The United Nations (UN) has a Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) that reads: "Everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person." The UDHR specifies dozens of particular human rights, including the right to be free from slavery, torture, and cruel or degrading treatment. Other rights involve equal protection under the law, fair and public trials, freedom of movement, marriage and raising families, ownership of property, worship and religion, peaceful assembly, expression of opinions, access to public services, social security, working conditions, rest and leisure, education, culture, and standard of living.
The U.S. Declaration of Independence, written in 1776, states, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." Although America's founding fathers considered these rights to be inherent, they did note that people form governments to "secure these rights." Thus, while rights have a moral basis, they are upheld through the law.
Since the 1970s a debate has arisen about whether animals also have moral rights that should be recognized and protected by human society. This is largely a philosophical question, but the answer has many practical consequences. For example, if animals have a right to life, then it is wrong to kill them. If animals have a right to liberty, then it is wrong to hold them in captivity. If animals have a right to pursue happiness and enjoy security, then it is wrong to interfere in their natural lives.
Societies and governments make decisions about who should be granted rights and how those rights should be secured. In general, an individual's legal right to life and liberty ends if that person infringes on someone else's right to life and liberty. In some states a person who kills another person can be executed by the government. At the very least, the government can restrict the killer's liberty. People debate the moral issues involved in such affairs, but the legal issues are generally spelled out clearly in U.S. law.
Sometimes it is not considered morally or legally wrong for one person to kill another—for example, in the case of self-defense or in defense of others. The same holds true for a person killing an animal. There is general moral and legal agreement that killing an attacking tiger or rabid dog is reasonable and right behavior. In human society the moral and legal arguments that protect a person acting in self-defense begin to melt away as the threat level descends. Killing an unarmed burglar or trespasser may or may not be perceived as justified under the law. Killing a loud, annoying neighbor crosses over the line.
This line is set much lower when it comes to killing animals. People can sometimes kill animals that burgle or trespass, make too much noise, or become a nuisance, without moral or legal condemnation. The same holds true for animals that taste good, have attractive skin or pelts, or are useful laboratory subjects. Why is it acceptable to kill an animal for these reasons, but not a human?
People answer this question in different ways depending on their belief systems and moral and social
influences, including religion, philosophy, and education. Here are some of the most common reasons people give for denying animals rights:
- Animals do not have souls.
- God gave humans dominion over the animals.
- Humans are intellectually superior to animals.
- Animals do not reason, think, or feel pain like humans do.
- Animals are a natural resource to be used as humans see fit.
- Animals kill each other.
Animal Rights Activists and Welfarists
Some people believe it is not acceptable to use animals for any human purpose at all. They believe that animals have moral rights to life, liberty, and other privileges that should be upheld by society and the rule of law. These are hard-core believers in animal rights, the fundamentalists of the animal rights movement. When they speak out, write, march, or otherwise publicize their beliefs, they are called animal rights activists. An activist is someone who takes direct and vigorous action to further a cause (especially a controversial cause).
Other people believe that some animals have (or should have) some moral and/or legal rights under certain circumstances. They may rescue abandoned pets, lobby for legislation against animal abuse, feed pigeons in the park, or do any number of other things on behalf of animals. These people are broadly categorized as animal welfarists. Their adherence to the idea of animal rights generally depends on the circumstances. For example, a welfarist might defend the rights of pet dogs and cats but eat chicken for dinner.
This is unacceptable to animal rights fundamentalists. They argue that all animals (not just the lovable or attractive ones) have rights that apply all the time (not just when it is convenient). Such fundamentalists face opposition from a variety of sources. Some of this opposition is driven by moral and philosophical differences of opinion. Some is also driven by economics.
Many animals (alive or dead) have financial value to humans. Livestock farmers, ranchers, pharmaceutical companies, zookeepers, circus trainers, jockeys, and breeders are among the many people who have a financial interest in the animal trade. If humans were to stop using animals, these people would be out of work. Many others would be deprived of their favorite sport and leisure activities. Given such economic arguments and the moral and philosophical arguments noted above, those opposed to the idea of animal rights feel as strongly about the topic as those who support it.