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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