Where Animal Rights Went Wrong

by Jo-Anne Pontone


A brief analysis of the animal rights movement and the philosophy on which it is based, by a veterinarian.

Larger Work

Homiletic & Pastoral Review


26 - 30

Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, San Francisco, CA, March 2002

It would be nearly impossible to list all the ways that animals have benefited humanity throughout history. As sources of food and clothing, animals have assisted in man's physical survival. On an emotional level, certain animals have served as companions, teaching man about responsibility, compassion and unconditional love. But most of all, animals reflect and witness the providential care and awe-inspiring wonder of God. When man begins to reflect more deeply on this precious gift of animals, he is faced with certain questions. Just what position do animals occupy in our world? Are they merely resources in creation for the use of man or are they our fellow creatures entitled to the same rights as humanity? Is humanity justified in its use of animals? These questions and many others regarding the proper treatment of animals surfaced most vividly with the beginning of the animal rights movement in the 1960s. This social movement, which is still active today, challenged the ethics of our use of animals. It would be impossible in the scope of this article to analyze the entire animal rights movement. Instead, I will focus on a few key philosophies of this movement that have been adopted by many, and then show the resulting impact on society.

The animal rights movement challenged man's elevated position over animals in the world. "Anyone who claims that the interests of animals have less weight than human interests must produce a relevant difference between them."1,2 By emphasizing our similarities to animals, this movement sought equality between people and animals. In doing so, the philosophical justification of man's use of animals was replaced by ideas and beliefs that challenged any use of animals for the strict benefit of man. Two well-known writers in this field, Tom Regan and Peter Singer offered complementary, though differing philosophies in this regard.

Tom Regan promoted the idea of the inherent value of each individual animal.3 He further qualified which animal lives had this inherent value. According to Regan, "only self-conscious beings, capable of having beliefs and desires, only deliberate actors who can conceive of the future and entertain goals are subjects-of-a-life."4 Only these subjects-of-a-life had inherent value and required rights to protect this value. He included in this category "all mentally normal mammals over one year of age."5 In doing so, Regan equated the value of certain individual animal life to human life by the presence of similar characteristics. He represents a large number of animal rights activists, who view animal life as equal in value to human life.

As a student in veterinary medical school, I personally encountered this position. I attended a lecture given by a well-known animal rights speaker. She remarked that while we remember and mourn the enormous number of people killed during the holocaust, we don't even consider the millions of chickens sacrificed each year for food. According to her, the lives of each of these chickens had the same value as a human life and thus its death was equally as tragic. Her position shocked the audience and I don't remember anyone supporting her ideas. It was a comfort to me to think of her ideas as radical and that they were rejected by most people. Looking back now though, I can see how subtly many of these ideas have invaded mainstream society. I will consider this point later in this article.

Alternatively, Peter Singer, who is currently a professor at Princeton University, argued that animals should have a right to equal consideration of their interests. According to Singer, the ability of animals to suffer is "the vital characteristic that gives a being the right to equal consideration."6 Like Regan, Singer put certain stipulations on which animals were to be included in this equal consideration. As a preference utilitarian, Singer is mainly interested in maximizing a being's actual preferences. Thus, "beings that lack sentience (the capacity to suffer and experience enjoyment) need not morally be taken into consideration."7 By equating animal and human sentient life, Singer further challenges man's favoritism toward man as unjustified discrimination, called "speciesism."8 Singer points out that many human characteristics, thought to separate us from animals such as rationality and autonomy, are missing in infants and the mentally retarded.9 Thus according to Singer, the use of animals in research "cannot be justified unless the experiment is so important that the use of a retarded human being would also be justified."10 Singer expresses an argument commonly made when the differences between animals and human beings is strictly seen on the basis of the presence or absence of certain physical or mental abilities. Authors, John Tuohey and Terrace P. Ma point out the distinction between privation and deprivation that is missing in Singer's argument. Unlike an animal that is deprived of some human intellectual ability, a retarded person is privated of this ability. By privation, they refer to those characteristics that ought to be present as part of normal human nature. Thus, Singer ignores the differences in nature between animals and humans.11

What is conspicuously absent from most animal rights literature is any discussion of religious beliefs or doctrine. In a 1984 survey of animal rights activists, 65% were listed as agnostic or atheist.12 When the Christian tradition regarding animals is considered, this lack of belief is not hard to understand. According to St. Thomas, animals are irrational creatures, which existed to serve human ends. Their status is based on their nature and by divine plan.13 In this Christian tradition, which relies on the book of Genesis, man is seen as the pinnacle of God's creation with the rest of the creatures under his dominion. Because of this many people, who strive for better treatment of animals, view religious belief as hostile to their cause.

A notable exception to this is theologian Andrew Linzey, who uses Christianity as a model for the treatment of animals. In his book Animal Theology, Linzey states that the "Christian paradigm of generous costly service must also be there for the exercise of human dominion over the animal world."14 This paradigm "rejects the idea that the rights and welfare of animals must always be subordinate to human interests, even when vital human interests are at stake."15 When considering the question of human dominion over creation, Linzey points to the example of Christ. "If we are to ask how it is that we humans are to exercise our dominion or God-given power over non-human animals, then we need look no further than to Jesus as our moral exemplar: of power expressed in powerlessness and of strength expressed in compassion."16 For Linzey, Christian discipleship requires that our self-giving service and love extend also to the animals.17 Linzey rejects Singer's equality paradigm as not going far enough. "Far from asking what minimal harm or suffering we can inflict upon animals for human use, the Generosity Paradigm insists that humans must bear for themselves whatever ills may flow from not experimenting upon animals rather than sanction a system of institutionalized abuse."18 He equates animals with other weak members of society, especially children, and as such demands certain similar obligations in treatment toward them.19 What is most interesting about this argument is the underlying contradiction in Linzey's thoughts. On the one hand, he is affirming the moral superiority of man and thus demanding certain obligations of action from him. But he also consistently points out that man's value is not above that of other creatures. Thus, one is left to wonder, if his argument makes sense. How can we expect more from man in terms of responsibility, while diminishing his nature and dignity?

Though very different in philosophical reasoning, all of the preceding views share many ideas in common. In fact, the major thrust of the entire animal rights movement is to elevate animals to equality with human beings in society. Animal rights are equated to human rights and our treatment of animals is judged in this light. I would like now to consider this idea of animal rights and our anthropomorphic tendency toward animals.

First, the problem with the rights position is that it is not an accurate use of this word. "A right is a moral prerogative to possess and use a thing as one's own. Rights likewise imply responsibilities, as well as accountability for violations of the rights of others. All of this is obviously not true of animals."20 While the idea of animal rights has been promoted and embraced by some, the idea of animal responsibility is seen as absurd. There are no new moral demands placed on animals as a result of their newly elevated position. We expect and tolerate some violent and destructive behaviors in animals as simply part of their nature. A cat that kills a mouse is excused as just acting according to its nature. No one would seriously expect an animal to understand the rights of other individual animals and govern themselves by the moral demands involved in respecting these rights. Therefore, when we speak of animals, it is not proper to elevate them to moral agents with rights in and of themselves. Instead, we should speak of our human responsibility towards animals. These responsibilities, however, will vary with how animals are viewed and the value assigned to them.

As stated earlier, the animal rights movement has attempted to diminish the differences between humans and animals. Animal life is equated in value to human life. This is the belief most prevalent among people today. People commonly refer to their pets as members of their family and assign to them many human characteristics. In a benign form, this can result in dressing up one's pet in human clothes, celebrating a pet's birthday with a party or even attributing human reason and emotions to an animal.

However, there have also been some serious consequences of this belief in our society. In my 8 years of private practice as a veterinarian, I have seen a direct connection between the advancement of this belief and the moral problems regarding certain issues prevalent today. Many people no longer regard pets as merely companions. Instead, they now see their pets as members of their family. While this may seem relatively harmless, it has had a profound influence on their lives. One incident illustrates this point. A woman came into my office to discuss a problem with her dog. She had recently had a baby, and was having behavioral problems with the dog. The problems were so severe that she was looking to find a new home for her dog Libby. During our conversation, I was struck by a statement she made. "It is all my fault. I spoiled Libby. But, then I had a baby and realized Libby was just a dog." I was surprised it took the birth of her first child for her to finally come to this realization.

To treat an animal as a human being requires the spending of emotional and material resources on them. This impacts the basic life choices that will be made. On a regular basis I see many couples, who chose to have pets as a reasonable and responsible alternative to children. In fact, this has been a common theme in animal rights literature. "It should be recognized that the flourishing of sentient nonhuman life on this planet requires an end to human population growth — indeed, a considerable reduction of human population from the levels that will be reached during the 21st century."21 It is a logical conclusion. If animal life is equated to human life, then humans will have to be sacrificed to accommodate the growth and needs of animal populations. Being globally responsible has been a major argument used in the population control movement.

In addition to allowing animals to replace people, many of our attitudes and practices toward people have been shaped by our practices toward animals. I believe that our emerging interest through the years in the euthanasia of people has directly grown out of this practice in veterinary medicine. The practice of euthanasia has always been accepted as a responsibility held by a veterinarian in the care of animals. But as society began to equate human and animal life, the question arose as to why we didn't perform this practice on humans. Why weren't people treated with this same compassion to end their suffering at the end of their lives? Increasingly, I've heard people express their wish for the euthanasia of people following this procedure on one of their pets. If the differences between human and animal are diminished, man inevitably will seek to extend his dominion over animals to include his fellow human beings. The truth of this statement can be seen when we consider that genetic manipulation, cloning and artificial insemination all began as accepted techniques in animals. As research has advanced, the application of these techniques to human beings is seen as a natural progression of our scientific ability.

The animal rights movement started with the noble intent of improving the quality of animal lives in human care. However, the underlying philosophies that have been widely adopted by society as a result have damaged our perception of both man and animals. In seeking equality between man and animals, this movement has diminished our view of humanity. Our separation from animals has been depicted as artificial and man-made. In addition, animals have been made over in man's image and have been denied their true nature. I propose that it is not necessary to make animals into humans in order to respect them. Animals should be appreciated as being wonderfully different from us. Further, if we consider animals as God's gift to man in creation, we are bound in responsibility over them. Fulfilling this responsibility requires that we first must affirm man's true nature and dignity. It is only then that we can strive to imitate God's compassionate care for the animals and all of creation.


1. David DeGrazia, "The Moral Status of Animals and Their Use in Research: A Philosophical Review," Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal 1 (March 1991): p. 57.

2. Harold D. Guither, Animal Rights History and Scope of a Radical Social Movement (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1998), p. 6.

3. Lori Green, A Companion to Ethics (Mass.: Basil Blackwell Inc., 1993), p. 346.

4. Green, p. 346.

5. John Tuohey and Terrace P. Ma, "Fifteen Years after 'Animal Liberation': Has the Animal Rights Movement Achieved Philosophical Legitimacy?" The Journal of Medical Humanities 13 (Summer 1992): p. 81.

6. DeGrazia, p. 50.

7. Peter Singer, "Animal Liberation or Animal Right?" Monist 70 (Jan. 1987): p. 4.

8. Singer, p. 3.

9. Green, p. 349.

10. Tuohey, p. 87.

11. Guither, p. 67.

12. Andrew Linzey, Animal Theology (Chicago: U. of Illinois Press, 1995), p. 13.

13. Linzey, p. 32.

14. Linzey, p. 44.

15. Linzey, p. 71.

16. Linzey, p. 71.

17. Linzey, p. 40.

18. Linzey, p. 36.

19. Reverend Thomas J. O'Donnell ed., "Medical Research, Fur Coats and Pre-Emptive Rights to Ground Water," The Medical-Moral Newsletter 27 (April 1990): p. 13.

20. Angus Taylor, "Animal Rights and Human Needs," Environmental Ethics 18 (Fall 1996): p. 263.

Dr. Jo-Anne Pontone earned her doctorate in veterinary medicine from the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine in 1993. She works as a veterinarian at the Franklin Lakes Animal Hospital in New Jersey. Currently she is working on a Masters degree in moral theology at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. This is her first article in HPR.


© Ignatius Press 2001.

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