Of course the amount of animal suffering incidental to our use of animals is horrendous, and we should not be using animals for “frivolous” purposes, such as entertainment, but how can you expect people to give up eating meat?

In many ways this is an appropriate question with which to conclude our discussion because the question itself reveals more about the history of the human/animal relationship than any theory, and it demonstrates our confusion about moral matters in general.

Many humans like to eat animal products. They enjoy eating them so much that they find it hard to be detached when they consider moral questions about animals. But moral analysis requires at the very least that we leave our obvious biases at the door. Animal agriculture is the most significant source of animal suffering in the world today, and there is absolutely no need for it. Indeed, animal agriculture has devastating environmental effects, and a growing number of health care professionals claim that meat and animal products are detrimental to human health. We could live without killing animals and could feed more of the world’s humans–the beings we always claim to care about when we seek to justify animal exploitation–if we abandoned animal agriculture altogether.

The desire to eat animal products has clouded some of the greatest minds in human history. Charles Darwin recognized that animals were not qualitatively different from humans and possessed many of the characteristics that were once thought to be uniquely human–but he continued to eat them. Jeremy Bentham argued that animals had morally significant interests because they could suffer, but he also continued to eat them.

Old habits die hard, but that does not mean they are morally justified. It is precisely in situations where both moral issues and strong personal preferences come into play that we should be most careful to think clearly. As the case of meat eating shows, however, sometimes our brute preferences determine our moral thinking, rather than the other way around. Many people have said to me, “Yes, I know it’s morally wrong to eat meat, but I just love hamburgers.”

Regrettably for those who like to eat animal products, this is no argument, and a taste for meat in no way justifies the violation of a moral principle. Our conduct merely demonstrates that despite what we say about the moral significance of animal interests, we are willing to ignore those interests whenever we benefit from doing so–even when the benefit is nothing more than our pleasure or convenience.

If we take morality seriously, then we must confront what it dictates: if it is wrong for Simon to torture dogs for pleasure, then it is morally wrong for us to eat animal products.

Doesn’t the animal rights position represent a “religious” view?

No, not necessarily, although the idea that we should not treat animals as things is certainly present in some primarily non-Western religious systems, such as Jainism, Buddhism, and Hinduism. The irony is that the notion of human superiority used to justify animal agriculture, vivisection, and other practices often does represent a religious position. For the most part, not only has the Judeo-Christian tradition endorsed the view of animals as things, it has been a primary support of the notion of human superiority to animals and of humans’ right to use animals as resources. We saw, for instance, that the modern Western notion of animals as property can be traced directly to a particular interpretation of the Old Testament, according to which God created animals as resources for human use. Arguments for qualitative distinction between humans and animals have often rested on nothing more than humans’ supposed God-given superiority, which in turn rests on humans’ good fortune in having been made “in God’s image.”

The animals rights position articulated on this website does not rely on any theological beliefs; it requires only a simple application of the principle of equal consideration. Humans exclusively possess no special characteristic, nor are they free of any defect that they attribute to animals.

Isn’t the matter of whether animals ought to be accorded the basic right not to be treated as our resources a matter of opinion? What right does anyone have to say that another should not eat meat or other animal products or how they should otherwise use or treat animals?

Animal rights are no more a matter of opinion than is any other moral matter. This question is logically and morally indistinguishable from asking whether the morality of human slavery is a matter of opinion. We have decided that slavery is morally reprehensible not as a matter of mere opinion, but because slavery treats humans exclusively as the resources of others and degrades humans to the status of things, thus depriving them of moral significance.

The notion that animal rights are a matter of opinion is directly related to the status of animals as human property; this question, like most others examined here, assumes the legitimacy of regarding animals as things that exist solely as means to human ends. Because we regard animals as our property, we believe that we have the right to value animals in the ways that we think appropriate. If, however, we are not morally justified in treating animals as our property, then whether we ought to eat meat or use animals in experiments or impose pain and suffering on them for sport or entertainment is no more a matter of opinion than is the moral status of human slavery.

Moreover, as long as animals are treated as property, then we will continue to think that what constitutes “humane” treatment for your animal property really is a matter of opinion because you get to decide how much your property is worth. Just as we have opinions about the value of other things that we own, we can have opinions about the value of our animal property. Although our valuation of our property may be too high or too low relative to its market value, this is not generally considered a moral question. So when Jane criticizes Simon because he beats his dog regularly in order to make sure that his dog is a vicious and effective guard dog, Simon is perfectly justified in responding to Jane that her valuation of his property is not a moral matter up for grabs, but a matter of his property rights.

On another level, this question relates to a subject discussed in the Introduction, the position that all morality is relative, a matter of convention or convenience or tradition, with no valid claim to objective truth. If this were the case, then the morality of genocide or human slavery or child molestation would be no more than matters of opinion. Although it is certainly true that moral propositions cannot be proved in the way that mathematical propositions can, this does not mean that “anything goes.” Some moral views are supported by better reasons than others, and some moral views have a better “fit” with other views that we hold. The view that we can treat animals as things simply because we are human and they are not is speciesism pure and simple. The view that we ought not to treat animals as things is consistent with our general notion that animals have morally significant interests. We do not treat any humans exclusively as the resources of others; we have abolished the institution of human property. We have seen that there is no morally sound reason to treat animals differently for purposes of the one right not to be treated as a thing, and that the animal rights position does not mean that we cannot prefer the human over the animal in situations of true emergency or conflict where we have not manufactured that conflict in the first place by violating the principle of equal consideration.

If animals have rights, doesn’t that mean we have to intervene to stop animals from killing other animals, or that we must otherwise act affirmatively to prevent harm from coming to animals from any source?

No. the basic right not to be treated as a thing means that we cannot treat animals exclusively as means to human ends–just as we cannot treat other humans exclusively as means to the ends of other humans. Even though we have laws that prevent people from owning other humans, or using them as unconsenting biomedical subjects, we generally do not require that humans prevent harm to other humans in all situations. No law requires that Jane prevent Simon from inflicting harm on John, as long as Jane and Simon are not conspirators in a crime against John or otherwise acting in concert, and as long as Jane has no relationship with John that would give rise to such an obligation.

Moreover, in the United States at least, the law generally imposes on humans no “duty to aid” even when other humans are involved. If I am walking down the street and see a person lying passed out, face down in a small puddle of water and drowning, the law imposes no obligation on me to assist that person even if all I need to do is roll her over, something I can do without risk or serious inconvenience to myself.

The point is that the basic right of humans not to be treated as things does not guarantee that humans will aid other humans, or that we are obligated to intervene to prevent harm from coming to humans from animals or from other humans. Similarly, the basic right of animals not to be treated as things means that we cannot treat animals as our resources. It does not necessarily mean that we have moral or legal obligations to render them aid or to intervene to prevent harm from coming to them.

If animals have rights, does that not mean that we would have to punish the killing of animals in the same way we do the killing of humans?

No, of course not. It is certainly true that if we as a society ever really accorded moral significance to animal interests and recognized our obligation to abolish and not merely regulate animal exploitation, we would very probably incorporate such a view in criminal laws that formally prohibit and punish the treatment of animals as resources. But that would not mean that we must punish the killing of an animal by a human in exactly the same way that we punish the killing of a human by another human. For example, our recognizing that animals have moral value does not require that we prosecute for manslaughter someone who, while driving recklessly, hits a raccoon. The prosecution of humans who kill other humans serves many purposes that are not relevant to animals. For example, criminal prosecutions allow the families of crime victims to experience some form of closure, and although there is ethological evidence that many nonhuman animals experience grief at the loss of family or pack members, a criminal trial would not be meaningful to them.

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.

If we adopt a vegan diet, animals will inevitably be harmed when we plant vegetables, and what is the difference between raising and killing animals for food and unintentionally killing them as part of a plant-based agriculture?

When we plant crops, we will inevitably displace and possibly kill sentient animals when we plant vegetables. Surely, however, there is a significant difference between raising and killing animals for food and unintentionally doing them harm in the course of planting vegetables, an activity that is itself intended to prevent the killing of sentient beings.

In order to understand this point, consider the following example. We build roads. We allow people to drive automobiles. We know as a statistical matter that when we build a road, some humans–we do not know who they are beforehand–will be harmed as the result of automobile accidents. Yet there is a fundamental moral difference between activity that has human harm as an inevitable but unintended consequence and the intentional killing of particular humans. Similarly, the fact that animals may be harmed as an unintended consequence of planting vegetables, even if we do not use toxic chemicals and even if we exercise great care to avoid harming animals, does not mean that it is morally acceptable to kill animals intentionally.

Moreover, because it takes so many pounds of plants to produce one pound of plant protein, we actually kill more animals in crop production when we are feeding those crops to animals rather than consuming the crops directly. So a vegan diet results in many fewer of those unintended and incidental deaths.

A related question is: why don’t plants have rights given that they are alive? This is the question that every vegetarian gets in the company of a nonvegan. These nonvegans may be otherwise rational and intelligent beings, but when confronted with a vegetarian, their discomfort with their diet often rises to the surface in the form of defensiveness.

No one really thinks that plants are the same as sentient nonhumans. If I ate your tomato and your dog, you would not regard those as similar acts. As far as we know, plants are not sentient. They are not conscious and able to experience pain. Plants do not have central nervous systems, endorphins, receptors for benzodiazepines, or any of the other indicia of sentience. Plants do not have interests; animals do.

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.

Hitler was a vegetarian; what does that say about vegetarians?

It says nothing more than that some evil people may also be vegetarians. The question itself is based on an invalid syllogism: Hitler was a vegetarian; Hitler was evil; therefore vegetarians are evil. Stalin ate meat and was himself no angel. He was responsible for the deaths of millions of innocent people. What does that say about meat eaters? Just as we cannot conclude that all meat eaters have anything in common with Stalin beyond meat eating, we cannot conclude that all vegetarians have anything in common with Hitler beyond vegetarianism. Furthermore, it is not certain that Hitler actually was a vegetarian. And in any event, the Nazi interest in reducing meat consumption was not a matter of the moral status of animals but reflected a concern with organic health and healing and avoidance of artificial ingredients in food and pharmaceutical products that was linked to the broader Nazi goals of “racial hygiene.”

Another version of this question is that since the Nazis also favored animal rights, does this mean that animal rights as a moral theory is bankrupt and attempts to devalue humans? Once again, the question is absurd. In the first place, the question is based on a factual error. The Nazis were not in favor of animal rights. Animal welfare laws in Germany restricted vivisection to some degree, but they hardly reflected any societal preference for abolishing the property status of animals. After all, the Nazis casually murdered millions of humans and animals in the course of the Second World War, behavior not compatible with a rights position, human or otherwise. It is no more accurate to say that the Nazis supported animal rights than it is to say that Americans support animal rights because we have a federal Animal Welfare Act.

But what if, contrary to fact, the Nazis did advocate the abolition of all animal exploitation? What would that say about the idea of animal rights? The answer is absolutely clear: it would say nothing about whether the animal rights position is right or wrong. That question can be settled only by whether the moral arguments in favor of animal rights are valid or not. The Nazis also strongly favored marriage. Does that mean marriage is an inherently immoral institution? The Nazis also believed that sports were essential to the development of strong character. Does this mean that competitive sports are inherently immoral? Jesus Christ preached a gospel of sharing resources on an equitable basis. Gandhi promoted a similar message, as did Stalin. But Stalin also devalued human beings. Can we conclude that the idea of more equitable resource distribution has some inherent moral flaw that taints Jesus or Gandhi? No, of course not. We no more devalue human life if we accord moral significance to animal interests than we devalue the lives of “normal” humans when we accord value to certain humans, such as the severely retarded, and prohibit their use in experiments.

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.