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Almost all of us grew up eating meat, wearing leather, and going to the circus and to zoos. Many of us bought our beloved “pets” at a pet shop. We wore wool, ate at KFC, and maybe even fished. We never considered the impact of these actions on the animals involved. For whatever reason, you are now asking the question “Why should animals have rights?”
Supporters of animal rights believe that animals matter as individuals; that they have their own value completely separate from how useful they are to us; and that every creature has a right to live free from pain and suffering. Animal rights is both a philosophy and a social movement that challenges society’s traditional view that all the other animals on this planet exist solely for human use. PETA founder Ingrid Newkirk has said, “When it comes to pain, love, joy, loneliness, and fear, a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy. Each one values his or her life and fights the knife.”
Peter Singer, in his book Animal Liberation, states that the basic principle of equality does not require equal or identical treatment; it requires equal consideration. This is an important distinction when talking about animal rights. People often ask us if we really think that animals should have rights, and the answer is, quite simply, “Yes.” We’re not saying that animals should have drivers licenses or the right to vote, just that animals deserve to live their lives free from suffering and exploitation. Philosopher Jeremy Bentham once said that when deciding on a being’s rights, “[t]he question is not ‘Can they reason?’ nor ‘Can they talk?’ but ‘Can they suffer?’” What he meant is that if a being can suffer, then that being deserves the right to equal consideration. It doesn’t matter whether or not that being can talk or can understand mathematics. Regardless of anything else, all animals have the ability to suffer in the same way that human beings do. They feel pain, pleasure, fear, frustration, loneliness, and motherly love. So whenever we do anything that interferes with their needs, we have a moral responsibility to take them into account.
Only prejudice allows us to deny others the rights that we expect to have for ourselves. Whether prejudice is based on race, gender, sexual orientation, or species, it is morally unacceptable. If you wouldn’t eat a dog, why eat a pig? Think about it—both animals have the exact same ability to feel pain, but it is prejudice based on species that allows us to call one “pet” and the other “dinner.”
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