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An Argument for Animal Rights
Copyright 1997 V. Vachula. Originally published on Animal Rights Online
Nonhuman animals have rights and should be treated as beings of moral concern. While we debate the morality of this statement, we do not question the fact that humans have rights, but what exactly are rights and who or what bestows them upon us? If a right is to be defined as the power or privilege to which one is justly entitled, then who gave us this power and how do we know that animals do not have it as well? Because humans deem themselves superior to animals, we grant ourselves rights over them. We have assumed the position that the one with the most power wins the most rights, but I propose that we, as humans, do not have the right to decide who or what gets rights.
Suppose that, one day, we are capable of space travel to other galaxies. We come upon a planet that supports life. When we land, we find only animals comparable to the ones we have here on earth - no life equal to humans. Before our arrival, these animals had complete domain over their own planet - much like the animals of our planet ruled earth before our appearance. Do we have the right to use those animals for our own purposes just as we have used our earth animals? Now suppose that, one day, our planet is visited by extraterrestrial beings far superior to ourselves in every way imaginable. In fact, in their eyes, we are animals. Does that give them the right to do with us as they wish? Would it be OK for them to use us for food, fashion or biological testing if it benefited their species? I think we might have a problem with that. There is always going to be the possibility that a more advanced species exists, but that doesnít mean that they should have domain over all species below them.
One may argue that it is the humanís ability to reason that sets us apart from other animals. That we reason makes us superior. While it cannot be conclusively proven that animals cannot reason, for the moment, letís assume that they canít. So what? If our alien visitors were telepathic and could travel by teleportation at will, does that give them rights over us? Birds can fly. Humans cannot. Does this make them superior to us? What it does is make them superior flyers. Depending on what attribute we focus on, all species can be seen as superior in one way or another. These differences are irrelevant when deciding which species get which rights. We all have rights.
Human beings are mammals. We are animals. Like other animals, we are born, we grow, and we die. We have an instinct for survival. We need to eat and rest when necessary. We reproduce. We each have a central nervous system and so we can feel pain and have the capacity for suffering. But do animals share a similar consciousness with humans? This epistemological problem has no answer. We cannot know what goes on in an animals mind for sure. They may very well share some of the traits that we reserve only for humans. We just canít know.
We do know that we have many significant similarities with animals and so it follows that they would hold certain rights as we do. When we treat animals inhumanely, we infringe upon these rights. If rights are distributed on the basis of superiority determined by certain attributes, what happens to human beings that we consider inferior? We would not enslave dimwitted people for our own purposes, yet thatís what we do to animals every day. As human beings, we avoid subjecting ourselves and others to pain. When we inflict pain on someone else, we consider that to be immoral. That animals feel pain suggests that we have an obligation not to inflict it upon them, no matter how society could benefit.
A naturalist might say that we are all a part of the food chain. Animals eat animals. We eat animals. Thatís the natural order. That may have been true at one time, but when we apply technology to the way in which we prepare animals for our consumption, we see a scenario that was never intended by nature. The horrific acts happening today involving animals are inexcusable. Technology is not a bad thing, but our progress as a society should include a revaluation of our treatment of animals. In this day and age, we now have an abundance of choices for better foods, warmer clothing, and more efficient materials, none of which depend on the killing of animals. As living beings that contribute to the balance of our ecological system - and therefore the continued survival of our planet, we have an obligation to not only refrain from harming animals, but to protect them as well. Failure to fulfill this obligation constitutes an immoral act.
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