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“Animal rights” is principally a modern, western consideration. As a Kantian concept, it assumes that general principles (rights) should be granted to animals in order to deﬁne the relationship between humans and animals. The arguments of Tom Regan and Gary Francione are based on a radical (abolitionist) approach to animal rights, but their scope is limited to the most intelligent animals (vertebrates and mammals). The Universal Declaration of Animal Rights adopted a broader approach, including all animal groups with their speciﬁc features in a biologically balanced context. A number of questions are still unanswered; the position for a gradualist view of animals and animal rights, and therefore the connection between human rights and animal rights. The Great Ape Project advocates that apes be granted certain rights traditionally reserved for humans, thus focusing attention on the need for a gradualist approach.
The concept of “animal rights” is relatively modern. Throughout history, human societies have had to contend with two contradictory goals: ﬁrst, the need to use animals and second, the ethical obligation to treat them properly, or at least some of them. This second goal is what is generally referred to as “animal ethics.” In modern western society where social rules are usually deﬁned in terms of rights, there has been a development calling for animals to be included within the scope of ethical and/or religious considerations, doing so in terms of rights. And the concept of animal rights has emerged as a speciﬁc, mainly western way of developing ethics to be applied to animals.
History And Development
A large part of western thought is based on ancient Greek philosophy. Animal rights can be traced back to the Ancient Greeks, with philosophers, such as Pythagoras, Plutarch, and Porphyry who used the term “dikaios” meaning “what is legitimate.” Some of them called for justice in the treatment of animals, but nowhere in Ancient texts is the term “rights” used with the philosophical and legal meaning we understand today. Other beliefs and traditions call for animals to be respected, for example, Eastern religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, and the western utilitarian approach based on Jeremy Bentham’s arguments on animal sentience, now advocated by one of the leading contemporary theoreticians, Peter Singer. While these approaches are important for animal welfare, there is no clear position on formal rights. Arguments based on rights and using the term “rights” as it is understood today can be found in texts by precursors in the ﬁeld of animal rights writing in the nineteenth and early twentieth century.
In 1894, Henry Salt published Animals’ Rights Considered in Relation to Social Progress, an essay that was one of the ﬁrst attempts to deﬁne animal ethics in terms of rights. According to Salt, animal rights form a parallel with human rights: if human beings have rights, there is no reason why animals should not have rights too, as they possess a form of individuality and a certain level of autonomy. Salt’s book, which was not published in France until 1914, no doubt inﬂuenced André Géraud who chose to follow the reasoning of the 1789 Declaration of Human Rights. In 1924, he called for a Declaration of Animal Rights, claiming that as all living creatures are equal in the face of happiness and suffering, then all are born free and equal in rights.
Salt and Géraud’s works provided the foundation stone for two major developments in the ﬁeld of animal rights, one in the English language, the other in French.
The basic assumption of any argument in favor of animal rights is that (nonhuman) animals, or at least the most intelligent or sentient animals, are independent and capable of managing their own lives, that they have basic individual interests, e.g., avoiding suffering, and should therefore be entitled to rights similar to those granted to human beings, such rights, of course, always being granted to animals by humans. Here a distinction may be made between “moral agents,” i.e., adult humans who are able to formulate and abide by moral principles in their actions and “moral patients,” i.e., nonhuman species, as well as certain human exceptions such as young children and disabled persons unable to argue and act at the same level, yet still entitled to rights to afford them proper protection.
In a philosophical context, also considering the Aristotelian or utilitarian view of moral actions, animal rights could be seen in relation to deontological moral theory (Kant), deontological morals having to comply with clearly deﬁned principles such as rights. The difference with the classical Kantian view is that in this case, rights are granted not only to human beings, but also to (nonhuman) animals.
The Ethical Dimension
- Animal rights according to Tom Regan and Gary Francione
After the Second World War, several declarations attempted to introduce the concept of animal rights and put it into practice. The best known is probably Florence Barkers’ International Animal’s Charter in 1953. In the 1960s, the Oxford Group (including Ruth Harrison, Brigid Brophy, Roslind and Stanley Godlovitch, John Harris, and David Wood) drew attention to the need for humans to deﬁne clearer rights for animals so as to change the historical relationship of exploitation and mistreatment of (nonhuman) animals by human beings. But the most important philosophical positions were established by two prominent thinkers: Tom Regan and Gary Francione.
In 1983, Tom Regan argued (Regan 1983) in his book The Case for Animal Rights, that some nonhuman animals have intrinsic value as they are “subjects of a life” with all the relevant cognitive skills, the ability to feel, to desire or suffer, memory function, and decision-making capacity. They therefore cannot be reduced to nothing more than a means for use to achieve a human end. Regan thus took the Kantian principle that subjects (human beings only for Kant, but in this case animals) should always be treated as being ends in themselves, and extended this to animals. Regan, however, limited this to “normal mammals of at least 1 year of age,” which puts him in an awkward theoretical position. When considering animals, the classical oppositions is between radical (abolitionist) stances endeavoring to do away with any and every form of human exploitation of animals likely to inﬂict pain (including meat production), and moderate, welfare stances which maintain that humans may still exploit animals for their own purposes (including the possibility of eating them), provided that there is no unnecessary suffering. Regan, with his radical position, is clearly on the abolitionist side, yet only for mammals. While in principle his theory does not exclude the possibility of other animal groups having intrinsic value, such groups are not given any special attention by him. His theory, when argued through to the end, grants mammals moral prerogatives previously only recognized for human beings, showing a switch from an anthropocentric stance to a mammal-centric stance.
The abolitionist stance was further developed by Gary Francione, the advocate of ethical veganism, who argued that (nonhuman) animals need only one basic right which is the right not to be considered as property, not to be owned; all other rights should then follow on spontaneously from this one. Francione had no qualms about comparing exploitation of animals to human slavery. In his book, Animals, Property, and the Law (1995), he is highly critical of the moderate welfarist stance (often referred to as “animal protection” or “protectionism”) which makes no reference to animal rights. For Francione, the moderate stance is a totally ineffective way of protecting animals. While Francione includes all sentient animals, he only rarely refers to nonvertebrates. He investigates in great depth possible transpositions of moral rights for animals into law and into practice. In English-speaking countries, many universities propose animal law studies. One question that is still open is whether nonhuman animals, or some of them, should be granted the legal status of personhood, and if so, which characteristics would deﬁne an animal endowed with personhood.
- The Universal Declaration of Animal Rights
The French view of animal rights can be seen in relation to Descartes and his inﬂuence, both negative and positive. On the negative side, the entire animal rights movement is totally opposed to the Cartesian view that animals are merely machines, and therefore have no rights. Yet the Cartesian approach led to the development of experimental biology, a science conducting material analyses of animals as systems, as described by Claude Bernard and his colleagues in the nineteenth century. The development of modern biology has led to the conclusion that there is no fundamental difference between humans and animals for their genetics, physiology, pathophysiology, affect and cognitive skills. The materialistic approach based on the Cartesian stance thus ultimately, and ironically, produced the opposite effect with science recognizing that human beings are similar to animals (or vice versa). This was clearly conﬁrmed by the theory of evolution, with Darwin and his colleagues successfully arguing on the basis of evidence that human beings are primates, having descended from a common ancestor that produced chimpanzees, and are therefore close cousins of the apes.
The Universal Declaration of Animal Rights (see Chapouthier and Nouet 1998) was published in 1978. The ﬁrst version, presented by a group of French academics, was based on the writings of André Géraud and Florence Barkers, and the text was drawn up by an informal drafting group that met in London in 1973. The Declaration was solemnly proclaimed at the United Nations Educational, Scientiﬁc and Cultural Organization, UNESCO, in Paris on October 15, 1978. To achieve a greater degree of consensus amongst advocates of animal rights, whether radical or welfarist, vegetarian or meat-eating, a revised version of the Universal Declaration of Animal Rights was published in 1989, and is the text referred to in the present article.
The Declaration is designed to recognize that all living nonhuman beings have the right to exist on earth. The original scope is thus very broad, clearly embracing all animals. However, the preamble states that “any animal with a nervous system has speciﬁc rights,” reintroducing, for sentient animals, the utilitarian reference to suffering. In Article 1, the Declaration states that: “all animals have equal rights to exist within the context of biological equilibrium,” and that “the equality of rights does not overshadow the diversity of species and of individuals.” Taken together, these statements show that the Declaration has taken modern biological data into account. Respect for animals must not be arbitrarily restricted to one or more groups of animals, such as mammals, but must include all animals, and give consideration to speciﬁc biological and behavioral characteristics; for example, the rights of bees are obviously not the same as the rights of chimpanzees. The existence of biological balance in nature should set ecological limits on human action; e.g., humans should not interfere with the law of the jungle, endeavoring to protect prey against predators or stopping predators from attacking prey (Neumann 2012). Animal rights are obviously granted by humans to animals, and are not rights applying to animals between themselves.
The different articles of the Universal Declaration of Animal Rights present rules for humans to observe in dealing with different situations, e.g., wild animals, domestic animals, or animals used for scientiﬁc research, or animals and law, and animal welfare and education. As mentioned in the commentary on the Declaration published by the original authors, The Universal Declaration of Animal Rights is intended “to help humanity restore harmony,” to provide mankind with “a philosophy, a code of biological ethics and a code of moral behavior.” It deliberately avoids proposing any extreme measures and the ambition is for the broad, general articles to be acceptable to both radical (abolitionist) thinkers and moderate (welfarist) thinkers, and ultimately to be accepted by the mainstream public. The Declaration has been criticized by abolitionists for not explicitly calling for a totally vegetarian diet for the entire human race, but because of, or despite, the broad scope of the Declaration, it has proven to be, to date, the best way of expressing animal rights that can be applied across the animal kingdom.
- Arguments against animal rights and the question of gradualism
Opposition to animal rights comes from two main sources: radical stances based on religious arguments and radical stances based on (nonreligious) human rights arguments. Religious arguments, mainly from the three monotheist religions, are based on the assumption that as animals were created by God as tools to serve humans, they are therefore not entitled to any rights. Such anthropocentric moral stances often come with an anti-science approach with extreme religious views rejecting the theory of the biological evolution of animal species, including therefore human evolution and human origin in animals.
Opposition to animal rights as argued by many (nonreligious) human rights advocates is based on the idea that any recognition of animal rights would somehow detract from the impact of human rights. Two answers can be given to this objection. The ﬁrst is that some animal rights have already been recognized and implemented in law, for example, for domestic animals, and this does not in any way undermine the importance of human rights. The second refers to the possibility of gradualism in animal rights. Even if, as stated in the Universal Declaration of Animal Rights, all animals are born equal in terms of rights, the fact that their abilities and interests should be taken into account would suggest a form of gradualism, as seen above with the example of the rights of the bee and the chimpanzee.
Such practical gradualism has been criticized, in particular by utilitarian thinkers such as Peter Singer (2003), but not in terms of rights, rather in terms of the good of the animal, which is basically the same objection. Such thinkers fear that gradualism could be extended to the human species: i.e., giving consideration ﬁrst to one’s own family and friends, then to the human community, and ﬁnally to animals. This would inevitably lead to a favored position for the human species above other animal species, which would be unjustiﬁable, and would ultimately lead to unbalanced anthropocentrism. The main argument against gradualism put forth by these thinkers is that if a gradual approach were adopted, the gradually ranked order within the human species would leave scope for “race” and could be cited as a racist argument. But any hypothesis involving races is specious, as in scientiﬁc terms there is no such thing as “human races” in the plural. The underlying reasoning, however, is sound, as Bibliography : to family groups and to the entire human species would indeed leave scope for intermediate groups; to cite examples, a head of state would not defend the interests of citizen of other countries ahead of his own citizens; a trade union leader looks after his own trade union before defending the interests of others.
The gradualist approach also raises questions on the ranking of animal rights and human rights. While radical thinkers would refuse to grant any special status to human rights ahead of animal rights, more moderate, rational stances, such as the approach of the Universal Declaration of Animal Rights, would clearly place human rights ahead of animal rights, on the grounds that any animal species, including the human species, gives priority to its own rights. Here human rights should be understood as basic rights to life and health, not to status or customs in society (e.g., hunting or bullﬁghting). On the issue of animal rights, the position to be given to human rights is no doubt one of the major points of divergence between radical and moderate stances.
- The Great Ape Project
Among the speciﬁc projects involving animal rights, the Great Ape Project (GAP) deserves special mention and analysis as it highlights a number of difﬁculties encountered in the implementation of animal rights. The project was initially devised by utilitarian thinkers (ref: the book edited by Peter Singer and Paola Cavalieri The Great Ape Project, 1993). The issue of rights is not central to the arguments, yet there is clearly a need for recognition of something similar to formal rights. The authors argue that as great apes are similar to humans in their emotional and cognitive skills, they therefore deserve the same consideration as human beings. Speciﬁcally, this means that nonhuman great apes should be granted the right to life, the right to individual liberty, and the right to protection from torture (including scientiﬁc research and experimentation). In 1994, an international organization named after the project, was set up to look at ways of recognizing rights for great apes and the possibility of drafting a United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Great Apes. The idea was that once these rights were granted to apes, the international organization would then call for great apes in captivity to be released, and speciﬁcally the large numbers of chimpanzees used for biological research in the United States.
While there should obviously be proper welfare and protection for great apes, which include our nearest cousins, the chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans, the Great Ape Project still came up against opposition. There were the standard anthropocentric claims that when clear beneﬁts could be achieved for human health, there should be a possibility of conducting experimental investigations, even on chimpanzees. A number of objections can also be made to this on the basis of both practical and the theoretical arguments. Of the practical considerations, there is the plight of great apes in their countries of origin where the situation is often disastrous. While changes to legislation in western countries would be a positive step, it would not solve the problem. A number of improvements have recently been made for chimpanzees in captivity in the United States, but little or no progress has been made in the African countries where they live in the wild. Amongst the theoretical considerations, there is the question of the demarcation boundaries which, in the case of apes, comes back to the issue of gradualism. Why extend basic rights from humans to great apes alone and not further? Why not include intelligent monkeys and other animals, granting them the same rights? Do we owe special consideration to the great apes only because they are our closest cousins? Why not dolphins and elephants which may have emotional and cognitive skills similar to those of the apes, even though they are not as closely related to the human species? While the Great Ape Project authors left scope for human rights to be extended to other animal species, the Project has come up against the question of boundaries in terms of moral considerations, and whether such boundaries should be determined by biological proximity to the human species.
The question of animal rights is closely linked to the question of animal suffering. While other aspects of what is in the interest of animals are occasionally mentioned, the avoidance of suffering, as ﬁrst argued by the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, stands as the most important and relevant argument. Science has shown that there is a scale of animal suffering (Bovet and Chapouthier 2013). There are only very few nonsentient animals (e.g., sponges). Most animals are sensitive to inﬂuences felt in their environment, and three degrees of negative response can be observed: nociception, pain, and suffering. In most animals, nociception is a reﬂex avoidance of any stimulus damaging or threatening the body, inducing a ﬂight response or the withdrawal of the body part affected by the noxious stimulus. Pain is a real phenomenon for animals that possess both nociception and emotional reactions. Scientiﬁc observations have reported these reactions mainly in vertebrates, plus certain invertebrates such as cephalopods, all being animals with a limbic system or equivalent in the brain. Suffering is observed in animals which with nociception and pain have and use cognitive functions involving awareness of the environment. Once again these are mostly vertebrates, and likely cephalopods; and there is a highly developed capacity for suffering in mammals and birds. Scientiﬁc ﬁndings suggest that suffering could be a function of the cerebral cortex, which is found in all vertebrates, or an equivalent structure as in the case of cephalopods.
Further scientiﬁc studies will no doubt clarify such categories, but for the moment the Universal Declaration of Animal Rights offers a general framework for consideration of animal rights overall, and a sensible answer to the challenging question of gradualism when applied to groups of animals. The analysis by Regan and Francione offers scope for strong philosophical arguments justifying the recognition of rights for animals capable of feeling pain and suffering as described above. The Great Ape Project addresses speciﬁc rights to be granted to animal species close to the human species. The question of the transposition of animal rights into law is still a basic and unresolved issue. As was the case for human rights, only legislation and implementation will provide efﬁcient protection for animals. Once laws are drawn up deﬁning which rights may be granted for which group of animals, decisions will have to be made on the basis of scientiﬁc knowledge to establish the rights needed so that a given animal can live a life without being subject to abuse at the hands of humans.
- Bovet, D., & Chapouthier, G. (2013). Scientiﬁc identiﬁcation and deﬁnition of degrees of sensitivity in the animal world. In T. Auffret Van Der Kemp & M. Lachance (Eds.), Animal suffering: From science to law (pp. 13–23). Toronto: Carswell.
- Chapouthier, G., & Nouet, J. C. (Eds.). (1998). The universal declaration of animal rights, comments and intentions. Paris: Publisher Ligue Francaise des Droits de l’Animal.
- Francione, G. (1995). Animals, property and the law. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
- Neumann, J. M. (2012). The universal declaration of animal rights or the creation of a new equilibrium between species. Animal Law, 19(1), 91–109.
- Regan, T. (1983). The case for animal rights. California: University of California Press. further editions 1985, 2004.
- Singer, P. (2003). Animal liberation at 30. The New York Review, 15, 23–26.
- Singer, P., & Cavalieri, P. (Eds.). (1993). The great ape project: Equality beyond humanity. London: Fourth Estate publishing.
- Auffret Van Der Kemp, T., & Lachance, M. (Eds.). (2013). Animal suffering: From science to law. Toronto: Carswell.
- Linzey, A. (Ed.). (2013). The global guide to animal protection. Illinois: University of Illinois Press.
- Singer, P. (1975). Animal liberation: A new ethics for our treatment of animals. New York: Review/ Random House. Further editions 1976, 1977, 1983, 2009.
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