Do Animals Have Rights?

Fresno Bee, December 11, 2022

Do animals have rights? This is an interesting topic to consider on Human Rights Day, which falls on Dec. 10. Human Rights Day commemorates the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In a recent column in the Los Angeles Times, philosopher Martha Nussbaum maintains that animals “should be seen as citizens with rights.” Her vision of the world imagines a future in which there is a “legally enforceable constitution for the various animal species.”

Animals deserve protection from cruelty. But legal rights for animal “citizens” would require us to radically revise what we mean by both “rights” and “citizenship.” And one can call for a reduction in animal suffering without claiming that animals have rights.

There is a vigorous debate in animal ethics about the difference between animal welfare and the more ambitious agenda of animal rights. Both approaches ask critical questions about human treatment of animals, including on factory farms. But the animal-rights idea is less interested in incremental improvements in animal welfare and more focused on abolishing the human use of animals.

This debate re-appeared recently in response to the Montreal Declaration on Animal Exploitation. More than 500 philosophers and other scholars signed that statement (including myself). The declaration condemns “unnecessary” harm to animals.

But some animal advocates refused to sign on, claiming that the declaration did not go far enough, since it avoided the language of rights. One prominent scholar who refused to sign is Gary Francione, a vocal defender of animal rights. Francione explained that the Montreal Declaration “expresses a position that is woefully short of recognizing the fundamental right of all sentient beings not to be used exclusively as means to human ends.”

This may seem like abstract philosophical nit-picking. But there are organizations in the United States working to establish rights for animals. One of these organizations, the Nonhuman Rights Project, sued the Bronx Zoo and Fresno’s Chaffee Zoo on behalf of elephants held in captivity. The Nonhuman Rights Project argues that elephants have habeus corpus rights. The Bronx Zoo case went to the New York Supreme Court, which held that nonhuman animals do not have habeus corpus rights.

Animal cruelty laws currently exist. It would be useful to improve those laws and enforce them better. The state of California has taken steps to strengthen animal cruelty laws, including regulations involving farm animals.

In 2018, California voters approved Proposition 12, which mandated more room for pigs, hens and veal calves. It also banned the sale of food from other states that did not adhere to California’s guidelines. This led farmers in other states to sue California. In October of this year, the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case, “National Pork Producers Council v. Ross,” which challenged California laws requiring more humane cage sizes for farm animals.

This shows the kind of push-back that would ensue if animals were granted legal rights. Proposition 12 did not abolish factory farms. It merely made them less cruel, and the Supreme Court had to get involved. But the animal rights perspective is about more than cage size. The larger concern is abolishing animal agriculture and converting humanity to a vegan diet.

That demanding idea is unlikely to gain traction in our carnivorous world. In order to reduce animal suffering, it might be more effective to encourage people to eat less meat and to buy cruelty-free animal products. But for those who believe in animal rights, that’s insufficient.

A further concern is that we’ve still got work to do on human rights — including the rights of women, refugees, indigenous people, and others suffering oppression and statelessness. The Declaration of Human Rights is nearly 75 years old. But human rights are still a work in progress. It’s worth considering whether the animal rights movement will help or hinder the work of human rights.

Our obligations to other human beings are morally and politically fundamental. To speak of human rights is to say that human beings have inherent dignity and worth, and that is wrong to abuse, torture and murder them. Are we willing to extend that idea to animals? Or does that require a leap in logic and law that demands too much?

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Mister Rogers on peace, empathy, and make-believe

Fresno Bee, December 1, 2020

A Mister Rogers renaissance is under way. This soft-spoken pacifist and vegetarian is a counter-cultural force in the age of Trumpian bluster, militaristic swagger, and fast-food excess.

Fred Rogers thought kindness should extend to everyone in the neighborhood, including nonhuman animals. In an interview in Vegetarian Times in 1983, Rogers said, “It’s hard to eat something you’ve seen walking around.” He also said, “I don’t want to eat anything that has a mother.”

Rogers imagined a world in which peace and love triumphed over war and hate, a vision grounded in his own Christian faith. One recent book calls him a “dyed-in-the-wool pacifist,” highlighting the anti-war lessons Rogers delivered from Vietnam to the war on terror.

This may seem like something from the land of make-believe. But the path to peace begins with kindness to animals.

The key to this process is empathy. Empathy is the ability to sense what another creature is experiencing. Empathy can be developed with practice. One way to help kids develop empathy is to have them care for animals.

But empathy is only a part of ethics. We could care for animals and eat them, after all. We could also understand that other people are suffering but remain indifferent to their pain.

Empathy helps us see things from the other’s point of view. The moral question is what we do about what we see.

You can understand, for example, that the homeless man on the corner is suffering. This may move you to give him money. But you may worry he would spend the money on drugs. You might also think that his suffering is his own fault. Or you may have other obligations to attend to.

Moral judgment goes beyond empathy. This applies in thinking about animals. Once we see that animals can suffer, the moral question is whether their suffering matters and to what extent.

Most people think that animal suffering does not count for much. Even if animals suffer, most humans believe that this suffering is outweighed by human pleasures. We know that pigs are as smart as dogs. But we like bacon. Or we are unable to imagine a world without bacon.

But our thinking slowly evolves as we imagine things differently. California is leading the nation in new reforms aimed at alleviating animal cruelty. In October, California became the first state to ban fur sales. California also prohibited the use of bears, tigers, elephants, and monkeys in circuses, among other reforms.

The fur ban is a policy that Rogers supported a few decades ago. Animal fur is no longer necessary for warmth. We have come up with other ways to clothe ourselves. Something similar holds for circus animals. We have decided to find other ways to entertain ourselves that do not involve cruelty to animals.

Now some skeptics will claim that animals do not suffer and that empathy for animals is absurd. A skeptic might claim that to think that animals suffer is misguided anthropomorphism — a mistaken projection from the land of make-believe.

But Rogers taught us a lot about the power of make-believe. He once explained the power of make-believe in this way: “You can think about things and make believe. All you have to do is think and they’ll grow.”

Empathy begins with a kind of make-believe. When we project ourselves into the experience of another, we use our imaginations. Once empathy makes the connection, the next step is to imagine a world in which there is less suffering — a world beyond animal cruelty and a world beyond violence and war.

Peace-makers have always had very active imaginations. Fred Rogers explained his vision of the world in a commencement speech in 2002 where he said that the deepest part of the self is oriented around the following: “Love that conquers hate. Peace that rises triumphant over war. And justice that proves more powerful than greed.”

We don’t live in a world like that yet. Not everyone shares this vision of a more compassionate world. But we are making progress. The first step is learning empathy. The next step is teaching our children, as Rogers did, that they have the power to imagine a better world.

The Vegetarian View

The vegetarian view

Fresno Bee, April 17, 2015 

  • Environmental and health concerns point toward vegetarian diet.vegetarian-mark-620
  • Concern for animal suffering leads some away from meat.
  • Vegetarian morality has deep roots.


Vegetarianism is on the rise. Actress Pamela Anderson recently served vegetarian meals to inmates in an Arizona jail. Anderson explained that vegetarian meals help promote compassion and nonviolence. The sheriff was less idealistic: he touted meatless meals as a cost-saving measure.

Not only is a meatless diet compassionate and cheap, it is also good for the environment. The Los Angeles Times recently reported that avoiding meat saves water. According to the Times’ data, it takes about 22 gallons of water to produce one ounce of soy burger, compared with 106 gallons of water to produce one ounce of beef. Earlier this year, The U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee concluded in a draft report that vegetarian diets are both better for the environment and better for human health.

The health argument is complex. Another study, from a medical university in Graz, Austria, concluded that vegetarians are less healthy. Exercise, affluence and other factors matter with regard to health. If you double down on French fries, you don’t benefit from skipping the burger. Despite the Graz study, the consensus seems to be that vegetarian diets are healthy and environmentally sustainable.

My own journey to vegetarianism began 20 years ago when my sister asked me to clean a chicken. She liked to eat chicken, she said, but the preparation grossed her out. That got me thinking about my own disconnect from the meat I ate. I decided that if I wasn’t willing to kill it and clean it myself, I wasn’t going to eat it. I haven’t eaten meat in 20 years. And I’m healthy and happy.

I discussed vegetarianism with a carnivorous dinner companion the other night. He told me of growing up on a poultry farm, where he’d killed more than his share of chickens. He had also slaughtered goats and cows. He admitted that it’s not pleasant to kill and bleed a cow. But he happily munched his steak. Disgusting but delicious, he suggested.

There’s no doubt that some disgusting things are necessary and justifiable. But meat eating is not. You can live quite well without it. But an argument based upon our feelings of disgust is fairly weak. A deeper moral argument focuses on the question of animal suffering.

Now some deny that animals suffer, claiming that animal pain is merely a physical response without moral meaning. But pet owners will disagree. Dogs wince in pain and wag their tales in delight. If I care about the suffering of dogs or cats, then I should care about other critters.

Some carnivores argue that the pleasure of meat offsets the suffering of the animal. But vegetarians claim that the pain of the pig outweighs the pleasure of bacon. We should be more humble, I think, about causing suffering in the name of pleasure. Related to this is the idea the we should “live simply so that others may simply live.”

Vegetarianism also has mystical and ascetic overtones. In Hinduism and Buddhism, for example, a commitment to nonviolence can be extended toward compassion for all living things. In ancient Rome, the philosopher Porphyry made a similar argument. He thought that learning to be considerate of animals helped us learn to be compassionate to one another. He also thought that taming the appetite for meat helped to liberate the soul.

You don’t have to be a mystic or monk, however, to understand that it is good to avoid causing suffering. Nor do you have to think that animals are equal to humans to reach vegetarian conclusions. Human interests matter more than animal interests. If I were trapped with my dogs and my children on a desert island, we’d eat the dogs. But in a world with plentiful vegetarian options, one can eat well without eating meat.

I’m not dogmatic about this. I eat fish and eggs on occasion. I don’t nitpick the ingredients in food served by friends or in restaurants. And I don’t mind sharing a table with amiable meat eaters.

There are vicious vegans and caring carnivores. There is no necessary connection between diet and morality. But vegetarianism reminds us to think about reducing suffering and simplifying our needs. Vegetarianism can improve the world, one bite at a time.

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Taking pity on the weak and defenseless

July 26, 2013

The National Institutes of Health is retiring most of its chimpanzees from research. The director of the NIH, Francis Collins, explained that although similarities between chimps and humans has made chimps valuable as research subjects, this very likeness shows the need for greater justification in using them in research. If they are like us in terms of cognitive, social, and emotional experience, it is difficult to justify using them in ways that we wouldn’t use human beings.

This leads to some deep questions about our supposed superiority to animals and the justification of using animals for our benefit. We are like animals in many ways — in physiology and genetic constitution, for example. We reproduce, enjoy basic pleasures, and live in social groups. We explore our environments and become attached to others. While those similarities help explain the usefulness of animal models in research, they also indicate the need to be judicious in using animals.

While animals and humans share many capacities, only human beings seem to be aware of our moral obligations to other species. Our superiority to animals — if there is such a thing — is found in our ability to reflect on morality and our ability to imagine ways to use tools and other species.

This idea has deep roots. Plato tells a creation story in which the Titan, Prometheus, distributed powers and talents to various animals. Some got fur. Others got wings. And so on. By the time Prometheus turned to human beings, all the gifts were given away. Human beings were weak and defenseless, without fur, claws or hooves. As Plato puts it, we were left naked, unshod and unarmed.

But Prometheus took pity on us and gave us gifts that he stole from the gods, knowledge of fire, other technologies and agriculture. The gods punished Prometheus for giving us these god-like capacities. Prometheus’ Titanic pity for humans is a symbolic example of the pity felt for a lower species that is weak and defenseless.

The idea of taking pity on weak and defenseless members of another species is an important one. Some ancient philosophers argued for vegetarianism and against animal cruelty along these lines. The followers of Pythagoras argued that animal cruelty makes us insensitive to suffering and that by pitying the beasts we develop compassion, which can help us develop compassion for human beings.

Most Western religion and philosophy didn’t follow Pythagoras toward his vegetarian conclusion. But the animal question returned occasionally. In the 10th century, for example, Muslim scholars in Baghdad produced a fascinating story in which animals and humans argue before the King of the Jinn. The animals complained that human beings had no pity on them — forcing them to work, stealing their babies and killing them.

The text is very sympathetic to the animals’ complaint. But it concludes that humans are superior to animals because only human beings become sages, saints and prophets. The text also notes that saints and sages often chose to live apart from other human beings — as hermits residing in the wilderness. The best human beings appear to recognize that animal company is often preferable to the corrupt company of cruel and vicious human beings. Furthermore, many of those saints and sages are remarkably kind to animals. The best humans may be those who do not lord their superiority over the beasts.

If we really are superior to animals, that superiority gives us greater responsibility to avoid being cruel to those who are at our mercy. It might be that the truly superior human being is the most modest and the most kindhearted, especially when it comes to the treatment of inferior, dependent and vulnerable animals.

The NIH’s chimp retirement plan recognizes that the suffering of members of other species matters. It is a good thing that we are developing a kind of Promethean pity for those animals who depend entirely upon our mercy. I hope the chimps enjoy their retirement.

But is compassion for animals enough? Pity for weak non-humans is wonderful. But we have even stronger obligations to pity weak and dependent humans, including children, the disabled and our own aged population. A truly superior human species would treat vulnerable members of our own species as well as we treat animals — and vice versa.


The Morality of Cockfighting

Should eaters of chicken decry cockfighting?

Andrew Fiala

Originally published Fresno Bee 2012-07-14

Human relations with animals are complex and laden with cultural significance. Americans dote upon our pets. We also like to eat meat. Many of us enjoy hunting. But public opinion has turned against animal blood sports, which were once forms of popular entertainment.

The most obvious case of our changing view of animals is the crackdown on cockfighting. Last week, for example, in Tulare County, police arrested the people who sell the sharp knives that are attached to the fighting roosters. Later that week, the police busted five people at a cockfight — again in Tulare County. At the beginning of July, the state Assembly unanimously agreed to double the fine for cockfighting and other animal fighting. The U.S. Senate has included an anti-animal fighting provision as part of this year’s national Farm Bill. Even Michael Vick, the former dogfighter, has called for stiffer cockfighting penalties.

So what’s so bad about cockfighting? Well, it can be dangerous to humans. A Bakersfield man bled to death last year after he was cut by a rooster’s knife. Cockfighting is also linked to other illicit activities: gambling, gangs, and drugs.

But defenders of cockfighting argue that the cockfight is an important part of some cultures. Cockfighting is a popular in Asia, some Pacific islands, and in parts of Latin America. On one interpretation, the sport is a celebration of masculine values: courage, fierceness, strength, and pride.

The ancient Greeks trained fighting birds. American Presidents — Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln — were supposedly involved in the sport. Lincoln is supposed to have defended cockfighting by saying, “As long as the Almighty has permitted intelligent men, created in his likeness to fight in public and kill each other while the world looks on approvingly, it’s not for me to deprive the chickens of the same privilege.”

This apocryphal quote makes you wonder whether there is much difference between watching a cockfight and a human fight. It is socially acceptable to cheer at human boxing matches and cage fights. But why then is it not acceptable to cheer on fighting roosters?

Perhaps the problem with cockfighting is that, unlike human fighting, the roosters fight to the death. But chicken killing does not bother most of us. According to the National Chicken Council, Americans consume 9 billion chickens per year — 83 pounds of chicken per capita every year. Hundreds of birds are killed every second to feed our appetite for chicken. So why should we worry about cockfighting?

I talked about these points with Andrew Fenton, an expert on animal ethics who is also my colleague in the Philosophy Department at Fresno State. Professor Fenton reminded me of the need to be sensitive to the values of the communities involved in the sport. Cockfighting is associated with minority and immigrant subcultures living in rural communities. Fenton suggested that there may be ways to help those in animal fighting subcultures see — on their own terms — that animal cruelty is wrong. But at the end of the day, cultural sensitivity is no excuse for cruelty.

Fenton is critical of both cockfighting and intensive animal agriculture. Both practices involve manipulating animals in unnatural ways for human enjoyment. He claims that a more “agrarian ethic” would care for the natural needs of animals.

Fenton pointed out similarities between the way that cockfighters breed and train ferocious roosters and the way that the poultry industry breeds delicious and fast-growing broilers. Fenton concluded, “Intensive animal farming is not any less cruel than cockfighting.”

Fenton further pointed out that while it is appropriate to be outraged by the visible cruelty of the cockfight, there is quite a bit of cruelty that remains invisible to us. Those who will suffer most from the crackdown on cockfighting will be the invisible among us: immigrants and others for whom animal blood sports are culturally significant.

Humans are thrilled by fighting sports and spilled blood. We also like to eat meat. Our food choices and sporting preferences have deep cultural significance for us. Perhaps eliminating cockfighting is a step in the right direction. But we still need more critical insight into our appetite for meat, our fascination with blood sports, and the cultural traditions that influence our thinking about these things.