Do Animals Have Rights?

by I.J. Makan


My brother and I had never killed for food before, but it was our turn. It was a chicken, and we’d made a deal that I would hold it down while he decapitated it. We thought it was simple enough until we realised that the knife was blunt; it took five swings before, finally, the head tumbled across the floor. This happened 17 years ago and it was traumatizing–I can still feel the chicken struggling. But admittedly dinner was delicious!

Animal rights activists would denounce my brother and me for infringing on the chicken’s right to live free from suffering and exploitation. And that my brother and I are bigots for thinking that we had moral grounds for killing a chicken for dinner! We are no better than racists or sexists who discriminate based on one’s membership of a group.

Is it true that animals like the chicken or my dogs, Popeye and April, have rights in general? Did the chicken for dinner have a right to life or right to live free from suffering and exploitation? Advocates of animal rights have provided conditions that supposedly confer rights. But, despite their efforts, their conditions don’t work in extending rights to animals; at best, their conditions end up making almost all living things eligible for rights, including bacteria and crickets. Nevertheless, I want to focus on two popular conditions which allegedly help broaden moral status to animals and show that they fail: the capacity for pain and pleasure and self-consciousness.

Take the argument from the capacity for pain and pleasure or sentience. We can all agree that pain and suffering is bad and should be avoided if at all possible. An animal that can suffer must be considered in equal moral standing with other beings that share similar capacities; in other words, they must have the same moral status. For instance, a full grown horse that can feel greater suffering than a one-month-old infant must possess the same rights as the infant. Since if an infant’s sentience is lower than a horse’s then it is not farfetched to demand that the horse have the same moral standing as the infant. There is no moral justification for not considering sentience for the attribution of rights. If animals can feel pain and pleasure, then they can have their lives go better or worse. And rights confer moral protection to beings in their living the good life. Therefore, these animals have a right to life and the right to live free from suffering and exploitation.

Admittedly, I agree that maliciously causing suffering is bad and it should be prevented. Nonetheless, it can’t be argued from sentience that animals have rights. There is an inferential gap between the claim that animals have the capacity for pain and pleasure (and so can have their lives can go well or poorly) and that animals have rights. If sentience is a necessary condition meant to contribute to the possession of rights, then it can be universally applied to all living things. Bacteria thrive under certain circumstances. Crickets thrive with adequate water, heat, and food but die without them.  We can also add plants to this list. So sentience adds nothing to arguments for animal rights.

What about just suffering? Doesn’t the fact that an animal can suffer give reason that it should have rights? But again suffering does not do any of the work that advocates of animal rights think it does. If suffering were a condition, it would mean that the woman who is so emotionally detached, and hence cannot feel any sort of emotional pain, and also has leprosy squanders her moral standing. Yet, this would be a ridiculous conclusion to draw. Nothing concerning rights follows from the possession of sentience.

Now that sentience is out of the picture, what about the argument from self-consciousness? Self-consciousness is more than sentience, but we don’t want to define it too broadly so as to include bacteria and crickets. So, is self-consciousness simply self-awareness? In other words, being conscious of one’s emotions, spacial location, identity over time, and awareness of others. It seems that way. We know that chimps and dolphins can recognize themselves in the mirror. We know that they communicate within their respective species. We know also that chimps mourn the loss of other chimps, etc. So sure we can say that animals are self-conscious in this sense.

The question, then, is what is the conceptual connection between having any of the above characteristics and the possession of rights? How does the latter follow from the former? Any insect with a body and a brain is spatially aware, has psychological identity over time, and is aware of its surroundings. If the objection then is that insects don’t have emotions and hence my rebuttal automatically fails, then we return to the argument from sentience. And this we have seen fails. There simply isn’t anything about the ability to mourn, ability to recognize itself in the mirror, or the ability to communicate that magically transfer rights over.

Even if, for the sake of argument, we assumed that some animals have self-consciousness, it certainly wouldn’t be the higher kind paradigmatic humans have; human self-consciousness allows us to think abstractly, reason, reflect, etc, and as such that is the nature of human being given that they are allowed to develop. There is no evidence that suggests chimps, dolphins, or any other animal, have this higher kind of self-consciousness or can ever develop it.

Animals don’t think about their thoughts. Animals don’t learn that they have false beliefs–meaning that they aren’t aware and aren’t able to learn that previously held thoughts were wrong. To learn from some mistake, a chimp or a dolphin would first need some concept of truth: that truth is whatever conforms to reality, say; and from there infer that anything that does not meet this condition is false. But they just don’t have this capacity. There is no crucial evidence that suggests otherwise. And without an understanding of truth, animals can’t know they’ve made a conceptual mistake.

It’s this higher kind of self-consciousness, which humans by nature have, that is essential to rights but it’s not sufficient either. Hence, we need animals to have the same kind of self-consciousness if we are to even consider assigning rights to them. However, we’ve seen that the two popular conditions that allegedly help extend moral status to animals fail. Either because they end up conferring rights to bacteria, crickets, and plants (which is a bad idea) or because the self-consciousness that’s supposed to be relevant becomes irrelevant. Nevertheless, this doesn’t us give license to torture or aimless kill animals. And I do confess that my brother and I should have used a sharper knife when killing the chicken; it would have been less traumatizing for us and less painful for the chicken.

Still, I find it incredible that we have people who protest and lobby governments to implement laws to protect the rights of animals when animals can’t in principle have moral status because they can’t develop the higher self-consciousness needed for rights. But if advocates of animals rights really wanted to broaden moral status so as to include some “higher” mammals, then they need better arguments that will get the job done.

@ijmakan is the founder and editor of Kazingram Dialogue. He received his Master of Arts in Philosophy from Saint Mary’s University, and a BA in Philosophy from Tyndale University. His philosophical interest are in ethics, philosophy of mind and philosophy of religion. In his free time he practices Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

2 thoughts on “Do Animals Have Rights?

  1. Kurtis Merrithew says:

    You make a good case for animals not having rights, but can you deny that people have an obligation not to kill animals? Even for food if there is no need to do so for survival?


    • IJ Makan says:

      Where would that obligation come from? You have a moral obligation not to kill animals if they some negative right but I don’t see how they have that. So even if eating meat was no longer required for survival it wouldn’t mean that we have an obligation not to kill animals, only that people have the option not to eat meat.


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