Animal Rights Advocacy - Right Ethics, Wrong Target

Rod Preece


To many of those working in the field of animal ethics, the case for the rights of animals is so eminently invincible that its demonstration needs little rigorous argument. To be sure, there are interminable debates about the relevant ethical criteria, revolving around pain and suffering, the value of life, the appropriate nonhuman animal and human animal distinctions, and the like. But the basic idea that animal interests are entitled to radical promotion and protection remains unchallenged within the coterie. Indeed, the rights of animals are seen to be so obvious that they are assumed within the discourse and, frequently, subsequent argument appears more like rationalization than elaboration or objective justification. Argument and evidence are chosen not because they are logically and empirically appropriate but because they further the cause. We are left  more with  ideology than with philosophy. As a consequence, many animal rights advocates assert their case rather than argue it or explain it. Their adversaries are depicted in the worst possible light (as are the animal rights advocates by their opponents) and thus appear as outright behaviorists, indeed often as Cartesians, when in reality they often hold to an only slightly different view of the animal world  than do the radical advocates themselves. Despite the similarities and the fact that the animal rights advocates readily convince those who are susceptible to their claims, they utterly fail to convince those who ought to be the object of their hortative endeavours - those with the greatest professional interests in animals and with the greatest influence on public policy with regard to animals: the animal welfare scientists, veterinarians, ethologists, zoologists; and the professional historians and anthropologists of the human-animal nexus.

There is, in fact, at least one glaring inconsistency in animal rights discourse. To talk of generic animal rights  is, indeed, "speciesist," to borrow Richard Ryder’s favourite coinage, introduced by analogy with the terms ‘racist’ and ‘sexist.’ And this is the very complaint  animal rights advocates direct to their adversaries, that they are "speciesist," assuming something exclusive in the human armoury when none is warranted.  In fact to talk of animal rights is itself "speciesist." That is, to compare human rights with animal rights, as opposed to the rights of particular species, is already to treat the human as a special case. If it is appropriate to talk of distinctive human rights (the right to vote, the right to freedom of speech, the right to assemble, for example) then one must talk of the rights of giraffes, gorillas, lemurs and zebras rather than the rights of animals, unless one assumes that all species share identical rights - and thus that the right to vote is of relevance to the horse. In fact, even Peter Singer claims that  few, if any, members of the Animal Liberation movement would claim that a  mouse shared the same right to life as a human. And Tom Regan writes of rights peculiar to mammals of a year or more.

Nor is it always clear just what is to count as an animal, for the conception of animal is in part cultural. Thus in hunter-gatherer societies the quarry of the male hunters is viewed as animal while the ‘gatherings’ of the women, including lizards, birds and small mammals, are thought of as vegetable food. And the classical Greeks distinguished between land animals and sea animals, thus numbering the porpoises and whales among the fish. Scientific taxonomy is only more explanatory than these conceptions within our own cultural context. Yet animal rights advocates continue to talk, and write, of animal rights in the abstract. To put the matter differently, in order to know the rights of a human, one must understand the needs, purposes and wants of the human species. Correspondingly, to know the rights of a giraffe one must know the species needs, wants and purposes of a giraffe. To be sure, all animals may be said to have rights, but they differ according to the specifics of the species. The bat’s capacity for echolocation is essential for it to continue to act as a bat. The koala requires access to eucalyptus leaves for its health. Neither echolocation protection nor access to eucalyptus leaves are appropriate rights of cattle. In order to gain an understanding of the rights of, say, a pig, animal rights advocates must refrain from their generic language and look to the research of the animal scientists to comprehend the nature and needs of the pig.  It is not that the ethics of animal rights advocates are wanting, far from it. Rather, it is the language in which the ethics is expressed which often alienates those who have an abiding interest in the well-being of the animals they study. 

If the rights of particular species are to be understood, they are not be understood as abstractions but in relation to the wants, needs and purposes of the species in question. Animal scientists customarily reject the claims of animal rights advocates out of hand, at least in part because the language of the advocates pays insufficient attention to the empirical nature of the particular species and describe the rights of animals without reference to the enormous amount of empirical research undertaken to determine the needs of a given species. And on the odd occasion that they do take the specifics of a species into consideration they usually get it wrong by ignoring the findings of the scientists unless those findings accord with what the advocates hoped would be the findings. It is, then, scarcely surprising that the animal scientists often look askance at animal rights advocates when the conclusions of their research are rejected or employed  according to their usefulness to the advocacy alone.

Frequently the animal scientists are painted in very misleading strokes by the advocates. Such scientists are often depicted as quasi-Cartesians, denying that animals feel pain and suffer or have emotions. In reality, the scientists are attempting to determine not just whether a species feels pain, suffers and has emotions - which in most cases they accept without question - but the degree to which  pain may be anticipated, the relation between pain and suffering, and the relation between  pain, suffering and emotion in particular species - all of which is of considerable importance in determining  the appropriate treatment for the species in question. Of course, animal rights advocates are absolutely right that a great deal more needs to be done to promote the interests of all animals, including a vast improvement in general attitudes toward animals, which in turn  requires that animals not be employed for human purposes unless the animal also benefits. But, unless the animal rights advocate is willing to listen (with a critical open mind) to the scientist, the interests of the animal will receive short shrift. Unless animal rights advocates take a more open-minded approach to the scientists, they will hinder the progress of the cause which they advocate with such  justified ethical indignation. And when they do address themselves to the scientists in more respectful terms the scientists themselves may well be persuaded to ask questions in their research which relate to the issues which animal rights advocates bring to the fore.

If animal rights advocates miss the appropriate target with regard to the empirical nature of animals their general description of the history of attitudes to animals is even more wide of the mark. Again, the history is more like a rationalized ideology than an attempt to discover a truth. Indeed, the history of animal ethics as written appears more like a ‘how much better we are than they,’ ‘how superior we are to our recent ancestors,’ story. In almost all general books on animal ethics and its development  we will find a section (usually a lengthy one) on the impact of the seventeenth-century doctrine of Cartesianism,  stating, or at the very least implying, that the views of Descartes and Malebranche on animals as automata played a predominant role in the history of Western ethics. In fact, no more than a handful in Britain appear to have subscribed to the doctrine (and even some of those who did in theory stated they were unwilling to abide by  its implications in practise). And if there were more adherents in France they were still outnumbered by those who treated the whole idea as preposterous, including the Catholic Church itself. The prolific epistolary Mme de Sévigné wrote to her daughter that even the reputation of Descartes could not convince her of the idea of animals without thoughts and emotions. As often as not, Cartesianism was merely fodder for the wits. Noting Descartes’ analogy between a watch and an animal, Bernard Fontenelle declared that if he put a dog machine beside a bitch machine in short order he would have a pup machine but if he put two watches side by side and waited a whole lifetime no third watch would appear. That convinced him that dogs were worthier and more noble  than watches. In England,  Viscount Bolingbroke noted the same analogy and declared that, despite Descartes, he was sure his peasants would still be able to tell the difference between the town bull and the parish clock. 


Again, in most books on animal ethics the idea of animals being capable of pain and suffering, and that fact being of vital importance in ascribing rights to animals, the eighteenth-century utilitarian Jeremy Bentham is accorded pride of place. Indeed, the pain and suffering criterion has been described more than once as the “Benthamite dictum.” Yet the relevance of pain and suffering was recognized long before Bentham and placed as a central point of argument in the writings of  Dean, Berrow, Hildrop, Primatt and many others who have been largely ignored or downplayed in the literature.  Surely, the fine statement from Rousseau’s Emile (1762) ought to have long been a primary recognition in the animal advocacy literature on the preeminent role of suffering and the human awareness of it: “Emile...will begin to have gut reactions at the sounds of complaints and cries, the sign of blood flowing will cause him an ineffable distress before he knows whence comes this new movement within him....Thus is born pity, the first sentiment that touches the human heart according to the order of nature.

To become sensitive and pitying, the child must know that there are beings like him who suffer what he has suffered, who feel the pains he has felt, and there are others whom he ought to conceive of as being able to feel them too. In fact, how do we let ourselves be moved by pity if not by transporting ourselves outside of ourselves and identifying with the suffering animal, by leaving, as it were, our own being to take on its being. It is not in ourselves, it is in him that we suffer.” This is perhaps not as pithy as Bentham’s famous phrase - “The question is not, can they reason? nor can they talk? but, can they suffer?” - but it surely reflects empathy and the awareness  of the relevance of suffering far better than any other historical statement. Why is it ignored? Ostensibly because many prominent animal rights advocates do not like to recognize that, along with a myriad of similar, if less profound, statements, Rousseau’s words reflect a general compassion felt throughout human history. Contrary to the impression one receives in so much of the literature, a recognition (and even sometimes the language) of animal rights is no new phenomenon but is a part of general human consciousness. Many influential animal rights advocates wish to be seen as a vanguard rather than a historical continuity. They do not wish to acknowledge the generality of their worthy precursors lest it detract from their self image as innovators and purveyors of a new and striking ethic.

But if they have the significance of Descartes and Bentham wrong - and a host of others to boot - nowhere are they further from the truth in their honouring of Charles Darwin.  Charles Darwin is, of course, to be admired greatly for his discovery of the process of natural selection, though his role in discovering the  theory of evolution is less impressive, there being at least three millennia of prior contributions to the idea of, and even evidence for, evolution itself. Where animal rights advocates get Darwin hopelessly wrong is in his supposed novel appreciation of the attributes of animals.  It is a commonplace to read in the animal rights literature, here in the words of Marian Scholtmeijer, that “the Darwinian revolution profoundly altered society’s conception of animals,” or,  by the convinced vegetarian (as am I)  Michael Allen Fox who referred to “the work of Charles Darwin (1809-1882), which breached the species barrier so dramatically.” And these statements are from among the more admirable of animal rights’ scholars. In fact, while Darwin’s influence on our understanding of the manner in which evolution takes place was without parallel,  he had little or no influence on the status of animals.  Darwin is often lauded for his recognition in the Descent of Man  (1871): “that there is no fundamental difference between man and the higher animals in their mental faculties.” Moreover, Darwin continued: “man and the higher animals, especially the Primates, have some few instincts in common. All have the same senses, emotions, intuitions and sensations  – similar passions, affections and emotions, even the more complex ones, such as jealousy, suspicion, emulation, gratitude and magnanimity...they possess the same faculties of imitation, attention, deliberation, choice, memory, imagination, the association of ideas and reason, though in very different degrees.” 

Certainly, in light of the frequent animal advocate assumption of few, if any, prior sentient and rational acknowledgements, the claims appear to be revolutionary. Yet they are merely a restatement of views long held in Western society on the human-animal relationship. Thus, for example, even ignoring the classical Greek examples, the French army surgeon Ambroise Paré stated in the mid-sixteenth century that “magnanimity, clemency, docility [ie., the capacity for learning], love, carefulness, providence, yea knowledge, memory & c. is common to all brutes.” In the seventeenth century, the Puritan leveller Richard Overton was citing Paré with admiration and approval. We find extensive listings of similar attributes in the writings, for example, of Rorarius, Gilles, Bary, de la Chambre, Bayle, Voltaire and George Nicholson, with Nicholson citing the comments from a broad variety of sources. In the eighteenth century we encounter the influential Bishop of Durham, Joseph Butler, taking it as common knowledge that other animals as well as humans  “share apprehension, memory, reason...affection...enjoyments and sufferings.” By the nineteenth century, the acknowledgement was even more pervasive.

Thus, for example, the devout theist and anti-materialist Sir James Brodie, President of the Royal Society when the Origin of Species (1859) was published, avowed sixteen years before Darwin’s Descent of Man and a few before the Origins, that the “The mental principle in animals is of the same essence as that of human beings; so that even in the humblest classes [i.e., species] we may trace the rudiments of these faculties to which, in their state of more complete development, we are indebted for the grandest results of human genius. I am inclined to believe that  the minds of the inferior animals are essentially of the same nature with that of the human race.” But all this palls against the claim of the veterinarian William Yoautt, writing in 1839, some twenty years before The Origin of Species, in words very similar to the later expression of Charles Darwin in the 1871 Descent, that animals possess senses, emotions, consciousness, attention, memory, sagacity, docility, association of ideas, imagination, reason, instinct, the moral qualities, friendship and loyalty – each of which is acknowledged to exist in other species and to differ from human attributes only by degree.  Nor did Youatt  seem to think he was advancing a new and especially controversial doctrine.  Clearly, Charles Darwin added nothing to the conception of animal attributes, however much he may have greatly influenced our understanding of the manner of evolution. The sentient, emotional and rational nature of animals was well recognized long before Darwin. The honour bestowed on Darwin by the animal rights advocates is without any serious merit.

The animal rights advocates are no less misleading when we are told, as PETA has recently stated, that Pope John Paul II declared in 1990 that animals have souls. Indeed, he did. What is misleading is to leave the impression that John Paul II was changing the direction of the Roman Catholic Church. In fact, the  Church has traditionally held the view that animals have souls, but sentient and mortal souls as opposed to the rational and immortal souls claimed exclusively for humans, as Thomas Aquinas explained the matter. Pope John Paul II’s statement did not clarify or amend the issue of the nature of the animal soul. To all intents and purposes the apparent doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church remained the same.  

It is difficult to escape the conclusion that many animal rights advocates choose their evidence and argument with more concern for the cause than for scholarship, and in so doing alienate a large number of people of influence who would be more readily convinced by a sober and industrious investigation of the issues. Despite the justice of their cause, through their tactics and the slipshod methods of some, they mar their own reputation, causing many to take them less seriously than they might. Animal rights advocacy could benefit from a healthy dose of earnest and honest scholarship in lieu of ideology. Ideology masquerading as scholarship serves ultimately to harm the eminently worthwhile cause of animal protection and promotion . And, of course, if the advocates need to move closer to the scientists, a reciprocal rapprochement of the scientists to the advocates is equally necessary. Advocates and scientists, even though their roles must be distinct, share a lot more in common than either of the adversaries is normally willing to concede.     


Rod Preece is Professor of Political Philosophy, Wilfrid Laurier University.  His most recent book, Brute Souls, Happy Beasts and Evolution: The Historical Status of Animals, will be published in June.