At a recent conference at the University of Prince Edward Island, I was on a panel dealing with the issue of animal rights. One of the speakers was Lesli Bisgould, an adjunct professor at the University of Toronto law school who specializes in animal rights law and is the author of “Animals and the Law,” published in 2011.
Animal rights, she said, encompasses “the idea that animals should not be regarded as things that we can own and use for our own purposes, for pleasure or profit.” Its very premise is “that animals have the right to their own lives.”
Currently in Canada, the law regards animals as property, objects that can be disposed of as long as reasonable care is taken to minimize their suffering. While the criminal code forbids “unnecessary” pain or injury to them, the corollary, Bisgould emphasized, is that “necessary” pain is permissible if it’s for a human purpose.
Today, the use of animals is ubiquitous, for food, entertainment, and scientific experiments. Animal-using industries have aggressively lobbied governments against changes in legislation regarding cruelty to animals and the Conservative Party has consistently opposed any reforms.
Though sentient animals are “profoundly similar to humans in the most profound ways” - they think, feel, communicate, and have their own interests - they cannot go to court to assert their interests. “And what rights does an animal have if not the right to live,” she asked.
Bisgould remains optimistic that science and ethics are putting pressure on our legal system to take this into account and that, “as ideas change, so will the laws.”
The Australian philosopher Peter Singer, a professor at Princeton University, in his landmark 1975 book “Animal Liberation,” has also argued that, although there may be differences between animals and humans, they are sentient creatures that share the capacity to suffer, and we must give equal consideration to that suffering; any other position fails to qualify as an acceptable moral theory.
Tom Regan, professor emeritus of philosophy at North Carolina State University, in his 1985 philosophical treatise “The Case for Animal Rights,” has maintained that any being with a complex mental life, including perception, desire, belief, memory, intention, and a sense of the future is what he calls a subject of a life, and therefore that life has inherent value.
After all, even among humans, the concept of equality is not that of an actual equality of attributes. The inclusion of animals is therefore necessary, and treating animals respectfully is not simply a matter of kindness or sentimental interest, but of justice.
David DeGrazia, a professor of moral philosophy at George Washington University, is the author of the 1996 book “Taking Animals Seriously.” Some people have argued that we should not be cruel to animals because such cruelty is likely to spill over into brutish treatment of our fellow humans, he has noted. Others have claimed that the only thing wrong with such cruelty is that it upsets the sensibilities of animal lovers. But such human-centered accounts miss the most obvious reason cruelty is wrong: the great harm it causes to its victims for no compelling reason.
Much animal use causes them extensive suffering either for frivolous purposes amusement or vanity - or for more substantial purposes nutrition or warmth -- but where non-animal alternatives are readily available.
Hence, factory farming or making use of fur-bearing animals, for example, cause extensive, unnecessary harm to which its victims have not consented. Since causing such harm is surely wrong if anything is wrong, the conclusion that these are unjustified uses of animals seems inescapable.
More and more people are coming around to this way of thinking. It gives us hope that attitudes towards our fellow non-human creatures are undergoing a transformation.
By Henry Srebrnik
- Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.