Don’t laws like the Endangered Species Act, which prohibits the killing of certain species of animals facing extinction, effectively change the property status of animals?

No. The Endangered Species Act and similar measures protect only certain species that are valued by humans for human purposes; such laws do not recognize that animals have value other than that which humans bestow. Some people have argued–erroneously, in my view–that these laws actually provide “rights” for animals. In reality, these laws are no different from those that protect a rainforest, a stream, a mountain, or any other nonsentient thing that humans, for whatever reason, decide to value for human purposes. Such measures imply no recognition that the protected species has value of the sort that we attribute to every human being as a minimal condition of membership in the moral community.

Under economic pressure, governments are now seeking to withdraw some species from endangered-species protection and to readmit them as hunters’ prey, so that the fees generated by hunting licenses and the trade in animal parts can help to pay for maintenance of the remaining animals. Moratoriums on killing particular species are almost always eliminated as soon as populations increase beyond bare extinction levels, thus inviting the “harvesting” of excess animals. We do not, however, treat any humans in the same way. We do not regard it appropriate to use homeless people as forced organ donors in order to subsidize the social welfare costs of other homeless people. We do not condone the “harvesting” of humans.

In any event, laws like the Endangered Species Act do not recognize that animals, because they are sentient, have moral value beyond what humans give them. Such laws regard animals as no different from any other resource that we wish to preserve for the benefit of future generations. We temporarily protect animals like elephants so that future generations of humans will have elephants to use, but elephants are, in the end, only economic commodities, and as long as there are enough elephants, we ultimately value ivory bracelets more than we value the interests of the elephant.

Finally, it should be understood that it is unlikely that any significant change in the status of animals as property will come about as the result of legislation or court cases until there is a significant social change in our attitude about animals. That is, it is not the law that will alter our moral thinking about animals; it must be the other way around. It was not the law that abolished slavery; indeed, the law protected slave ownership and the institution of slavery was not abolished by the law but by the Civil War. The present-day world economy is far more dependent on animal exploitation than were the southern United States on human slavery. Animal exploitation is not going to be ended by a pronouncement of the Supreme Court or an act of congress–at least not until a majority of us accept the position that the institution of animal property is morally unacceptable.

Is it likely that the pursuit of more “humane” animal treatment will eventually lead to the recognition that animals have the basic right not to be treated as things, and the consequent abolition of institutionalized animal use?

No, it is not likely. Anticruelty laws requiring the humane treatment of animals have been popular in the United States and Great Britain for well over a hundred years, and we are using more animals in more horrific ways than ever before. Sure, there have been some changes. In some places, like Britain, veal calves get more space and some social interaction before they are slaughtered; in some American states, the leghold trap is prohibited and animals used for fur products are caught in “padded” traps or raised in small wire cages before they are gassed or electrocuted. Under the federal Animal Welfare Act, primates are supposed to receive some psychological stimulation while we use them in horrendous experiments in which we infect them with diseases or try to ascertain how much radiation they can endure before they become dysfunctional. Some practices, such as animal fighting, have been outlawed, but, as I have argued, such prohibitions tell us more about class hierarchy and prejudice than they do about our moral concern for animals. All in all, the changes we have witnessed as the result of animal welfare laws are nothing more than window dressing.

This should not surprise us. Anticruelty laws assume that animals are the property of humans, and it is in this context that the supposed balance of human and animal interests occurs. But as we saw, we cannot really balance the interests of property owners against their property because property cannot have interests that are protectable against the property owner. The humane treatment principle, as applied through animal welfare laws, does nothing more than require that the owners of animal property accord that level of care, and no more, that is necessary to the particular purpose. If we are using animals in experiments, they should receive that level of care, and no more, that is required to produce valid data. If we are using purpose-bred animals to make fur coats, they should receive the level of care, and no more, that is required to produce coats that are soft and shiny. If we are raising animals for food, those animals should receive that level of care, and no more, that is required to produce meat that can be sold at a particular price level to meet a particular demand. If we are using dogs to guard our property, we should provide the level of care that is required to sustain the dog for that purpose. As long as we give the dog the minimal food and water and shelter–a dead dog will not serve the purpose–we can tie that dog on a three-foot leash and we can beat him, even excessively, for “disciplinary” purposes.

We claim to acknowledge that the interest of animals in not suffering is morally significant, but our animal practices belie that claim. If we are really to honor the moral interests of animals, then we must abolish institutionalized animal exploitation and not merely regulate animal use through animal welfare measures that assume the legitimacy of the status of animals as property.

Isn’t taking advantage of medications or procedures developed through the use of animals inconsistent with taking an animal rights position?

No, it is not. Those who support animal exploitation often argue that accepting the “benefits” of animal use is inconsistent with criticizing the use of animals.

This position, of course, makes no sense. Most of us are opposed to racial discrimination, and yet we live in a society in which white middle-class people enjoy the benefits of past racial discrimination; that is, the majority enjoys a standard of living that it would not have had there been a nondiscriminatory, equitable distribution of resources, including educational and job opportunities. Many of us support measures, such as affirmative action, that are intended to correct past discrimination. But those who oppose racial discrimination are not obligated to leave the United States or to commit suicide because we cannot avoid the fact that white people are beneficiaries of past discrimination against people of color.

Consider another example: assume that we find that the local water company employs child labor and we object to child labor. Are we obligated to die of dehydration because the water company has chosen to violate the rights of children? No, of course not. We would be obligated to support the abolition of this use of children, but we would not be obligated to die. Similarly, we should join together collectively and demand an end to animal exploitation, but we are not obligated to accept animal exploitation or forego any benefits that it may provide.

We certainly could develop drugs and surgical procedures without the use of animals, and many would prefer we do so. Those who object to animal use for these purposes, however, have no control as individuals over government regulations or corporate policies concerning animals. To say that they cannot consistently criticize the actions of government or industry while they derive benefits from these actions, over which they have no control, is absurd as a matter of logic. And as a matter of political ideology, it is a most disturbing endorsement of unquestioned obeisance to the policies of the corporate state. Indeed, the notion that we must either embrace animal exploitation or reject anything that involves animal use is eerily like the reactionary slogan “love it or leave it,” uttered by the pseudo-patriots who criticized opponents of American involvement in the Vietnam War.

Moreover, humans have so commodified animals that it is virtually impossible to avoid animal exploitation completely. Animal by-products are used in a wide variety of things, including the asphalt on roads and synthetic fabrics. But the impossibility of avoiding all contact with animal exploitation does not mean that we cannot avoid the most obvious and serious forms of exploitation. The individual who is not stranded in a lifeboat or on a mountaintop always has it within her power to avoid eating meat and dairy products, products that could not be produced without the use of animals, unlike drugs and medical procedures, which could be developed without animal testing.

How do I know a product is plant-only?

Reading the list of ingredients is not always enough to determine whether a product is plant-only:

  • Many food, cosmetic, and clothing ingredients use names that do not make it clear that they are animal-derived.
  • Many micro-ingredients can be made from either plant or animal sources. Glycerides, l-cysteine, lecithin and similar ingredients for example, can be source from animal products or plant sources.
  • Natural flavoring, spices, seasoning, dyes and other seemingly innocuous ingredients — even vitamins — may contain animal products or be derived from animal sources.
  • Many products use animal ingredients during their processing, even if the final product does not contain animal products. Cane sugar, for example, is bleached in many parts of the United States and other parts of the world using animal bone charcoal. Alcohol, such as red wine and beer, are often filtered with egg albumen or isinglass (derived from fish bladders).
  • “Synthetic”, “fake”, “natural”, “organic” and other modifiers do not guarantee that a product is free from animal use.

The following, however, are some of the more common ingredients almost always derived from animal sources.


Further, because a product is plant-only in one locale, it does not guarantee that it is plant-only in another. Checking the source of micro-ingredients with the local manufacturer of a product is the best way to determine the source.

Many cereals in the United States, for example, are fortified with animal-derived Vitamin D3. This is not the case in many other other countries, even when the brand of cereal is the same. A product might be sweetened with high fructose corn syrup in the United States, cane sugar in Canada, and beet sugar in Britain.

Even the same product in the same country may be problematic.  For example, the same product in the United States may be sweetened with animal bone charcoal bleached sugar one month, and cane sugar bleached using a different method another month, depending on how the company sources its sugar.

it is also often important to check with the local manufacturer rather than the parent company. Many commercial products are also produced under license internationally. A product may be manufactured and distributed by an entirely different company, one country to the next. Contacting a main or corporate office in a different country may provide you with the wrong information.

In short, if you don’t understand all of the ingredients in a product or are unsuare whether those ingredients involve animal use that’s practicable and possible for you to avoid, that’s a good reason to check with the manufacturer or avoid using it.

Is it necessary to eat animal products to be healthy?

Many health organizations worldwide, including the American Dietetic Association, have affirmed that a well-planned vegan diet can be healthy. In a 2009 position paper, the American Dietetic Association indicated that:

“It is the position of the American Dietetic Association that appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes.”  (1)

Any unbalanced, unhealthy diet may lead to health problems.  Planning and balance are important, even for vegans. It’s possible to be vegan and unhealthy, but the fact remains: you can be healthy on a well-planned vegan diet.

For further confirmation and information:

1. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, July 2009. 109(7): 1266- 1282.

Do nonsentient humans, such as those who are irreversibly brain dead, have a right not to be treated as things?

If a human is really nonsentient–not conscious or aware of anything at all and will not regain consciousness or awareness of anything–then, by definition, the human cannot have an interest in not suffering (or in anything else). In such a situation, a compelling argument could be made that it is morally acceptable to use the organs of such a human to save others–and it is common practice to do so if the human has previously agreed to donate her organs or if the family consents.

We should, of course, be concerned about whether an ostensibly brain-dead human really does lack all cognitive activity. We ought also to be sensitive to the concerns of those related to the comatose human; they may oppose the instrumental use of the human for various reasons, such as religious opposition to organ transplantation. But humans who are really irreversibly brain dead are really no different from plants; they are alive but they are not conscious and have no interests to protect. According such humans a basic right not to be treated as the resources of others makes no sense.

Where do you draw the line on who can have rights? Do insects have rights?

I draw the line at sentience because, as I have argued, sentient beings have interests and the possession of interests is the necessary and sufficient condition for membership in the moral community. Are insects sentient? Are they conscious beings with minds that experience pain and pleasure? I do not know. But the fact that I do not know exactly where to draw the line, or perhaps find drawing the line difficult, does not relieve me of the obligation to draw the line somewhere or allow me to use animals as I please. Although I may not know whether insects are sentient, I do know that cows, pigs, chickens, chimpanzees, horses, deer, dogs, cats, and mice are sentient. Indeed, it is now widely accepted that fish are sentient. So the fact that I do not know on what side of the line to place insects does not relieve me of my moral obligation to the animals whom I do know are sentient.

As a general matter, this question is intended to demonstrate that if we do not know where to draw the line in a matter of morality, or if line drawing is difficult, then we ought not to draw the line anywhere. This form of reasoning is invalid. Consider the following example. There is a great deal of disagreement about the scope and extent of human rights. Some people argue that health care and education are fundamental rights that a civilized government should provide to everyone; some people argue that health care and education are commodities like any other, not the subject of rights, and that people ought to pay for them. But we would, I suspect, all agree that whatever our disagreements about human rights–however unsure we are of where to draw the line–we most certainly agree, for instance, that genocide is morally wrong. We do not say that it is morally acceptable to kill off entire populations because we may disagree over whether humans are entitled to health care. Similarly, our uncertainty or disagreement regarding the sentience of ants is no license to ignore the interests of chimpanzees, cows, pigs, chickens, and other animals whom we do know are sentient.

By equating speciesism with racism and sexism, don’t you equate animals, people of color, and women?

No. Racism, sexism, speciesism, and other forms of discrimination are all analogous in that all share the faulty notion that some morally irrelevant characteristic (race, sex, species) may be used to exclude beings with interests from the moral community or to undervalue interests in explicit violation of the principle of equal consideration. For example, speciesism and human slavery are similar in that in all cases animals and enslaved humans have a basic interest in not being treated as things and yet are treated as things on the basis of morally irrelevant criteria. To deny animals this basic right simply because they are animals is like saying that we should not abolish race-based slavery because of the perceived inferiority of the slaves’ race. The argument used to support slavery and the argument used to support animal exploitation are structurally similar: we exclude beings with interests from the moral community because there is some supposed difference between “them” and “us” that has nothing to do with the inclusion of these beings in the moral community. The animals rights position maintains that if we believe that animals have moral significance, the principle of equal consideration requires that we stop treating them as things.

A related question that often arises in this context is whether speciesism is “as bad” as racism or sexism or other forms of discrimination. As a general matter, it is not useful to rank evils. Was it “worse” that Hitler killed Jews than that he killed Catholics or Romanies? Is slavery “worse” than genocide? Is non-race-based slavery “worse” than race-based slavery? Is sexism “worse” than slavery and genocide, or is it “worse” than slavery but not worse than genocide? Frankly, I am not even sure what these questions mean, but I suspect that persons considering them assume implicitly that one group is “better” than another. In any event, these forms of discrimination are all terrible, and they are terrible in different ways. But they all share one thing in common: they all treat humans as things without protectable interests. In this sense, all of these forms of discrimination–as different as they are–are similar to speciesism, which results in our treating animals as things.

Finally, there are some who argue that in saying that some animals have greater cognitive ability than some humans, such as the severely retarded or the extremely senile, we are equating those humans with animals and characterizing them in a disrespectful way. Again, this misses the point of the argument for animal rights. For centuries, we have justified our treatment of animals as resources because they supposedly lack some characteristic that we have. But some animals have such a “special” characteristic to a greater degree than do some of us and some humans do not have that characteristic at all. The point is that although a particular characteristic may be useful for some purposes, the only characteristic that is required for moral significance is sentience. We do not and should not treat those humans who are impaired as resources for other humans. And if we really believe that animals have morally significant interests, then we ought to apply the principle of equal consideration and not treat them as resources as well. The argument for animal rights does not decrease respect for human life; it increases respect for all life.

If we did not exploit animals, we would not have society as we now know it. Does this fact not prove that animal use by humans is morally justified?

No. In the first place, the question assumes that we would not have devised alternatives to animal use if that were necessary either because nonhuman animals were not available or because we made a moral decision not to exploit them as resources. Second, even if animal use were necessary for society as we presently know it, the same argument could be made with respect to any human activity. For example, without wars, patriarchy, and other forms of violence and exploitation, we would not have society as we now know it. The fact that a given activity was a necessary means to what some of us regard as a desirable end does not prove that the means were morally justified. Present-day Americans would not enjoy the level of prosperity that they now enjoy were it not for human slavery; that does not mean that slavery was a morally acceptable practice. Third, there is at least an argument that our present-day society, with its violence, pollution, inequitable distribution of resources, and various forms of injustice is less desirable an end than some think, and that we ought not be so eager to endorse the means that got us where we are today.

If you are in favor of abolishing the use of animals as human resources, don’t you care more about animals than you do about those humans with illnesses who might possibly be cured through animal research?

No, of course not. This question is logically and morally indistinguishable from that which asks whether those who advocated the abolition of human slavery cared less about the well-being of southerners who faced economic ruin if slavery were abolished than they did about the slaves.

The issue is not whom we care about or value most; the question is whether it is morally justifiable to treat sentient beings–human or non-human–as commodities or exclusively as means to the ends of others. For example, we generally do not think that we should use any humans as unconsenting subjects in biomedical experiments, even though we would get much better data about human illness if we used humans rather than animals in experiments. After all, the application to the human context of data from animal experiments–assuming that the animal data are relevant at all–requires often difficult and always imprecise extrapolation. We could avoid these difficulties by using humans, which would eliminate the need for extrapolation. But we do not do so because even though we may disagree about many moral issues, most of us are in agreement that the use of humans as unwilling experimental subjects is ruled out as an option from the beginning. No one suggests that we care more about those we are unwilling to use as experimental subjects than we do about the others who would benefit from that use.