Animal Rights 101, part two: Rights


The term “rights” is widely misunderstood. It will be helpful here to distinguish between moral and legal rights. These classes of rights are similar in at least one respect: in both cases, a right protects a person’s interest by providing that person with a claim against any party who interferes with the satisfaction of the person’s protected interest.

An example

Let’s look at an example in which a person is protected by both kinds of rights.

Person A is an average human being whose interest in continuing to live we can hopefully agree is important enough that it should not be arbitrarily ignored by any other person. When we say that Person A has “a right to live,” we are more or less stating that Person A’s interest in continued existence is protected by a “claim” against any person and/or actions that would prevent Person A from continuing to live. Another way of looking at this is that the right protecting Person A’s interest in continued existence imposes a duty on other people not to ignore this interest.

Of course, there are limitations on this protection. If Person A attempts to kill another person, then most people would not object to the other party defending herself with lethal force, or to Person A being shot and killed by an officer of the law. Person A’s interest in continuing to live has not evaporated, but his actions have provided appropriate justification for ignoring that interest.

With this example in mind, let’s take a look at the difference between legal and moral rights.

Legal rights

The law identifies that certain interests ought to be protected, even if infringing upon those interests would serve the interests of another person, or the interests of the greater good. When a person’s legal right is violated by another party, then the right provides the person with a justified legal claim against the violating party.

Valid legal claims can lead to various legal sanctions against the violating party, including financial penalties and/or imprisonment. Legal rights are generally codified and enforced by a political institution, such as a government, and they are held by certain entities functioning as legal “persons,” such as humans and corporations.

Moral rights

Moral rights derive from objective morality, not from governmental authority. They can be understood to have approximately the same logical structure as legal rights, but they are not backed up with the same sort of protection offered by legal rights. However, the claim a person has against another party who infringes upon a moral right is no less valid. Consequences for violating moral rights can range from a personal demand for an apology to being ostracized by one’s community.

The relationship between moral and legal rights

Moral rights and legal rights are distinctly different, but they are closely related. We can think of a moral right as an underlying, pre-legal form of a right. Whatever moral rights a being holds will ideally (if not now, at least some day) be reflected in the legal system. For instance, our moral right to liberty is reflected in our legal right to that liberty. As public opinions about right and wrong shift, laws generally evolve along with them. Humans enslaved in the United States before 1865 had the same basic moral rights as every other human, but these moral rights were not reflected in the law until the 13th Amendment was passed.

It is possible for legal rights to clash with moral rights. For example, some animal rights advocates believe that all sentient beings have at least one basic moral right: the right not to be treated exclusively as a resource by others. This moral right conflicts directly with the morally indefensible legal right humans have to own nonhumans.

Other considerations

A right typically does not need to be understood by someone who possesses that right in order to receive its protection. For example, the interests of children and mentally incompetent persons are protected by rights. Claims to these rights can usually be made on their behalf.

Because nonhuman animals are legally classified as property instead of persons, they cannot possess legal rights.


In my next post, I will describe animal rights. It will be helpful to keep in mind the above discussion as we consider what interests nonhuman animals have.

Next post: Animal Rights

Previous post: The Need

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Animal Rights 101, part one: The Need

This is the first in a series of posts I am writing to introduce readers to the most basic fundamentals of the abolitionist approach to animal rights as laid out by Gary L. Francione. I have also read works by Joan Dunayer and Lee Hall but, for my purposes here, Francione’s body of work currently offers the most thorough and original explication of abolitionist animal rights and our duties as animal rights advocates.

Though this blog is obviously not the best forum for me to be completely comprehensive, that is not my goal. If you’re looking for that, you should be reading the following books anyway: Rain Without Thunder, Introduction to Animal Rights, and Animals as Persons. Instead I will attempt to distill in my own words the basics of abolitionist animal rights advocacy that I have learned over the past 18 months or so. I will work through the basics, beginning with an understanding of the term rights, and working through what it means to be an animal rights advocate.

Post One:  The Need

The animal rights “movement” has been diluted by welfare-oriented advocacy to such an extent that the term “animal rights” has come to be widely understood merely as a catch-all label that refers to any activity carried out on behalf of animals, whether the activity is related to the moral or legal rights of animals at all. Most often it is not. 

“Animal rights” advocacy has for years had little to do with the moral rights of animals. Instead advocates have often focused on how animals are treated. In other words, they have concerned themselves with how humans treat their animal property, not whether or not the animals are rightfully considered the property of others in the first place. 

For instance, the media and many activists frequently call efforts to get hens out of battery cages “animal rights” campaigns, but these activities are focused entirely on the treatment of animals (i.e., their welfare), and not on their use (i.e., their right not to be used merely as a means to human ends). Hens in cage-free operations still suffer and are still bred, mutilated, confined, dominated, and killed for the sake of human pleasure and convenience. These are trivial interests when compared to a hen’s rather significant interest in staying alive.

Animal welfare campaigns do not address the underlying premise that allows humans to take the lives of nonhumans at will: hens and other animals belong to humans. Even if these campaigns succeed in regulating a specific activity, like caging animals, many other harms would continue to be permissible, and welfare advocates would continue to push until they found themselves at a point where average people simply didn’t see the harm anymore. After all, by then they will have succeeded in getting rid of the most egregious cruelties, which is all they ever cared about anyway.

Of course, even if reforms succeeded in ending every imaginable physical form of abuse to nonhuman animals and their lives were all terminated through some painless process, every animal on every farm would still be unnecessarily–and thus unjustly–imprisoned and killed, as the co-founder of the Vegan Society observed over 80 years ago after visiting his Uncle George’s farm : 

the idyllic scene was nothing more than Death Row, where every creature’s days were numbered by the point at which it was no longer of service to human beings.

Further, when a supposed “animal rights” group favors one type of confinement or killing over another, it implicitly (and even explicitly) condones using animals for human benefit (so long as it is done less cruelly). This of course runs counter to animal rights advocacy, which seeks to liberate hens and other nonhumans from human oppression altogether.

It is vital that the core of the animal rights movement–the abolitionists–reclaim “animal rights” for what it is. How? By widely and clearly restating the animal rights position, which is what I intend to do over the course of this series. As we come to understand the basis for the human oppression of nonhuman animals and the changes required to liberate those animals from this oppression, the path forward becomes much more focused and even simpler than many would have you believe.

By reclaiming, clarifying, and amplifying the abolitionist position on animal rights, we draw attention to what we specifically mean when we say “animal rights,” defining better for ourselves and others what exactly it is we seek on behalf of nonhuman animals. In returning to our basic mission, we refocus our efforts and the public eye on what is ultimately at stake: the interests of nonhuman animals in not being used exclusively as a means to human ends. That is an animal rights movement. 
After all, if we do not talk in terms of rights, then how can we even call ourselves animal rights activists? By openly, actively, and intelligently promoting animal rights and the abolition of animal exploitation, we have the potential to move the dialogue on animal rights forward in a meaningful way.

With greater clarity, precision, and stronger claims-making, our movement will be more coherent as it strikes at the roots of animal exploitation, rather than spending vast resources on efforts for nonhuman beings that on the surface seem good, but which ultimately do very little for them individually and may well further entrench their status as property for humans to use for the foreseeable future.

The goal of this series of posts, then, is in line with the mission statement at Francione’s own website:

to provide a clear statement of a nonviolent approach to animal rights that (1) requires the abolition of animal exploitation; (2) is based only on sentience and no other cognitive characteristic, and (3) regards veganism as the moral baseline of the abolitionist approach.

Next Post: Rights

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