Animal Rights and Human Needs: Foundations of the debate (Part I)

What rights should be afforded non-human animals, to which animals, under what circumstances, and why? What are the criteria for such decisions? What should those who disagree with the status quo do?

In my view, some rights should be given to some animals, depending on circumstances. I believe the criteria for this decision are more arbitrary than one might think, but a phylogenetic (anthrocentric) model is arguably useful for some, but not all decisions. Individuals involved in the discussion often inappropriately characterize the positions of others at the expense of reaching some kind of agreement, and this intractability exists across the spectrum of opinion. Needed improvements in the treatment of animals are likely to occur slowly because of institutional resistance, which is understandable, unfortunate, and fixable.

Everyone wants to be nice to the animals

A contemporary North American hunter may kill an animal for sport, but every hunter I know prefers a "clean kill," meaning, the animal dies instantly. If one disdains hunting, this may be hard to reconcile. Like "Rules of Warfare" this sounds absurd, or Orwellian. But even if one disdains hunting one has to admit that normal sports hunting does not involve trying to make the animal feel a lot of pain, but rather, the opposite. This fact is not meaningless or irrelevant. Even those who kill for sport usually prefer to do it in a fashion that they would label as "humane" and the polarity of what is "inhumane" vs. "humane" is commonly understood to be the same by most people, even if we don't always agree on the details of how to get there. Less pain is better than more pain, if death is going to happen it should be quicker.

A contemporary Western non-vegetarian, if given the choice, would prefer that animals are raised in a more humane environment and brought to slaughter in more humane ways. If you ask people about this, you'll find many who claim they don't care. But if you show these people the alternatives and ask if they would vote for the more humane over the less humane version very few would choose the less humane one.

People keep their pets in different ways. In North America, some dogs are working dogs and are never allowed in the house, while the same breed will be "part of the family" in a different household. Nonetheless, there are broad standards that most people agree on and there are certain things that society generally accepts as wrong, even if they are regularly supported and participated in (like the "puppy mills" from which many household pets come).

It is fair to say that except for those who are pathological or especially mean spirited, it is easy to construct binary choices regarding treatment of animals and find almost everyone having about the same preference for one of the two choices, where the preferred choice is the more humane one. Just as importantly, it seems that we use the term "humane" in a similar way across a range of contexts.

There are world wide cultural differences in how humans relate to non-human animals. Having lived with actual hunter gatherers (people who do not kill for sport, but rather, for food) I strongly suspect that few westerners would accurately predict what attitudes towards pets and towards game animals might be in other cultures. Our popular culture is full of misconceptions about how other cultures relate to non-human animals. For the present purposes, it is probably wise to stick to mainly "Western" ideas which are certainly variable enough.

There is no solution that will satisfy all parties

Even though the relative "humanity" of two or more ways to treat non-human animals will rarely be disputed, there are large differences among individuals as to what might be considered appropriate. There is almost certainly no position or policy that would satisfy every stakeholder in a particular discussion. Meat eaters don't want to be told to not eat meat. True Vegans are generally uncomfortable about the existence of a meat food industry. There are those opposed to all use of animals in research, and there are those who assert that there is at present no unnecessary cruelty to animals or other inappropriate activity associated with the use of animals in research, as the process is already appropriately regulated.

The fact that there is no universally agreed on solution to the question of how to treat non-human animals means that every honest and earnest participant in the discussion must accept that they simply will not get everything they want in any process of negotiating changes to the status quo. Those who show up at the proverbial table with the idea that only their position should be accommodated should probably take their marbles and go home, because they are not going to get what they want and they are going to annoy everyone else. It is, of course, reasonable to show up at the table with the idea that things can change in the direction you prefer them, somehow.

Human rights are arbitrarily granted or assumed

I know of no justifiable argument for human rights of any kind arising from any special source or power. The only seemingly logical framework for human rights is basic equality combined with a kind of Golden Rule. I want you to not harm me or mine, so I'll agree to the same for you (that's the Golden Rule part) and since we are all equal this mutualism applies broadly to all humans.

Any other arrangement denigrates or damages a subset of humans, and as a species, or as a set of societies, we seem to be trending away from that approach, although there are still plenty of people who would (and do) gain from differential treatment. In fact, the average Caucasioheteronormative Western All Suffering Middle Class Taxpayer gains a great deal from the unfair treatment of certain groups of humans on a day to day basis. People are exploited so we can have cheap shoes, people are raped and murdered so we can have cell phones, and people are bombed and their lands invaded so we can have cheap fuel. There are ethnic, "racial," national, religious, and other group-identity related factors that determine which people get exploited to benefit the others.

But despite the fact that exploitation happens, Western society tends to regard this exploitation as bad, and to some extent moves to limit or reduce it, and in the meantime, at least hide it and deny it so we don't feel badly about it. Denying this sort of intrahuman exploitation is of course hypocritical and inadequate, but the fact that we live in denial of, rather than celebration of, Indonesians sweat shops, Congolese coltan killing fields, and the invasion of arbitrary West Asian countries tells us that we know at some level that it is wrong.

So in the end, equality plus some form of the "Golden Rule" results in the belief that human life is valuable and equally valuable across the species, and human suffering is bad and equally bad across the species. General human equality is, then, the principle by which we operate, or at least, aspire or pretend to operate, regardless of the basis for this particular more.

But why do humans have special rights over other animals? Why do humans have a rule that says we can kill any wild animal we want (with appropriate permits) but if any wild animal kills a human, it loses its right to live?

In the absence of evidence to the contrary, it is hard to see how this right comes from anything other than an arbitrary determination. We have decided that this is so, it is species-level self interest (but really, applies mainly to various subsets of humanity more than to others) and only works because we have the capacity to make it work.

I would like to mention a few alternative scenarios, some made up and some real, in which this principle of Human Exceptionalism can be viewed to put it in some perspective.

Suppose aliens show up. These aliens have independently decided that THEY have the right to live, and that we humans would make excellent snacks. You all know the story. No one ever questioned the (fictional) slaughter of invading aliens as ... inhumane or inappropriate.

What about the death penalty and other sanctioned forms of homicide? We know that it is wrong to kill humans, but the state is granted the power to do so. Soldiers in war, police acting in self defense, heavily armed home invadees, and judges can kill people if they follow a few simple rules. The fact that people object to the use of the word "homicide" to describe these deaths is not insignificant. The fact that statistically those who are killed are typically from different group-identity categories than those who sanction or carry out the killing is not insignificant.

During the 1980s elephants and rhinos were threatened with local extinction in Kenya. The Rhinos actually did go locally extinct. The Kenya National Parks Service armed and trained their rangers and instituted a "shoot on sight" policy. Non-rangers and non-tourists in certain parks were bound to be armed poachers. Shooting them to death on sight reduced their numbers and their resolve, helped save the elephants, and allowed the reintroduction of rhinos in various parks. Human rights were explicitly and abruptly put aside in favor of animal rights. Kenya (in particular, Richard Leakey, head of Kenya Parks at the time) took a lot of heat for the shoot on sight policy. But once someone takes the heat for a new policy, it isn't so hard for that policy to be implemented elsewhere. Today, poachers in Tanzania and South Africa and elsewhere may not exactly be shot on sight, but .... in the end mainly Western White tourists, conservationists, and big game hunters have their interest protected and dark skinned formerly colonized and systematically disadvantaged natives are sacrificed. The relationship between exploitation of humans and exploitation of animals may or may not be related in all cases. In this case it is explicit, overt, and impossible to turn away from.

We know from the palaeoanthropological and archaeological records and other evidence that there was at one time a much larger number of "hominid" species (close relatives of Homo sapiens). We can not say for sure where they went. They did not evolve into something else. They definitely died off. We can not say for sure that Homo sapiens did them in, but it is quite reasonable to suggest that they may have done so in at least a few cases.

Hominoids (the broader category that includes all apes) were also more common at one time. Orangs formerly occupied mainland southeast Asia. They probably went extinct there as late as the 1950s or 1960s, certainly because of humans. (I interviewed one person who claims to have killed an orangutan in southern Viet Nam in about 1964.) Indonesian Orangs are next. Bornean orangs are becoming increasingly rare. It is likely that several species of gibbons or siamangs went extinct during the 19th and 20th centuries. Gorillas formerly occupied West Africa, but no longer. A subspecies of eastern lowland gorilla probably went extinct over the last couple of years, and the rest of the gorillas are all in trouble. The Taï chimps were nearly poached out in the 1980s. A small change in politics or economics in Tanzania could wipe out the Mahale or Gombe chimps. The bonobos of the Congo's left bank are frequently threatened. And so on and so forth. All of this is due to human activity.

Somebody is acting like the Aliens who view the humans as snacks. And it isn't the aliens that are doing that, and the snacks are our fellow hominoids.

.... To be continued ....


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There are several issues here, and while I think I can disentangle them, and I think that Greg will be able to follow the train of logic.

First, all individual organisms only have a finite lifetime. Infinite life span is not possible even in principle using any physics that we think might be possible. Continuity of individual organism life spans needs to be considered in terms of âthe good of the manyâ also, and then the stability of that arrangement needs to be considered as well. There are a number of good posts on the evolution of cooperative behaviors over at Evolution for Everyone.…

Once the good of the many, and the stability of the good of the many cooperative arrangement is considered, then the natural inclination is to integrate that over time. When values are considered over time, standard economic theory always uses a discount rate, which discounts the value of future goods over the value of present goods. Accounting for this properly is challenging, and it is the mirage of an afterlife of infinite duration in return for finite service during life that is the basis of Pascal's wager. However, since a life-like experience of infinite duration is not compatible with any conceivable physics, that need not be considered.

If we consider relationships that organisms have, there are parasitic relationships, and commensal relationships. In general, it is thought that parasitic relationships tend to evolve toward commensal relationships, provided both organisms remain extant.

It is thought that the capture of a bacterium led to the acquisition of mitochondria by eukaryotes, and capture of another type of bacterium led to the acquisition of chloroplasts by plants. The initial capture of these bacteria may have been food acquisition events that went awry. There are organisms that do acquire chloroplasts that remain functional for a period of time this way.

The use of bacteria as food may be bad for the bacteria that is the food source and good for the bacteria that is the food sink. However, eukaryotes are descendants of both organisms. The composite organism descendants are eukaryotes, and the âtotal goodâ that the descendants of the bacteria used as food that became mitochondria and chloroplasts likely outweighs the âtotal badâ of the consumption of some bacteria as food by those ancestors of eukaryotes. Certainly eukaryotes today would make that assessment because if that food acquisition event gone awry hadn't happened, no eukaryote would be here.

In terms of Greg's hypothetical aliens, what if they wanted to âliberateâ the mitochondria that our eukaryote ancestors enslaved?

Many species are unable to maintain a viable population in the absence of predators. The population expands to an unsustainable level, then the population crashes as resources are depleted. Sometimes the population crash goes to zero. If we consider a single organism good, then an ongoing self-sustaining population is an ongoing good, and that ongoing good is extinguished if the population goes extinct.

If a species is unable to maintain itself as a viable population, then intervention by another species to do so has a component of good. Whether that intervention is net good depends on many things.


another thought-provoking post, i look forward to the evolution of your ideas on this matter.

daedalus2u, you also make some interesting points, especially concerning population biology and the presence of predatory species. when i was studying pop-biology in college, my professor used to rail against people who poisoned and killed their household pests (not PETS, which is to be discussed below). he would stand at the podium, with his grey hair sticking straight into the air in a rather mad-scientist-type fashion, and scream, "if you want to control their numbers you MUST control their resources!"

i hope to see some great discussion here!

personally, i don't want to be nice to the animals. one of my favorite pastimes is verbally-abusing my dog in a singsongy voice because he's too stupid to know better.

i say, "i'm gonna eat you for dinner, yes i am! i'm gonna roll you up in some garlic and some onions and some bread crumbs and cook you until you're all pink and tender." and he just waggles his tail and acts like i just offered him a big fat rack of ribs.

i bet he would be tasty, too. pretty sure i ate dog while i was in cambodia and laos. but now that i think about it, he's probably all stringy and gamey from having too much time running around the farm, so i probably need to lock him in a little cage until he's all soft like veal. :)

By SisterMaryLoquacious (not verified) on 20 Mar 2010 #permalink

To follow up, if a species is unable to maintain itself, under what circumstances is intervention by another species acceptable. If both species were sentient and could communicate and could negotiate the terms for their interaction, and that negotiation could occur in a non-exploitive way, then a satisfactory outcome could be achieved.

Since non-human animals are insufficiently sentient to negotiate a contract on their own behalf, a human can be appointed to negotiate on their behalf. This is done all the time when individual humans have insufficient sentience, either due to insufficient age or mental incapacity. It could be done for animals, but it would have to be done from the perspective of the animal.

If humans and a non-human species are going to have a contract whereby humans will take action to maintain the population of the non-humans species, then both parties to the contract need to agree to the terms of the contract.

What would be the terms of the contract? I can imagine a number of terms, the most important one being that humans would be obligated to preserve the species in viable numbers with a sufficient gene pool to maintain stability and long term viability. This obligation is not absolute. In the wild, there is competition between all species for living space, and substrates for body function and reproduction. All organisms require these things, if we postulate equivalent ârightsâ to them, for all organisms, then animals do not have a superior right to them than humans.

Organisms have an immune system to defend themselves from bacteria trying to consume their bodies as substrate, a âright of self defenseâ is not unreasonable to extend to all animals. That is a âright of self defenseâ, not a right of not being attacked. A right of self-defense includes the right to take resources before another organism uses them and preventing other organisms from using those resources, for example harvesting grain and keeping rats from eating it. Or harvesting acorns and hiding them where other organisms can't find them.

Taking resources before another organism uses them also implies that protecting crops prior to harvest is also allowable.

Predator-prey interactions have been going on for forever, many predator-prey dyads have evolved and which are stable long term. In such dyads, prey supply sufficient substrate to predators, such that the predators maintain a stable population and gene pool of the prey. Over time, the prey and predator dyad evolves to enhance this stability. If a predator-prey dyad is acceptable in the wild, it should also be acceptable elsewhere.

Because both species must do things, both species must derive some âbenefitâ, or there cannot be a fair contract. The benefit the non-human species derives is readily observable, the maintenance of a stable population and gene pool. What benefit do humans derive? If the benefit is zero, then the system is unstable and cannot work. It cannot evolved into a system that does work.

Please clarify the statement referring to gorillas no longer inhabiting western Africa. Two subspecies of the western species inhabit west-central Africa and what subspecies of eastern lowland gorilla are you referring to? As you know, eastern lowland gorillas are a subspecies of eastern gorilla and they still exist-though the number is unknown.

Greg, I just read the article, and I think it's pretty good! I would argue with you on a couple of points, though, and that is on the supposed laid-down regulations in animal experimentation. While I know there is a lot of trust in regulatory committees, there are too many ways for people to get around those rules and regulations, as evidenced by the military research, privately funded and carried out research, and by people like Trent Lott, who always bragged about "adopting" cats from the pound, saying he was giving them good homes, and taking them home and killing them for his own perverse pleasure in dissecting them. It is, by its very nature, one of the most appalling acts many of us have ever heard of, especially since it relates to one of our closest animal companions.

One of the most widely known practices in the African wild parks was to saw off the black rhino's horn, and leave them to die slowly. And in many of the States, cougars/mountain lions are treed by hunting dogs, and then shot at close range by a "hunter" interested only in collecting a "head." Canned hunts, where an animal is shot to death in cages, is blatantly found in many places, usually where the animal is "retired" from a zoo, and has trust to some extent in humans.

As an animal rights advocate, it is these situations and circumstances where I feel we have failed greatly, and shows we are not capable of making up for all the misdeeds humankind has perpetrated on the rest of the animal kingdom.

I think you meant Bill Frist, not Trent Lott. Frist killed cats in his spare time, Trent Lott endorsed racists. It's sometimes hard to tell these conservative loons apart, I know.

WOW. WTF!?! how did it escape my knowledge that bill frist was engaged in such activities? what a narcissist! (though i should not be surprised...) thank you for the information and the link.

By SisterMaryLoquacious (not verified) on 20 Mar 2010 #permalink

in the end mainly Western White tourists, conservationists, and big game hunters have their interest protected and dark skinned formerly colonized and systematically disadvantaged natives are sacrificed

I'm surprised to learn that dark skinned formerly colonized and systematically disadvantaged native conservationists' interests aren't similar to those of the Western White ones. Also, regardless of whether or not they have rights, surely the animals that weren't poached as a result had their interests protected in that they weren't wiped out, thus allowing their species to continue?

I think the ideal is to treat all living things with respect and avoid causing suffering where possible. This may sound airy fairy but we already put animals lives ahead of humans. Millions of people around the world die from preventable causes, while we spend money on food and accessories for our pets. How many people would put down (that is kill) their pets and donate the money saved, to food for the starving? Are the animal's rights going to be any more beneficial for animals than human rights are for humans?

If we are to consider what interspecies actions are acceptable it is informative to look at intraspecies actions as a guide.

Essentially all mammals will commit infanticide and cannibalism in the postpartum period under the right circumstances, when the mother experiences severe stress, metabolic or traumatic. Mammals have evolved this behavior because preserving the life of the mother in the postpartum period is the only mechanism by which the infants can possibly have reproductive success, either by surviving themselves (which they can't do if their mother dies), or through their mother successfully having future offspring which would be the dead infants' sibling.

This is an extremely important and significant point. In the wild, the interests of the infant killed by an infanticidal mother and the interests of the mother exactly coincide. The dead infant is better off if the mother survives and successfully reproduces in the future. If the infant were a competent and rational adult, and made a decision that optimized its reproductive success, there are circumstances where the infant's interests are best served by being killed so that its mother can survive. If a similarly related adult were in that circumstance, where it could choose to sacrifice itself so that another similarly related adult could survive, no one would fault the adult that did the sacrifice, or the adult that survived.

Since all mammals have evolved this value system and apply it in their intraspecies interactions, it is not unreasonable to apply it to interspecies interactions.

A mother's infant shares half her genes. So does a full sibling. If two siblings were in a situation where both of them would die, but by one sacrificing him/herself then the other would survive, no one could legitimately fault either of them for making the logical decision. However, there are those who would fault the survivor. I suggest that the faulting of the survivor is not based on rational ethical considerations, but rather on using the tragic circumstance as an excuse to damage the survivor and to move them down in the social hierarchy while moving themselves up.

I'm not sure that people -just- frown at the exploitation of others and then turn aside. I stopped buying cheap chocolate because I learned Ivory Coast chocolate has a good chance of coming from child labor, and I've noticed when goods are fair-trade they're actually marketed as such.

I will agree I haven't ever seen a cellphone marketed as a non-atrocity phone. (I have no idea what to do about that.)

Chelydra, it's obviously more complicated than can be outlined in a single paragraph. Depends on the sub industry and the country and region. But mostly it may depend on what is meant by "interest." The good citizens of a small hamlet in Rwanda who stopped facilitating poaching of gorilla and started supporting the tourist trade probably collectively harvested several thousand dollars a year from that trade. But the permit to go through that village to see the gorillas was 500 US dollars per person per day. So where did the extra million bucks a year go? (I'm guessing at the numbers here). Probably for things like infrastructure. So Toyota gets a share bacause you need some of those trucks. And BP gets a share because you need the fuel. The secondary benefits go to air lines that fly people in and out, both local and international. Once a hotel gets big enough it gets bought by one of the major chains. Etc.

The system is such that the mainstream money holders get the majority of the money when money changes hands, even if the local folks are getting a cut.

@MC You are correct on both counts--it is, of course, Bill Frist, who somehow managed to diagnose Terry Schiavo from about 1000 miles away! I do seem to allow all the GOPers to merge and blend in the corners of my brain. I should learn to proofread a little more aggressively before I post!

Greg, an interesting post but I don't see how you square the following two statements.

On human rights:

"The only seemingly logical framework for human rights is basic equality combined with a kind of Golden Rule. I want you to not harm me or mine, so I'll agree the same for you (that's the Golden Rule part) and since we are all equal this mutualism applies broadly to all humans."

On animal rights:

"But why do humans have special rights over other animals? Why do humans have a rule that says we can kill any wild animal we want (with appropriate permits) but if any wild animal kills a human, it loses its right to live?

In the absence of evidence to the contrary, it is hard to see how this right comes from anything other than an arbitrary determination. We have decided that this is so, it is species-level self interest (but really, applies mainly to various subsets of humanity more than to others) and only works because we have the capacity to make it work."

If as you say, and I broadly agree, that human rights are based on the principle of fairness and reciprocity then it is difficult to see how they can be applied to other species that lack the intelligence/sapience to recognize "our" rights.

An alien species coming into contact with us may be genetically very dissimilar to us but if they've got the technology to make contact than they may also have the ability to recognize the golden rule. Alternatively they might be so different to us that any relationship based on rights or reciprocity might be impossible...the "War of the Worlds" scenario.

As for homicide, war, self defence, are these not explicit exceptions to the golden rule, in some cases punishable because they are considered to be a breech of our societes rules, in others allowed because greater interests are protected. The reason why there is debate over war, the death penalty etc. is because they are viewed as exceptions to our normal standards on behavior, whether those exceptions are justified is something that we can dispute.

Animals that kill humans are another issue. When an animal kills a human we often refer to it as a tragedy but I don't think I've ever heard it referred to as a violation by the animal of the slain human's rights. Is this not a reflection of the fact that we do not expect human rights to govern the relationship between animals and humans? Animals that injure or kill humans are killed either because they may pose a threat to other people (the good reason) or as an act of revenge (not such a good reason), but there is no suggestion that a contract between the animal and the victim has been broken*.

*Of course the animals owners or keepers might be accused of breaching the victim's rights.

yes i do think thats this is very correct and yes i do believe ibn humane because i dnt like killing animals but if i have to eat then i must but i will not go out and kill an animal because its very sad aned i might even cry soo yes i guess you can say im both humane and inhumane

By Tianna Fair (not verified) on 04 Feb 2011 #permalink

Predator-prey relationships are essential for the survival of most species in the animal kingdom, Humans however happen to be on top of the food chain and in the past humans have developed the habit of indiscriminately killing and/or domesticating animals to feed the growing population. Although animal protection laws have been set up to protect endangered species, humans remain a serious threat to many species as this post rightly states

By Loretta Aromeh (not verified) on 11 Feb 2013 #permalink

Animals like human have natural rights. Rights are derived from nature or natures God, not granted by government, Rights are preserved by humans through government, a military, and laws to enforce Natural Rghts.
So in essence very simply, governments do not create rights, Rights nasturally pre-exist in birth. Governments are created to secure liberty by people who created government. You should all know this. This is the 4th of July.

Animals have natural rights, and animals attempt to secure those natural rights to the best of their ability. People have seen video where a herd of wild Buffalo in African under attack from a lion, leave and get more buffalo to return for the balle. Any living breathing creature will defend its offspring (Babies). It's Natural to do so.

So animal to a small degree can form a short term or long term government, unless interupted by man.

Killing for entertain is abnormal. There is no acceptable form of killing for amusement, anyone who disagrees should suffer the same fate, and any right mind would agree.

Human-animals are natural born herbivores. I am a vegan. We have everything that makes a herbivore exist.

When it comes to health. Steve Jobs a strict vegan lived three times his life-span, because he was vegan, despite having cancer at a very young age.

Anything else is a selfish excuse.

People stop kill animals i might be a bit young but i have a right to say what i think and what i think is that people should stop killing animal because one day you will be sorry that u kill animals coz there wont be any more left to people to eat so think before u eat the animals coz you never know you favourite animal could be all dead
so think
before you
hunt and eat
the animals
you eat

By stephanie (not verified) on 17 Jun 2014 #permalink