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The Animal Rights Debate - History Of The Animal Rights Debate

animals moral humans property

Early Arguments for Animal Rights

Most historians note that the modern animal rights movement began during the 1970s. But the roots of the movement date back much farther, to a handful of philosophers and thinkers. Celsus was a second-century Greek writer who argued against the Jewish/Christian belief that humans are morally superior to animals. Celsus pointed out that animals might actually be more favored by God because they do not have to sow seeds or plow fields to live, while people do. He did not believe that humans must be superior to animals because they are able to capture and eat animals. He noted that humans have to use weapons, traps, and hunting dogs to capture animals, while animals are naturally equipped with the tools they need to capture humans.

Over time, other writers and thinkers questioned society's attitudes toward animals. Their arguments were usually based on philosophical or ethical ideals. The Italian artist Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) refused to eat meat. He once wrote in his notebook: "The time will come when men such as I will look upon the murder of animals as they now look upon the murder of men."

Legal protection was extended to some animals during the 1800s in the form of antiabuse laws. These laws were often passed based on the theory that animal abuse was bad for society in general—they did not protect animals for the animals' sake but for humanity's sake. In 1892 the humanitarian Henry Salt (1851–1939) wrote a book entitled Animal Rights: Considered in Relation to Social Progress, in which he asked, "Why should the law refuse its protection to any sensitive being? The time will come when humanity will extend its mantle over everything which breathes.…"

The Modern Animal Rights Movement

Despite periodic calls throughout history for greater sensitivity toward animals, it was not until the 1970s that the question of their rights became a major social issue. In 1970 British psychologist Richard Ryder coined the phrase "speciesism" to describe prejudice and discrimination practiced by humans against animals. Ryder's ideas received little publicity, but they were embraced by an Australian philosopher named Peter Singer. In 1975 Singer published an influential book called Animal Liberation (New York: New York Review/Random House), which described in vivid detail the ways in which animals were subjected to pain and suffering on farms, in slaughterhouses, and in laboratory experiments. Singer publicized the notion of speciesism and called for an end to it. He argued that speciesism is similar to racism and sexism, in that they all deny moral and legal rights to one group in favor of another.

Henry Spira formed Animal Rights International after attending one of Singer's lectures. Spira was a social reformer who had worked in the civil rights and women's liberation movements. He turned his attention to the animal rights movement after he "began to wonder why we cuddle some animals and put a fork in others" ( Spira was instrumental in bringing various animal groups together to work for common causes. Many people credit him with pressuring cosmetics companies to seek alternatives to animal testing for their products during the late 1980s.

By 1980 the animal rights movement had become prominent enough to attract the attention of critics. Philosopher R. G. Frey of Bowling Green State University argued that animals do not have moral rights in his 1980 book Interests and Rights: The Case against Animals (Oxford: Clarendon Press). Frey insisted that animal lives do not have the same moral value as human lives because animals cannot and do not undergo the same emotional and intellectual experiences as humans.

In 1979 the organization Attorneys for Animal Rights was begun by lawyer Joyce Tischler. The group held the first national conference on animal rights law in 1980. The next year, it successfully sued the U.S. Navy and prevented the killing of 5,000 burros at a weapons-testing center in California. Also in 1981, the group adopted a new name, the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF). One of ALDF's goals is to end the belief that animals are merely property. The group's anticruelty division also works with state prosecutors and law enforcement agencies to draft felony anticruelty laws and stiffen penalties for violations. As of August 2004, forty-one states and the District of Columbia had felony animal abuse provisions.

British philosopher Mary Midgley joined the debate when she published Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press) in 1978 and Animals and Why They Matter (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin) in 1983. In her work Midgley argued that Darwin's On the Origin of Species was the catalyst for ending the moral separation that humans felt toward animals because it proved that humans were in fact animals. Midgley compared speciesism to other social problems such as racism, sexism, and age discrimination.

It was during the 1970s and 1980s that some animal rights advocates began using high-profile tactics, such as sit-ins at buildings and protest marches on the streets, to attract public attention to their cause. These are examples of civil disobedience, or refusing in a nonviolent way to obey government regulations or social standards. A radical element of the movement went even further, breaking into laboratories and fur farms to release animals and damaging buildings and equipment. Some people who used these methods referred to themselves as part of the Animal Liberation Front (ALF). ALF followers became known as the "domestic terrorists" of the animal movement.

Many in the scientific community were disturbed by this new wave of moral and social opposition to the use of animals in research. In 1981 the Foundation for Biomedical Research (FBR) was founded to defend such usage and promote greater understanding of its medical and scientific benefits among the general public. The FBR began tracking and reporting on the activities of criminal animal activists who broke into laboratories to release animals and/or destroy property.

The organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) was founded in 1980 and quickly came to prominence. One of the group's cofounders infiltrated a research laboratory and obtained photographs of the primates being held there. The incident attracted national media attention and greatly helped Henry Spira's efforts to reduce animal use in cosmetic testing. Animal issues also became important to a larger number of Americans in the 1980s, with membership in the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) alone increasing by 500%.

In 1981 the Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights (AVAR) was founded by two veterinarians concerned that animals "were routinely being used and abused by society, sometimes for the most trivial of reasons" (, accessed May 30, 2005). AVAR's goal is to educate the public and people within the veterinary profession about these practices and to change social policy toward animals. The group's philosophy, as cited on its Web site in 2005, echoes that of many other animal rights groups in that it believes "all nonhuman animals have value and interests independent of the values and interests of other animals, including human beings."

In 1983 North Carolina State University philosophy professor Tom Regan published the book The Case for Animal Rights. Regan argued that animal pain and suffering are consequences of a bigger problem—the idea that animals are a resource for people. Regan presented detailed philosophical arguments outlining why he believes animals have moral rights as "subjects-of-a-life." Regan says that acknowledging the rights of animals requires people to cease using them for any purpose, not just those associated with pain and suffering.

In 1983 R. G. Frey responded to the growing pro-vegetarian movement with his book Rights, Killing and Suffering: Moral Vegetarianism and Applied Ethics. The idea of moral vegetarianism (adhering to a vegetarian diet for moral reasons, rather than for physical reasons) dates back centuries. It was advocated by Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi (1869–1948) in the early 1930s as a moral duty of humans toward animals, and gained new life during the animal movement of the 1970s. Frey, however, argued that a widespread adherence to a vegetarian lifestyle would result in the collapse of animal agriculture and other animal-based industries and massive social disruption.

In 1984 philosopher Ernest Partridge attacked Singer's speciesism philosophy and Regan's animal rights view in an article for the journal Ethics and Animals. In "Three Wrong Leads in a Search for an Environmental Ethic: Tom Regan on Animal Rights, Inherent Values and Deep Ecology," Partridge maintained that both Singer and Regan missed a crucial point about the nature of rights—that rights have no biological basis, only a moral basis. In other words, it does not matter how humans and animals are alike or dissimilar in biology. What really matters is that no animals exhibit the capacities of "person-hood," such as rationality and self-consciousness. Partridge contended that lack of personhood effectively disqualifies animals from being rights holders.

Carl Cohen, professor of philosophy at the University of Michigan, also attacked the views of Singer and Regan in his 1986 article "The Case for the Use of Animals in Biomedical Research" in the New England Journal of Medicine. Cohen acknowledged that speciesism exists, but denied that it is similar to racism or sexism. He argued that racism and sexism are unacceptable because there is no moral difference between races or between sexes. However, he wrote that there is a moral difference between humans and animals that denies rights to animals and allows animals to be used by humans. Cohen went on to become one of the most well-known and widely published critics of the animal rights movement.

Animals as Property

In 1988 researchers at Harvard University obtained a patent for the OncoMouse—a mouse that had been genetically engineered to be susceptible to cancer. This was the first patent ever issued for an animal. Animal rights groups, led by the ALDF, challenged the issuance of the patent in court, but the case was dismissed because the court found that the ALDF had no legal standing in the matter. Since that time, several other animals have been patented, including pigs, sheep, goats, and cattle. According to Tom Regan's The Case for Animal Rights, patents can be issued for "nonnaturally occurring nonhuman multicellular living organisms, including animals" as long as they are given "a new form, quality, properties or combination not present in the original article existing in nature."

In 1995 Professor Gary Francione published Animals, Property, and the Law, in which he argued that there is an enormous contradiction between public sentiment and legal treatment when it comes to animals. Francione noted that the majority of the public agrees that animals should be treated humanely and not subjected to unnecessary suffering, but he claimed that the legal system does not uphold these moral principles because it regards animals as property.

Francione compared the situation to that which existed in slave states prior to the Civil War (1861–65). Although there were laws that supposedly protected slaves from the abuse of slave owners, they were seldom enforced. Slaves, like animals, were considered property, and the law protects the right of people to own and use property as they see fit. Property rights date back to English common law. According to Francione, the law has always relied on the assumption that property owners will treat their property appropriately to protect its economic value. Under this reasoning, the courts of the nineteenth century refused to recognize that a badly beaten slave was "abused," as defined by the law.

Francione believed that this same logic gives legal support to common practices in which animals are mistreated—for example, in the farming industry or in laboratory testing. He explained that humans are granted "respect-based" rights by the law while animals are only considered in terms of their utility and economic value. Francione pointed out that animals are treated by the legal system as "means to ends and never as ends in themselves." In other words, existing animal laws protect animals because animals have value to people, not because animals have inherent value as living beings.

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about 12 years ago

i for one disagree with the cruelty affecting most animals. animals have life, purpose and families just like humans therefore animal brutalism and testing must stop.