Are Human Rights Human

Paola Cavalieri


The history of what we call moral progress can for the most part be seen as the history of the substitution of hierarchical visions with presumptions in favor of equality. The recent irruption into the social scene of the animal question is part of this ongoing process--a process that is usually characterized by a direct challenge to the cultural status quo.[1] In fact, in the last few decades, nonhuman animals have been the center of a lively philosophical debate, and many voices have been raised against our current treatment of the members of species other than our own.[2] We routinely use nonhuman animals as mere commodities--we kill them for food, we use them in work and entertainment, we employ them as tools for research of all kinds. In short, we treat them in ways in which we would deem it profoundly unethical to treat human beings. Is this position morally defensible? And, if so, on which grounds? Since behind the present divergence in standards lies a deep-rooted philosophical tradition aiming at the exclusion of nonhuman beings from the protected sphere of ethics, it may be worth considering briefly how we got where we are.


Immanuel Kant writes that “so far as animals are concerned, we have no direct duties. Animals are not self-conscious and are there merely as means to an end. That end is man. . . . Our duties towards animals are merely indirect duties towards humanity.”[3]

In the idea that nonhumans are nothing but means one can perceive echoes of Aristotle: “the other animals [exist] for the good of man, the domestic species both for his service and for his food, and . . .  most of the wild ones for the sake of his food and of his supplies of other kinds.”[4] And the thesis of indirect duties betrays a reminiscence of Thomas Aquinas’s remarks on the subject of biblical injunctions against cruelty to nonhumans: “this is . . . to remove man’s thoughts from being cruel to other men, and lest through being cruel to animals one become cruel to human beings.”[5]

Though other views appeared on the philosophical scene - consider for example the Cartesian idea that animals are mere natural automata with which we can do entirely as we wish, and on the opposite side the utilitarian ethical concern for all the beings endowed with the capacity for suffering and enjoyment - one might say that these short quotations contain in a nutshell the elements of the most enduring and pervasive thesis about the treatment of nonhumans in all Western culture. In short: animals, as mere means, have zero grade moral status - that is, they are excluded from the moral community. However, there are limits to what can be done to them. Such limits are dictated by the fact that our behavior towards animals can rebound upon our behavior towards the only true objects of moral concern, namely, other human beings.

We can recast such a view in more formal terms. At the center of ethics lies a set of norms to govern behavior towards (at least some) other entities. Asking which are the entities other than the agent that should have their interests protected, is tantamount to asking who is a moral patient.  The moral patient is, i.e., a being whose treatment may be subject to direct moral evaluation.[6] It is apparent that not all entities necessarily belong to this category - for most ethical theories, to shatter a stone or to mow the meadow’s grass are wholly irrelevant actions. What the view in question claims is that, just like stones and plants, nonhuman animals are not moral patients.

The boundaries of the class of moral patients have often changed in the course of history, and it also happened that many human beings were excluded from ethical consideration - Aristotle himself held that, like animals, human slaves too were mere means at their masters’ disposal.[7] Today we can easily understand how unsatisfactory such an attitude was, because a long work of rational criticism has dismantled its justifications, revealing the true nature as an implicit appeal to prejudice of the high-sounding claims on behalf of the superiority of a sex to the other, or of one race to all the other races. But if we rightly regard such a critical process as a fundamental component of our moral evolution, a question spontaneously arises: if the justifications on behalf of intra-human discrimination turned out to be undefensible, isn’t it possible that the same holds for the justifications put forward on behalf of the discrimination against other-than-human beings? We shall here put to the test this hypothesis.



How, then, can one defend the idea that human beings are ends, while nonhuman beings are means? Before tackling this issue, it is necessary to stress that when contemporary philosophers defend the ends/means doctrine, what they are usually referring to is not the traditional Kantian formulation, but instead a softened version of it. According to such version, nonhuman animals are no longer utterly excluded from the moral community - they are, that is, numbered among moral patients. Nonetheless, the moral community has a stratified, hierarchical structure, and the continued use of nonhuman beings for our benefit is allegedly justified by their being confined to second-class moral status with respect to human beings. Both the traditional and the more recent view are defended by the same arguments. Since it is not possible to offer here a complete survey of such arguments, we shall confine ourselves to considering the most representative ones.

While not being altogether overlooked by philosophers, the first argument is, owing to its simplicity, powerful and widespread mainly at the societal level. To the question of what may draw what we might call, following Bentham, the “insuperable line” between us and the other animals,[8] this argument replies: the fact that they are not human. On such a perspective, what makes the difference is simply the possession, or lack, of a genotype characteristic of the species Homo sapiens.

Is it an acceptable reply? One can doubt it. Those who appeal to species membership work in fact within the framework of the intra-human egalitarian paradigm. And yet, it is just the line of reasoning that has lead to the defense of human equality which implies, by denying moral relevance to race and sex membership, the rejection of the idea that species membership in itself can mark a difference as far as moral status is concerned. If one claims that merely biological characteristics like race and sex cannot play a role in ethics, because ethics is a theoretical inquiry endowed with its own standards of justification, in which criteria imported from other domains cannot be directly relevant,[9] how can one attribute a role to a another merely biological characteristic such as species? Ethical views that, while rejecting racism and sexism, accept speciesism - as was defined, with a neologism that alludes to the parallel intra-human prejudices, the view that grants to the members of our own species a privileged status with respect to all other creatures - are internally inconsistent. For speciesism and racism are twin doctrines.[10]

Compared to this hardly plausible way of construing the relationships between species and morality, there exist more sophisticated views, to which the theoretical defenders of traditional morality tend to turn. In particular, there are, at least among philosophers, two main ways of describing the alleged difference between humans and the other animals. The appeal to the possession of rationality is central to both of them. We can set aside for the sake of argument the (questionable) assumption that all and only human beings are endowed with this capacity, in order to focus on the importance that is attached to rationality from a moral point of view.

The first argument rests on the idea that rational beings are the existence condition of morality, and might be summarized more or less as follows. Ethical norms are addressed to a particular kind of beings - moral agents. In brief, moral agents are those rational beings which can reflect morally on how to act, and whose behavior can be subject to moral evaluation. In this sense, if moral agents did not exist, there could be no ethical norms. As a consequence, ethics is an internal affair of moral agents.[11]

In spite of its apparent plausibility, the argument is based on a misunderstanding. Its conclusion is in fact reached only by the shift from the idea that only rational beings can be morally responsible to the idea that only what is done to rational beings has (full) moral weight. But the how, that is, the possibility of morality, is one thing; the what, that is, the object of morality, is another.[12] To acknowledge that moral agents make morality possible does not mean to make them the only (full) moral patients. That, on the other hand, we do not really hold this view is shown by the fact that we are far from withdrawing full moral protection from those members of our species who are unable to abide by ethical norms. Small children, or - if one wants to avoid the controversial question of potentiality - severely intellectually disabled individuals (the so-called marginal, or non-paradigmatic, humans)[13], are not on this ground relegated to the no-man’s land surrounding the moral community.

A different role is played by rationality within the second argument which is usually advanced in defense of human superiority. Basically, what is ascribed to such a capacity is a particular kind of instrumental value. The core idea is that the introduction into the moral community can be justified by means of some sort of agreement. Since in order to abide by the agreement one must be rational, the agreement will include only rational beings, who will then turn out to be the only moral patients. In this light, moral norms would be the norms with which rational and self-interested individuals would agree to comply on condition that others undertook to do so as well. If the preceding argument can somehow point to the contemporary position of John Rawls, it is here apparent the influence of the mutual advantage account of contractarianism of Hobbesian ascent[14].

It is not difficult to understand why not even this approach is acceptable. For, given that self-interested contractors gain no advantage from accepting principles that offer guarantees to individuals who are unable to give any guarantee in return, they can completely ignore the interests of those who are unable to reciprocate.  But if the golden rule “treat others as you would have them treat you” is replaced by what we might call the silver rule, “treat others as they would treat you,[15]” mutual advantage has the devastating effect of driving ethical impartiality off the stage. Once more, current morality clearly grasps this point, insofar as it does not deprive of rights those human beings - again, children or the severely intellectually disabled - who cannot have duties.

But if none of the major arguments advanced in defense of the ends/means doctrine[16] - the appeal to the possession of a genotype Homo sapiens, the appeal to the possession of rationality as a precondition of morals, and the reference to this very same capacity as a means to intersubjective agreement - can justify maintaining nonhuman animals in their present inferior moral state, it seems plausible to conclude that traditional morality is untenable.



If one gives up the doctrine of human superiority, what kind of moral perspective should one adopt in its place? In which ways, and toward which beings, should traditional morality be reformed? In order to tackle this question, many among the authors who have dealt with the animal issue appeal to their own specific normative position - be it utilitarianism, deontologism, virtue ethics or any other.  However, only an argument starting from premises that are, as far as possible, shared, can grant its conclusions the generality that is needed for moral reform. Because of this reason, we will directly start from what is today the most widespread and accepted among moral theories - the universal doctrine of human rights[17].

At the center of the theory of human rights lies the protection of the vital interests - in welfare, in freedom and in life - of some beings. Of which beings, exactly? Though the most common, and apparently tautological, answer is “of human beings,”  such a move is, as we have seen, precluded by the fact that discrimination based on species is analogous to those forms of discrimination that the very doctrine condemns in sexism and racism. Most of the philosophers who confront the issue seem to be somehow aware of this problem. When it is bestowed a role, in fact, reference to species is introduced in a hurried and oblique way[18]. What, then, plays in an effective, and not rhetorical, way the role of explaining the why of human rights - of illustrating, that is, what it is that, in the members of our species, justifies the equal attribution of the particular sort of moral claims lumped together under the label of “human rights”?

Among the solutions advanced for this problem, the most defensible, as well as the most theoretically fertile, is no doubt the one put forward by a line of argument appeared at the beginning of the 1960s,[19] and culminating in the elaboration offered by the American philosopher Alan Gewirth. According to such a line, the criterion for the access to the protection that human rights warrant lies only in being an agent, that is, an intentional being that cares about its goals and wants to achieve them. All the beings that fulfill the requisite of intentionality are characterized by the capacity to enjoy freedom and welfare, as well as life which is a precondition for them, both directly and as prerequisites for action; and, for all these beings, the intrinsic value of their enjoyment is the same. To choose as a criterion, instead of intentionality, any other characteristic - be it rationality or any other among the cognitive skills traditionally seen as “superior” - would be arbitrary, since it would exclude from moral consideration interests which are relevantly similar in that they are equally vital for their bearers[20].

Once articulated, such an answer - which has among other things the important effect of barring the way to discredited perfectionist worldviews - appears obvious. And yet, it involves a corollary which is not equally obvious: that, on the basis of the very doctrine that establishes them, human rights are not human. For not only does the more or less avowed acceptance of the idea that species membership is not morally relevant eliminate from the theory any structural reference to the possession of a genotype Homo sapiens, but the will to secure equal fundamental rights to all human beings, including the non-paradigmatic ones, implies that the criterion for the ascription of such rights must lie at a cognitive level accessible to a large number of non-human animals. 



If, in view of all this, we go back to our initial interrogative, it may be safely said that the current divergence in standards between humans and nonhumans is indefensible. All the more so: it is plausible to claim that, among those entitled to that minimum of equality and equity that allows one to live a life worth living - among, that is, those moral patients who deserve full moral status - there are many nonhuman beings. But what can mean, in practice, to extend fundamental rights beyond the boundaries of our species? Confronted with this idea, some opponents tend to make recourse to various reductios, by evoking scenarios that are either concretely impossible, such as the obligation to bring our aid-commitment all the way to the deserts or the sea depths, or socially absurd, such as the revision to its foundations of our whole legal system. 

None of this. In order to understand this point, it is worth defining more precisely that particular category of moral rights that we label as “human rights.” Such category has in fact two significant peculiarities. Firstly, human rights do not cover the whole of morality, but concern the more limited theory of conduct which has been defined as “morality in the narrow sense,” and which meets the special class of moral concerns which has to do with the basic protection of individuals from interference[21]. For in spite of the attempts to embody in the doctrine some positive rights, or rights to assistance, the ones which prevail are always negative rights, or rights to non-interference, that not only are more basic but - being less affected by conditions of scarcity - are less likely to be subject to exceptions[22]. Secondly, human rights clearly developed as an answer to those forms of institutionalized violence and discrimination which have marked the first half of the twentieth century. This implies, as it has been convincingly argued by the American philosopher Thomas Pogge, that the model both of their implementation and of their violation is based not on the interaction between individuals, but on the organization and the action of the state[23].

Let’s therefore reconsider the present situation in the light of these two aspects. Billions of nonhuman animals who meet the requisite of intentionality are tortured, confined and killed in the pursuit of the most varied human goals. But codified killing, confinement, mutilation and torture are just the opposite of that protection from institutional interference that human rights theory aims at granting. What, then, could an implementation at the social level of the conclusions so far reached mean in such a context? Far from involving impossible practical interventions and complicated legal alchemies, such implementation would merely require a legal change aimed at removing in the status of property the basic obstacle to the enjoyment of the denied rights. In other words, it would imply for these animals the shift from the condition of objects to that of subjects of legal rights[24], and, as a consequence, the prohibition of all the practices that are today made possible by their current state, from raising for food to scientific experimentation to the most varied forms of commercial use and systematic extermination.

This is, I believe, the conclusion awaiting anyone who wants to seriously reflect on our current behavior toward nonhuman animals. Far from belonging in the different, and lesser, moral category in which they have till now been confined, (most) nonhumans confront us with all the force of a justified ethical demand. And this because it is the very logic of the doctrine that tried to overcome the most serious difficulties for intra-human cohabitation which forces us to extend basic rights beyond the boundaries of the species Homo sapiens, thus offering a plausible solution for the problems of a community broader than the human one.


[1] On this, cf. Steve F. Sapontzis,  “Everyday Morality and Animal Rights,” Between the Species 3 (1987), sect. III.

[2] For a rapid survey, see the first chapter of David DeGrazia, Taking Animals Seriously. Mental Life and Moral Status (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

[3] Immanuel Kant, Lectures on Ethics, trans. Louis Infield (New York: Harper and Row, 1963), p. 239.

[4] Aristotle, Politics, I, 3, 1256 b.

[5] Thomas Aquinas, Summa contra Gentiles, book III, part II, chap. CXII.

[6] We owe one of the first formulations of the concept to G. J. Warnock: cf. his The Object of Morality (London: Methuen, 1971) p. 148. See also Harlan B. Miller, “Science, Ethics, and Moral Status,” Between the Species 10 (1994), p. 14.

[7] See Aristotle, Politics, I, 2, 1253 b.

[8] See Jeremy Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (New York: Hafner Press, 1948), chap. XVII, IV, note 1.

[9] For the autonomy of ethics, see Thomas Nagel, “Ethics as an Autonomous Theoretical Subject,” in Morality as a Biological Phenomenon, ed. Gunther S. Stent (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978). For the moral irrelevance of biological characteristics, see e.g. Michael Tooley, “Speciesism and Basic Moral Principles,” Etica & Animali 9 (1998), pp. 5-36.

[10] Cfr. Peter Singer, Animal Liberation, 2nd edn. (New York: The New York Review of Books, 1990), p. 9.

[11] Once again, we owe the paradigmatic formulation of this argument, which is particularly widespread in the continental philosophical tradition, to Immanuel Kant. See Immanuel Kant, Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. Lewis W. Beck (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1997), p. 45.

[12] See Steve F. Sapontzis, Morals, Reason, and Animals (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987), pp. 146 ff.

[13] A comprehensive survey of the discussion of the case of non-paradigmatic members of our species can be found in Daniel A. Dombrowski, Babies and Beasts. The Argument from Marginal Cases (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1997).

[14] For the similarities and differences between Rawlsian impartial contractarian theory and Hobbesian mutual advantage approach, see Paola Cavalieri and Will Kymlicka. “Expanding the Social Contract,” Etica & Animali 8 (1996), pp. 5-33.

[15] I borrow the expression “silver rule” from Edward Johnson, Species and Morality (Ph.D. diss., Princeton University, July 1976 [University Microfilms International, Ann Arbor, MI]), p. 134.

[16] For a concise critique of many minor arguments see Paola Cavalieri, The Animal Question. Why Nonhuman Animals Deserve Human Rights (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), chapters III and IV.

[17] For a more articulated version of the following argument see ibid., chapter VI.

[18] Cf. for example. what Adam Bedau writes: “Are human rights to be thought of as possessed by all and only persons, human beings, or human persons? . . . [T]he last alternative . . . is the least controversial way to resolve the problem. The concept of human rights was not designed to embrace non-human persons, and it was clearly intended to exclude infra-human beings, such as animals.” See Hugo Adam Bedau, “International Human Rights,” in And Justice for All, eds. Tom Regan and Donald VanDeVeer (Totowa, NJ: Rowman & Allanheld, 1983), p. 298.

[19] Its first seeds are to be found in Gregory Vlastos, “Justice and Equality,” in Social Justice, ed. Richard B. Brandt (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1962).

[20] See Alan Gewirth, Reason and Morality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978). A summary of the argument can be found in Alan Gewirth, “The Basis and Content of Human Rights,” in Nomos XXIII: Human Rights, eds. J. Roland Pennock and John W. Chapman (New York: New York University Press,1981).

[21] On the notion of narrow morality cf. in particular W. K. Frankena, “The Concept of Morality,” The Journal of Philosophy 63 (1966); G. J. Warnock, The Object of Morality (London: Methuen, 1971), in particular chap. 2 and chap. 5; and J. L. Mackie, Ethics. Inventing Right and Wrong (London: Penguin, 1990), pp. 107-108.

[22] In his “Human Rights, Old and New”, in Political Theory and the Rights of Man, ed. D. D. Raphael (London: Macmillan, 1967), D. D. Raphael plausibly claims that positive rights, rather than as “human rights”, are to be classified as “citizen’s rights”.

[23] See Thomas Pogge, “How Should Human Rights Be Conceived?” Jahrbuch für Recht und Ethik 3 (1995), pp. 103-120.

[24] For a discussion of this problem see e.g. Gary L. Francione, Animals, Property, and the Law (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995).


Paola Cavalieri, who lives in Milan (Italy), is the editor of the International philosophy journal Etica & Animali. She is the co-editor, with Peter Singer, of The Great Ape Project. Equality Beyond Humanity (St. Martin’s, 1994), and the author of The animal Question (Oxford University Press, 2001). She is currently working on a philosophical dialogue on perfectionism in moral status.