Philosophy and the Case for Animals

AuthorAngus Taylor
 
Philosophy and the Case for Animals
Angus Taylor
The day may come, when the rest of the animal creation may acquire
those rights which never could have been withholden from them but by
the hand of tyranny.
—Jeremy Bentham
What is the case for implementing strong legal protections for (non-human)
animals? At root, this question is a philosophical one. Legal protections for
human beings are grounded in our conviction that they have signif‌icant
moral status; that every individual has a fundamental worth, or dignity,
that must be respected. This conviction is the basis for the Canadian
Charter of Rights and Freedoms and for the United Nations’ Universal Dec-
laration of Human Rights. Whether at least some animals have the sort
of non-instrumental value that ought to aord them protection from ex-
ploitation has been the subject of vigorous debate among philosophers for
the past four decades, with a considerable and growing body of philosoph-
ical literature. In what follows, I highlight some features of this debate
that may be relevant to issues of animals and the law.
An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, d ed (London: Picker-
ing, ).
Part I of the Constitution Act, , being Schedule B to the Canada Act  (UK),
, c .
GA res A (III), UN Doc A at  ().
Angus Taylor, Animals and Ethics: An Overview of the Philosophical Debate, d ed
(Peterborough: Broadview Press, ).
12  
As Rod Preece has shown in detail, concern for animals has a long
history in Western thought. Mention of justice for animals can be found
in writings as early as the seventeenth century in Britain. Later, the
utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham (–), noting the growing
awareness that skin colour could not justify discrimination among hu-
mans, looked forward to the day when society would similarly see beyond
irrelevant physical features where animals were concerned and grant
them legal rights against being abused. In , Lewis Gompertz not
only helped found the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals,
but also published Moral Inquiries on the Situation of Man and of Brutes.
Gompertz maintained that every creature, human or not, has the right
to the use of its own body and that our duty to promote happiness is not
limited to humans. In , Edward Nicholson argued that, at least in the
abstract, animals have the same rights to life and liberty that humans do.
The nineteenth century campaign in Britain against animal experimenta-
tion was notable for the prominent role played by women — among them
feminist Frances Cobbe, co-founder in  of what became the National
Anti-Vivisection Society.
Henry Salt’s  work, Animals’ Rights Considered in Relation to Social
Progress, had an impact on Mohandas Gandhi, cementing his commitment
to vegetarianism, and then later, on Peter Singer, the Australian utilitar-
ian philosopher and author of the highly inf‌luential Animal Liberation.
Salt was less concerned with whether ethics should employ the language
of rights than with ethical consistency. If we ascribe certain moral rights
to humans on the basis of particular qualities (such as the ability to suer
or the capacity for self-awareness), then we cannot deny those rights to
non-humans who possess the same qualities. In adopting this approach,
Salt was making the point that logical consistency demands that similar
cases be treated similarly, and hence that so many of the ways we treat
Rod Preece, Brute Souls, Happy Beasts, and Evolution: The Historical Status of Ani-
mals (Vancouver: UBC Press, ).
Lewis Gompertz, Moral Inquiries on the Situation of Man and of Brutes (Lewiston:
Edwin Mellen Press, ).
Edward Byron Nicholson, The Rights of an Animal: A New Essay in Ethics (London:
C Kegan Paul, ).
Henry S Salt, Animals’ Rights Considered in Relation to Social Progress (London:
Centaur Press, ).
Peter Singer, Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals (New
York: New York Review, ).

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