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May 1995
A New Dimension of Animal Rights

By Leena Vilkka


The old idea of natural rights, as it is found in Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics means natural law theory according to which human beings have natural rights by nature. The Virginia Declaration of Rights of 1776 argues along these lines: “All men [sic] are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot by any compact deprive or divest their posterity.” In 1791, the French Constitution espoused the idea of the natural rights of man: liberty, prosperity, security and resistance of oppression.

I suggest that this old philosophical idea of natural rights/natural law would be a fruitful model for animal rights. An animal’s right to a painless life arises from the fact that animals are sentient beings by nature. Natural animal rights accord rights to animals from the point of animals as sentient beings.

Legal animal rights would be the most effective tool for taking the intrinsic value of animals into moral account. Nowadays laws for animals are arbitrary. In his book Inhumane Society, Michael W. Fox illustrates the situation as follows: “A rabbit can be perceived, and therefore treated, in a variety of ways, which influences its social and legal standing. It could be a cuddly pet, a subject for high-school dissection or research, a menu item, or the source of a pair of fur mittens. It could be a farmer’s pest, a sportsman’s ‘worthy adversary,’ or a greyhound trainer’s lure. But nowhere is the rabbit valued intrinsically, in and for itself, and projections create a spectrum of attitudes that determines a rabbit’s ultimate social and legal standing. But does the rabbit not suffer equally whether it is a pet, a laboratory animal, or a ‘pest?’ Isn’t it just as cruel, given the rabbit’s ability to experience pain, to torture it in a laboratory or in an open field as it is in a home? Not according to the law!”

I propose that in the law, the level of the rights of sentient beings should be distinguished. The core of such rights should be the principle of equality. As James Rachels says: “Individuals are to be treated in the same way unless there is a relevant difference between them that justifies a difference in treatment.” Animal rights should not be additive as property rights are. Maybe animal rights should not rise to the level of human rights, but animal rights should certainly extend beyond property rights.

How much weight should animal interests deserve in the law? Animal rights activists do not claim that animals should have human rights, but that animals should have certain animal rights. The most important animal right would be the right to psychical, physical, and social well-being. This would include at least the right to a normal animal life of its own kind, meaning at least: the right to appropriate liberty, the right to individuality and to social relationships, and the right to be free of pain.

The right to normal animal life means the right to live as the animal that s/he is. Stephen Clark, writing in The Monist, proposes the important idea of “self-owners” which means the owner-of-her/his-own-life. Animals as sentient beings have their own life that is significant to them. Clark describes his idea of “self-owners” as follows: “ ‘self-owning’ is a category more widely extended than we had thought. A being ‘owns itself’ if its behaviour is the product of its own desires and beliefs, if it can locate itself within the physical and social world, and alter its behaviour to take account of other creatures’ lives and policies... Such self-owners are, in the relevant sense, equals, and a just, liberal society cannot allow them to be owned by others.”

Many philosophers and theorists have argued that animals cannot have rights. Why not? Legal rights are surely made by humans: rights are the products of human history, culture and politics. Surely, we humans can give legal rights to animals as well as to other nonhuman objects if we want to. It is a question of human decision, and of course strong human interests in not giving rights to animals and nature exist.

People should have legal rights to protect animals. This human right could be asserted best by giving legal rights to animals and nature. Animal rights activists would have an effective tool to defend animals against cruelty and inhumane treatment. We have strong property rights in our legislation — it is ironic that sentient, living creatures do not have rights as the owners of their own lives, but as the property of humans.

I suggest that the first practical step would be to confirm the category of sentient beings and confirm some legal rights for them. In our modern laws, animals are categorized as property or raw material. This is surely inadequate in the light of the understanding of animals as sentient beings. It is important that the demands of people perceiving animals as sentient beings be not simply ignored in our societies. The question of animals will be the one big question which divides our societies into those who perceive animals in terms of instrumental value and into those who perceive them in terms of intrinsic value, with their own rights. Of course, from the practical point of view, the position of animal activists seems quite hopeless. Their demands on behalf of animals as sentient beings are not taken seriously in the law and everyday morality. However, I assume that the society which systematically ignores the demands of animal activists (or other minority groups) cannot be a reasonable or sustainable society. Increasing demands to perceive animals as sentient beings also require more scientific study of what animals really are, what it means to be a sentient being, and what are the practical and social implications of this.

Leena Vilkka is an environmental philosopher and researcher in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Helsinki, Finland. She is also the chairperson of the Finnish Animal Rights Federation.


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