any Tirranny or Crueltie towards any bruite Creature which are usuallie kept for man's use." However, the rest of the western world continued as before. Indeed, during most of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, many experiments were conducted using living animals. This was largely because of the new idea that scientific conclusions had to be based on observable facts and because the dissection of human bodies and the use of living people in medical experiments were illegal. This meant that scientists had to experiment with animals to learn more about physiology and anatomy. There were no controls on how these experiments were conducted, but there were few qualms because most believed that animals had no souls and, thus, felt no pain.

Ironically, these very experiments proved that animals do experience pain. By the end of the eighteenth century, many argued that animal abuse contributed to a person's cruelty. Others said that the mistreatment of animals was a misuse of a gift from God. In 1789, the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham became the first to say that animals have rights. According to Bentham, animals suffer pain just as humans and thus deserve the same freedom from pain.

Modern Movements

Slowly, most people came to accept Bentham's idea. Maine adopted the first modern anticruelty law in the United States in 1821, and every other state eventually enacted similar legislation. To encourage the police to enforce these laws, private organizations such as the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) were created throughout the last third of the nineteenth century. In addition, since World War II, a number of federal animal-rights laws have been adopted. These laws regulate animal experimentation and the treatment of animals by medical research facilities, slaughterhouses, and circuses, as well as people such as animal dealers who use animals as a source of livelihood.

Protection of animals.

Many groups concerned with the treatment and welfare of animals still believe in the superiority of humans and the right to use other living creatures to meet human needs. However, in 1975, the Australian philosopher Peter Singer argued that animals are entitled to live free from the infliction of pain and suffering, whether from animal experimentation, the raising of animals for food, or other causes.

Eight years later, the American philosopher Thomas Regan argued that every individual animal has an inherent value and thus has moral rights that should not be violated even if to do so benefits society. The ideas of both Singer and Regan provide the basis for those who argue that animals have rights that must be observed and protected as opposed to those who believe that it is all right to use animals so long as it is done without cruelty.

State and Federal Statutes

The provisions of anticruelty statutes vary state to state. In addition, the effectiveness of these laws depends to a large degree on whether one believes animals are property and whether there should be limits on how to use animals to meet human needs. Many of these laws were written about 100 years ago and have rarely been amended. Some are only a few paragraphs long. Most statutes contain broad exemptions that usually include agricultural practices (e.g., dehorning, castration, docking, and limiting feed) as well as hunting and scientific experiments.

Even when an anticruelty law does not have exemptions, the courts have often created them by ruling that the statutes do not prohibit the infliction of pain, suffering, or death so long as it is not outside the traditionally accepted use of animals. In addition, while some laws define "animals" as all living creatures other than man, some laws apply only to warm-blooded vertebrate animals. Others list specific animals or types of animals that the provisions do or do not protect.

In a few states, persons are guilty of violating the anticruelty statutes if they are criminally or unreasonably negligent in their treatment of an animal. Most states, however, require that the defendant have some form of intent before a conviction can be obtained. For instance, if a jurisdiction requires willful intent, then the prosecutor must prove not only that the defendant acted intentionally and voluntarily, but also that the defendant acted without just cause or reason. In one case in North Carolina, two dog trainers were found not guilty of violating the local anticruelty law when they beat a dog and submersed its head under water because they did it to teach the animal not to dig holes.

In most states, violations of anticruelty laws are considered as summary offenses, which only involve a fine, or as misdemeanors with penalties that do not exceed a year in jail and a fine. Some states have recently made the violation of these laws a felony, but it is not yet known if this will make any substantial difference in the obedience to, or the enforcement of, the statutes. Most police and prosecutors are not very concerned about crimes against animals and are reluctant to spend the time or the money to make arrests or to take the cases to court. As a result, the enforcement of the anticruelty laws is frequently left to such organizations as the Humane Society and the ASPCA.

Animals and science.

Since World War II, the number of scientific experiments involving animals has increased dramatically. Although the number of animals used in these experiments is just a small percentage of the millions killed every year for the benefit of humans for food and other reasons (such as clothing and the use of animal fats, oils, bones, and other byproducts in the manufacture of commercial goods), much of the recent focus of the animal rights movement has been on attempts to prohibit experimentation on live animals.

In addition to the state anticruelty statutes, animal experimentation is governed by the federal Animal Welfare Act which was enacted in 1966 and substantially amended in 1985. This law and its accompanying administrative regulations prohibit the use of animals in a scientific experiment if a nonanimal alternative is readily available. Scientists are also required to keep an animal's pain to a minimum, and to consider alternatives to any procedure that causes pain or distress. However, the law does not apply to rats or mice, the animals used most often in experiments, nor does it limit the type of experiments that may be conducted.

In the last decade of the 20th century, groups such as the Animal Liberation Front have used illegal means to fight what they believe is animal exploitation. In response, many states have adopted laws that specifically target these activities. The federal government has also enacted the Animal Enterprise Protection Act (1992). This law makes it a crime to cross a state border with the intent to physically disrupt zoos, aquariums, or similar public attractions, as well as to physically disrupt commercial or academic facilities that use animals for food production, research, or testing.

see also Animal Testing; Bioethics.

Mark A. Thorburn


Bloyd, Sunni. Animal Rights. San Diego, CA: Lucent Books, Inc., 1990.

Day, Nancy. Animal Experimentation: Cruelty or Science? Springfield, NJ: Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1994.

Francione, Gary L. Introduction to Animal Rights: Your Child or the Dog? Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2000.

Marquardt, Kathleen. Animal Scam: The Beastly Abuse of Human Rights. Washington, D.C.: Regnery Gateway, 1993.

Regan, Thomas. The Case for Animal Rights. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.

Roleff, Tamara L., and Jennifer A. Hurley. The Rights of Animals. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, Inc., 1999.

Sherry, Clifford J. Animal Rights: A Reference Handbook. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, Inc., 1994.

Singer, Peter. Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals, 2nd ed. New York: Random House, 1990.

Since the days of ancient Greece, the common belief for centuries was that animals were nothing more than living machines that had no consciousness. Without consciousness, the animals could not reason or think nor could they suffer or feel pain. Later, with the establishment of Christianity, this consciousness, which the animals supposedly did not have, became known as a "soul."


Polio was once one of the world's most dreaded diseases. Between 1948 and 1952 alone, 11,000 people in the United States died of polio and another 200,000 became partially or completely paralyzed.

In 1953, Dr. Jonas Salk announced the development of a vaccine. Salk and his colleagues developed the vaccine by growing three strains of the polio virus in monkey tissue and then killing the viruses with formaldehyde. This vaccine is between 80 percent and 90 percent effective and has saved millions of lives.

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Animal Rights

Animal Rights

The modern animal rights movement, which originated in the 1970s, may be understood as a reaction to dominant emphases within science and religion (principally, though not exclusively, Christianity). When the Jesuit Joseph Rickaby wrote in 1888 that "Brute beasts, not having understanding and therefore not being persons, cannot have any rights" and that we have "no duties of charity or duties of any kind to the lower animals as neither to stocks and stones" (Moral Philosophy, vol. II, pp. 2489), he was only articulating, albeit in an extreme form, the moral insensitivity that has characterized the Western view of animals.

That insensitivity is the result of an amalgam of influences. The first, and for many years the most dominant, was the "other worldly" or "world denying" tendency in Christianity, which has, at its worst, denigrated the value of earthly things in comparison with things spiritual. Traditional Catholicism has divided the world into those beings that possess reason and therefore immortal souls, and those that do not. The result of this schema has inevitably been disadvantageous to animals who have been regarded as bereft of an interior spiritual life, as well as the benefits of immortality. Christian spirituality has not consciously been at home with the world of non-human creatureseither animal or vegetable. Classic accounts of eternal life as found in Augustine of Hippo (354430), Thomas Aquinas (c. 12251274), or John Calvin (15091564) make little or no reference to the world of animals. Animals, it seems, are merely transient or peripheral beings in an otherwise wholly human-centric economy of salvation.

The second ideacommon to Christianity, Judaism, and Islamis that animals, along with vegetables and minerals, exist instrumentally in relation to human beings; they are made for human beings, even belong to human beings, as resources in creation. This idea predates Christianity and is found notably in Aristotle (384322 b.c.e.), who argues that "since nature makes nothing to no purpose, it must be that nature has made them [animals and plants] for the sake of man" (The Politics, 1, viii). This idea, largely unsupported by scripture, was nevertheless taken over by Aquinas, who conceived of creation as a rational hierarchy in which the intellectually inferior existed for the sake of the intellectually superior. Hence Aquinas posits that "It is not wrong for man to make use of them [animals] either by killing or in any other way whatever" (Summa contra Gentiles, Third Book, Part II, cvii).

Such instrumentalism, which features rationality as the key factor dividing human beings from "brute beasts," has in turn buttressed the third influence, namely the notion of human superiority in creation. Human superiority need not, by itself, have led to the neglect of animal life, but when combined with the biblical ideas of being made "in the image of God" (Gen. 1: 2627) and God's preferential choice to become incarnate in human form, some sense of moral as well as theological ascendancy was indicated. As a result, Christianity, and to a lesser extent Judaism, have been characterized historically by an overwhelming concern for humanity in creation rather than an egalitarian concern for all forms of God-given life. That humans are more important than animals, and that they self-evidently merit moral solicitude in a way that animals cannot, has become religious doctrine. Thus the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994) maintains that "it is . . . unworthy to spend money on them [animals] that should as a priority go to the relief of human misery" (para. 2418).

These influences have in turn enabled and justified the scientific exploration of the natural world and specifically the subjection of animals to experimentation. Francis Bacon (15611626) pursued his scientific investigations in the belief that humanity should "recover that right over nature which belongs to it by divine bequest" (Thoughts and Conclusions on the Interpretation of Nature, IV, p. 294). Since animals were made for human use and are incapable of rationality or the possession of an immortal soul, it was only a short philosophical step to conceive of them as automata devoid of self-consciousness, even incapable of pain. René Descartes (15961650) famously likened the movements of a swallow to the workings of a clock, and maintained that "There is no prejudice to which we are more accustomed from our earliest years than the belief that dumb animals think" (Philosophical Letters, 1649.). Physiologist Claude Bernard (18131878) completed the scientific objectification of animals by pursuing ruthless vivisections of living animals, and inaugurating an era in which experimental science, following theology, became largely blind to the sufferings of non-human creatures.

Yet, if science and religion have provided the dominant influences against which animal rights advocates react, they have also variously provided some key justifications for a contemporary animal rights position. Although Charles Darwin (18091882) cannot be counted an animal rights advocate (since he shot birds for sport and was not wholly opposed to vivisection), his theory of evolution challenged prevailing religious notions of a difference in kind between humans and animals. In so doing, he laid the foundation for a less hierarchical view of creation and encouraged subsequent discoveries of similarities between species. The irony is that a century of (often abusive) experimental work on animals has demonstrated the range and complexity of their behavior.

It is increasingly difficult to deny self-consciousness, mental states, and emotional complexity to other mammals. Indeed, there is a consensus now among scientists that animals suffer fear, anxiety, trauma, shock, terror, stress, and suffer only to a greater or lesser degree than humans do. Although the case for animal rights does not depend upon any exact similarity between "them" and "us" (except the need for sentiency, defined as the capacity to experience suffering), the question has to be asked: Given what we know now of the similar biological capacities of humans and animals, how can we justify a total difference in our moral treatment of them?

Similarly, religious traditions, especially Christianity, have rekindled more generous insights about animals. Chief among these are the notions that animals too are created by God and have intrinsic value and that human "dominion" over animals means exercising a God-given responsibility of care, and, not least of all, an appreciation that there are moral limits to what humans may do to other creatures. Such a notion of moral limits is explicit in the Hebrew Bible and has formed the basis of the traditional rabbinic injunction not to cause animals unnecessary suffering. Although it came rather late in the day, the humanitarian movement of the nineteenth century in England and the United States focussed religious sensibilities on the suffering of innocents (children as well as animals). Both Christians and Jews, including Arthur Broome and Lewis Gompertz, were involved in the foundation in London in 1824 of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), the world's first national animal welfare organization. Some modern theologians have argued that there is a specifically theological basis for animal rights based on God's prior right as creator to have what is created treated with respect.

Although people in Eastern countries, dominated by the religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, have in practice treated animals with as little respect as people in Western countries, their religions have nevertheless retained notions of respect and nonviolence (ahimsa ) toward animal, as well as human, life. In the doctrine of samsara (reincarnation) a continuity of soulfulness is presupposed (however much it may presuppose a moral hierarchy of life itself), and in Buddhism the first precept against killing is still normative. Specifically, the bodhisattva's example of compassionate postponement of buddhahood in order to liberate other suffering beings is a powerful religious ideal expressing the regard that the strong ought to have for the weak.

This ideal also expresses the best in traditional Jewish and Christian theology as summed up in the line that the "good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep" ( John 10: 11). Our very God-given power over animals should inspire a view of ourselves not as the "master species but rather as the servant species" (Linzey 1994, p. 45). The irony for animal rights advocates is that traditions that have supported and justified animal abuse also contain within themselves the seeds of an enlightened, even generous, attitude toward the non-human.

see also aristotle; augustine; buddhism; christianity, roman catholic, issues in science and religion; darwin, charles; descartes, renÉ; hinduism; imago dei; judaism; primatology; soul; thomas aquinas


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linzey, andrew. christianity and the rights of animals. london: spck, 1987; new york: crossroad, 1991.

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linzey, andrew, and cohn-sherbok, dan. after noah: animals and the liberation of theology. london: mowbay, 1997.

linzey, andrew, and yamamoto, dorothy, eds. animals on the agenda: questions about animals for theology and ethics. london: scm press; chicago: university of illinois press, 1998.

parker, taylor; mitchell, robert w.; and boccia, maria, eds. self-awareness in animals and humans: developmental perspectives. cambridge, uk: cambridge university press, 1994.

rachels, james. created from the animals: the moral implications of darwinism. oxford: oxford university press, 1991.

rickaby, joseph. moral philosophy. vol. ii. london: longmans, 1888.

rollin, bernard e. the unheeded cry: animal consciousness, animal pain, and science. oxford: oxford university press, 1989.

salisbury, joyce e. the beast within: animals in the middle ages. london and new york: routledge, 1994.

schochet, elijah judah. animal life in the jewish tradition: attitudes and relationships. new york: ktav, 1984.

thomas, keith. man and the natural world: changing attitudes in england, 15001800. london: allen lane, 1983.

webb, stephen h. on god and dogs: a christian theology of compassion for animals. oxford: oxford university press, 1998.

andrew linzey

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