CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS FOUNDATION
Bill of Right in Action
Fall 2000 (16:4)
Innovations in Law
Do animals, like humans, possess certain inalienable rights? A growing movement in America believes they do.
Concern for animals has a long history. The ancient Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras argued against cruelty to animals. St. Francis of Assisi, who founded the Franciscan Order of Catholic monks in the middle ages, taught that animals are our brothers. In 1641, Massachusetts Puritans wrote a code of laws called "The Body of Liberties." One of the laws in this code said, "No man shall exercise any tyranny or cruelty towards any brute creatures which are usually kept for man's use." This law seemed to imply that animals, at least farm livestock, had the right to a life free of unnecessary suffering.
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals started in New York in 1866. Through its efforts, New York drafted an animal protection law that became a model for most of the other states. This law prohibited any needless torture, overloading, beating, mutilation, or killing of "any living creature." It still permitted, however, "properly conducted scientific experiments" involving animals. The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and similar organizations worked for many years at the state and local levels to monitor animal dealers, circuses, zoos, movie makers, and pounds.
The New Movement
In the second half of the 20th century, a new wave of more aggressive animal-rights activists formed. They differed from previous activists because they do not simply want people to stop treating animals cruelly. They believe that animals, like humans, have certain inalienable rights. Peter Singer, author of Animal Liberation, is one of these activists. He argues that all animals are equal. By this he does not mean that all animals should vote or have freedom of speech. These rights would be meaningless for animals other than humans. Nor does he mean that all animals should be treated the same. He means that all animals should have equal consideration for their well-being. The well-being of a pig and a human are far different, he says. A pig belongs with other pigs where they can eat and run freely. A child needs to learn how to read.
Singer says that it is morally irrelevant that animals cannot speak and are not as intelligent as humans. He points out that we still accord human infants and people with mental and developmental disibilities equal consideration. According to Singer, the characteristic that gives a being the moral right to equal consideration is the capacity for suffering and enjoyment. "If a being suffers, there can be no moral justification for refusing to take that suffering into consideration. No matter what the nature of the being, the principle of equality requires that its suffering be counted equally with the like suffering . . . of any other being." Singer has term for those who allow the interests of humans "to override the greater interests of members of other species." He calls them "speciesists."
Few argue with Singer that we should take an animal's suffering into account. Those disagreeing with him, however, believe that human life is worth more than animal life. R.G. Frey, a philosopher and author of Interests and Rights: The Case Against Animals, says that most people believe that the value of animal life varies. He notes that most people value dogs, cats, and chimps more than mice, rats, and worms. He gives the example of a dog and a human on a raft. If only one can be saved, he says, few would disagree that it should be the human.
The reason he thinks human life is more valuable is that it has more potential richness to it. He says that unlike animals, "there are . . . whole dimensions to our lives--love, marriage, educating children, jobs, hobbies, sporting events, cultural pursuits, intellectual development and striving, etc.--that greatly expand our range of absorbing endeavors and . . . significantly deepen the texture of our lives."
The debate over animal rights, however, does not usually occur in the abstract. It has taken place over a series of issues.
In the 1980s, groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) protested the use of animals in cosmetics testing. Revlon tested the safety of its eye makeup by applying substances directly on the eyes of rabbits. Protesters carried signs saying, "How many rabbits does Revlon blind for beauty's sake?" Within six months Revlon agreed to a permanent ban on animal tests. Over the next 10 years, protests forced more than 500 other cosmetic companies to give up animal tests.
Other protests targeted medical research. During the early 1960s, investigators revealed that laboratory test animals were often forced to live under filthy conditions in cages that were too small without any veterinary care to ease the pain caused by the experiments. A movement soon emerged to ban all testing on animals. But alarmed medical researchers argued that animal testing played a necessary role in ending diseases such as polio, making human organ transplants possible, and developing many kinds of life-saving drugs.
Congress passed the first federal law regulating the treatment of lab animals in 1966. The Animal Welfare Act did not become effective, however, until Congress passed strengthening amendments in 1985. The amendments require humane treatment and adequate feeding, sanitation, shelter, and vet care for lab animals. The amendments also call for "a physical environment to promote the psychological well-being of primates." Farm animals as well as birds, rats, and mice (which are used the most in laboratory experiments) are not covered by this law. The strengthened Animal Welfare Act applies not only to research facilities, but also to animal dealers and exhibitors like zoos.
The dispute boils down to two main issues: First, does animal research improve human health? Dr. Michael E. DeBakey, chairman of the Foundation for Biomedical Research, states: "Not one advancement in the care of patients--advancements that you use and take for granted every day--has been realized without the use of animal research."
PETA disputes this. It says that rats and mice are so different from humans that studies on them tell little about humans. It asserts that "sophisticated non-animal research methods are more accurate, less expensive, and less time-consuming than traditional animal-based research methods."
The second issue is: Even if it helps humans, is it ethical? It is clearly not ethical to conduct medical experiments on humans. Is it all right to conduct them on animals?
Highly Intensive Animal Production
Before World War II, animals meant for food usually lived outdoors, except in extreme weather. Today, these animals live on what animal-rights activists call "factory farms." Chickens, an important part of the American diet, live in small cages stacked one on top of another in temperature-controlled, windowless barns. Often their beaks and claws are trimmed so they cannot harm one another if they fight. They are fed a special diet that promotes their growth and includes antibiotics to control disease. Other food animals--pigs, turkeys, and calves--live in similarly controlled environments.
Animal-rights activists consider these environments unnatural, inhumane, and incredibly exploitative of animals. They say that the food producers are treating the animals as machines, ignoring their pain, frustration, and natural desires. The Humane Society of the United States says: "Factory farms deny animals many of their most basic . . . needs. . . . Such artificial conditions cause animals to suffer from boredom, frustration and stress, which often leads to abnormal behavior, including unnatural aggression." The society claims hundreds of thousands of chickens die every day due to these conditions, but the companies simply consider this a cost of doing business.
Farmers deny all this. They say that their most important concern is the health of their animals because their businesses depend on this. They point out that American food production is the envy of the world. They say that animal-rights activists overly idealize animal life on a traditional farm. The Animal Industry Foundation, a national organization for animal agriculture, says: "Housing protects animals from predators, disease, and bad weather or extreme climate. Housing also makes breeding and birth less stressful, protects young animals, and makes it easier for farmers to care for both healthy and sick animals. Modern housing is well ventilated, warm, well-lit, clean and scientifically designed for the specific needs of the animal, such as the regular availability of fresh water and a nutritionally balanced diet."
Animal experimentation and intensive animal production are the two issues in the forefront of the animal-rights movement. But they are not the only ones. Animal-rights activists have also questioned the value of hunting animals, horse and dog racing, using animals for entertainment (in films, circuses, and zoos), eating meat, wearing fur, and even owning pets.
- What is "speciesism"? Do you think it is a valuable concept? Why or why not?
- Do you think human life is more valuable than animal life? Explain.
- What rights, if any, do you think animals should have?
For Further Information
Animal Issues Links to sites on all sides of the animal rights debate provided by Project Vote Smart.
The Moral Status of Animals Links to many sources on animal rights from Ethics Updates.
A C T I V I T Y
Should It Continue?
In this activity, students evaluate different behavior using animals.
- Divide the class into small groups and assign each group one of the behaviors listed below.
- Each group should discuss the following questions and prepare to report their answers to the whole class.
(a) What are the benefits of the behavior?
(b) What are the burdens to animals?
(c) Do you think the activity should continue? Explain your answer.
a. Creating tumors in laboratory mice in order to see if a drug will reduce the tumor.
b. Keeping chickens on what animal-rights activists call a "factory farm."
c. Deer hunting for sport.
d. Eating meat.
e. Wearing fur.
f. Putting chimpanzees in zoos.
g. Owning a cat or dog for a pet.