Although identified as being philosophical positions originating from the same fundamental concern regarding the treatment of non-human life, the terms “animal liberation,” “animal rights,” and “animal welfare” are often mistaken to be interchangeable with one another. In fact, they are distinguished primarily by the dimensions – political, social, moral/ethical and philosophical – they choose to concentrate on. The aforementioned confusion arises not only from these ideological origins, but from the points in which they intersect. Bioethics professor Peter Singer (1973) authored the seminal work Animal Liberation.
Singer, argues that to discount the interests of animals on the basis of their difference – with that difference lying primarily with their lack of the intellectual capacities purported to define human existence – is subscribing to worldview not unlike those of racists and sexists, whose common logical precept is the ascribing of superiority to singular qualities. For Singer (1973), this is discrimination because were we to apply the same principle to justify inhumane treatment of animals, then it could very well serve to justify cruelty to infants and discriminating against the intellectually disabled.
To highlight this further, Singer notes that few would endorse slow, painful death upon “intellectually inferior humans” for the purposes of scientific research let alone confining them in small cages prior to slaughtering them for food (moral repugnancy of cannibalism notwithstanding. ) In effect, a principle of mistreatment justified by lack of intellectual capacity which applies only to animals and exempts all humans no matter how cognitively handicapped is “speciesism. ” This is a kind of prejudice that privileges humans over animals according to the same logic white males would privilege themselves over women and colored races.
(Singer, 1973) Singer’s ethical position gives logical rise to the concern for animal welfare. It endorses a viewpoint which emphasizes the minimization of animal suffering, and basically maintains a position in which the use of animals for clothing, entertainment and food is possible while maintaining concern for the well-being of animals. Singer effectively reconciles the means by which humans use animals to fulfill their needs and wants, by asserting that it can be done in a fashion which does not promote the suffering of animals or unnecessarily come at the expense of their dignity.
His position on animal welfare is located in the middle ground between the anthropocentric extreme which denies a moral responsibility to animals and the veganist position of abolishing animal use entirely. (Francione, 1995a) Legal scholar Gary Francione, a leading theorist in the abolitionist school of animal rights, argues that Singer’s conception of animal welfare only serves to assuage collective guilt over the use of animals. Francione (1995a) charges that Singer’s viewpoint effectively makes a halfway moral compromise by attempting to reconcile ‘humane’ treatment with animal ‘use,’ and is essentially an error in ethical syntax.
Francione goes one step further and argues that animals have the right to not be treated as property. This animal rights viewpoint effectively suggests that the only humanely acceptable solution is to adopt veganism as a lifestyle that renounces the use of all animal products. Animal rights takes the animal welfare position one step further by proposing an ethical and philosophical position in which not only are animals entitled to humane treatment, but that they should be recognized as legal persons entitled to their own rights.
(Francione, 1995b; AAMC, 2003) Animal rights proponents maintain a position in which animals deserve not only an emancipation from the uses inflicted upon them by human industries, but that these animals should be accorded the same protections or similar to those given to all humans. However, Carl Cohen, a Michigan-based professor of philosophy maintains an opposition towards animal rights, let alone the granting of personhood by effectively challenging the propositions made by Singer.
Cohen (1986) opines that the rights of a creature, human or otherwise, are contingent upon the ability to “recognize possible conflicts between what is in their own interest and what is just. Only in a community of beings capable of self-restricting moral judgments can the concept of a right be correctly invoked. ” Singer maintained that intellectual capacity is held as the criteria by which we determine the treatment of creatures, and indicted it, noting that we do not treat infants and the disabled cruelly on the basis of intellectual incapacity.
However, Cohen (1986) argues that Singer’s critique misses the point. Under Cohen’s view, intellectual capacity is still a determinant for awarding rights. However, it is not a test that is administered individually, but one applied to the collective average of a species. As such, it the assessed general capacity of humans to reason and the general incapacity of animals that divides. Cohen’s first point is predicated on a legalistic understanding of the notion of rights, one which is similar to the viewpoint held by British philosopher Roger Scruton.
Just as the rights of a creature require its ability to interpret them, Scruton contends that rights also imply obligations in the sense that legal rights are not just privileges but burden others with duty. The rights of a human life are also the duties of other human lives to respect. Scruton argues that the endorsement of rights for animals is absurd because rights and the responsibilities they entail can only be observed by humans. After all, an animal cannot hold back its animal drives to ‘respect’ humans.