Basic Tenets of Animal Rights

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Animal rights refers to the belief that animals have an intrinsic value separate from any value they have to humans and are worthy of moral consideration. They have a right to be free from oppression, confinement, use and abuse by humans.

The idea of animal rights may be difficult for some people to fully accept. This is because, throughout the world, animals are abused and killed for a wide variety of socially acceptable purposes, though what is socially acceptable is, of course, culturally relative. For example, while eating dogs may be morally offensive to some, many would react similarly to the practice of eating cows. 

At the heart of the animal rights movement are two basic principles: the rejection of speciesism, and the knowledge that animals are sentient beings.


Speciesism is the disparate treatment of individual beings, based solely on their species. It is frequently compared to racism or sexism.

What's Wrong With Speciesism?

Animal rights is based on the belief that treating a non-human animal differently just because the animal belongs to a different species is arbitrary and morally wrong. Of course, there are differences between human and non-human animals, but the animal rights community believes that those differences are not morally relevant. For example, many believe that humans have some cognitive abilities that are different from or higher than other animals, but, for the animal rights community, cognitive ability is not morally relevant. If it were, the smartest humans would have more moral and legal rights than other humans who were deemed intellectually inferior. Even if this difference were morally relevant, this trait does not apply to all humans. A person who is profoundly mentally retarded does not have the reasoning capabilities of an adult dog, so cognitive ability cannot be used to defend speciesism.

Aren't Humans Unique?

The traits that were once believed to be unique to humans have now been observed in non-human animals. Until other primates were observed making and using tools, it was believed that only humans could do so. It was also once believed that only humans could use language, but we now see that other species communicate verbally in their own languages and even use human-taught languages. In addition, we now know that animals have self-awareness, as demonstrated by the animal mirror test. However, even if these or other traits were unique to humans, they are not considered morally relevant by the animal rights community.

If we cannot use species to decide which beings or objects in our universe deserve our moral consideration, what trait can we use? For many animal rights activists, that trait is sentience.


Sentience is the ability to suffer. As philosopher Jeremy Bentham wrote, “the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?” Because a dog is capable of suffering, a dog is worthy of our moral consideration. A table, on the other hand, is incapable of suffering, and is therefore not worthy of our moral consideration. Although harming the table may be morally objectionable if it compromises the economic, esthetic or utilitarian value of the table to the person who owns or uses it, we have no moral duty to the table itself.

Why is Sentience Important?

Most people recognize that we should not engage in activities that cause pain and suffering to other people. Inherent in that recognition is the knowledge that other people are capable of pain and suffering. If an activity causes undue suffering to someone, the activity is morally unacceptable. If we accept that animals are capable of suffering, it is therefore morally unacceptable to cause them undue suffering. To treat animal suffering differently from human suffering would be speciesist.

What is “Undue” Suffering?

When is suffering justified? Many animal activists would argue that since humans are capable of living without animal-based foods, living without animal entertainment and living without cosmetics tested on animals, these forms of animal suffering have no moral justification. What about medical research? Non-animal medical research is available, although there is quite a bit of debate over the scientific value of animal research versus non-animal research. Some argue that results from animal experimentation are not applicable to humans, and we should conduct research on human cell and tissue cultures, as well as human subjects who provide voluntary and informed consent. Others argue that a cell or tissue culture cannot simulate a whole animal, and animals are the best available scientific models. All would probably agree that there are certain experiments that cannot be done on humans, regardless of informed consent. From a pure animal rights standpoint, animals should not be treated differently from humans. Since involuntary human experimentation is universally condemned regardless of its scientific value and animals are incapable of giving voluntary consent to an experiment, animal experimentation should also be condemned.

Maybe Animals Don't Suffer?

Some might argue that animals do not suffer. A 17th century philosopher, Rene Descartes, argued that animals operated like clocks—intricate machines that have instincts, but do not suffer or feel pain. Most people who have lived with a companion animal would probably disagree with Descartes’ assertion, having observed the animal first-hand and watched how the animal reacts to hunger, pain, and fear. Animal trainers are also aware that beating an animal will often produce the desired results, because the animal quickly learns what needs to be done in order to avoid suffering.

Isn't the Use of Animals Justified?

Some may believe that animals suffer, but argue that animal suffering is justified in certain instances. For example, they may argue that slaughtering a cow is justified because that slaughter serves a purpose and the cow will be eaten. However, unless that same argument applies equally to the slaughter and consumption of humans, the argument is based in speciesism.

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