Whereas human rights may seem like a fairly self-evident concept to the contemporary world, it is important to underscore that such an ethical framework itself took time to develop. Namely, after the catastrophic horrors of the Second World War, the international community became convinced of the necessity to formalize human rights in a more robust legal manner. One of the key steps in this development was, as Messernotes, the United Nations’ “promoting and codifying human rights for 45 years through the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and associated resolutions, covenants, fact-finding commissions, and monitoring and reporting mechanisms.” (222) As the doctrine of human rights has taken hold at the international level, questions however have arisen as to whether the notion of rights should be expanded, most specifically to include non-human animals. To the extent that human rights itself took years to formalize, it can be suggested that the extension of this concept itself is also something to be fought for: if animals are also sentient beings, subject to pain, should not any civilized society also include means of protecting them? In other words, a developing human consciousness, one that is truly civilized, would seem to indicate a consciousness of the rights of non-human animals: this would be the mark of an enlightened society that radically respects the concept of life.
The defense of this thesis, framed in this manner, is therefore based upon an extension of our already existing definitions of human rights and what constitutes these human rights. Hence, human rights is founded on the notion that “reasonable demands for personal security and basic well-being that all individuals can make on the rest of humanity by virtue of their being members of the species Homo sapiens.” (Messer, 222) Many aspects of this definition are striking and important in regards to the debate about whether non-human animals should also have their rights recognized. Firstly, this definition notes that human rights basically entails “reasonable demands for personal security and basic well-being.” This in itself is not an exceptionally “unreasonable” claim: Human rights, defined in this manner, is basically addressing the need for individual beings to have a very minimal amount of protection and security. The very modesty of this definition itself points somewhat implicitly to the gross violations of human well-being that occurred in the Second World War. The recognition of the importance of human rights is thus the recognition that political and governing authorities should include within their authority a concern for human beings. This is not overtly demanding, but forms a foundational stone in a growing concern over the relation between human and various organizations. The argument in favor of animal rights therefore takes this intuitive basis at its starting point: animals should also have a personal security and basic well-being. This is not asking for animals to have the same status as human beings: it is merely the granting of a respect for the fact that they exist.
Furthermore, it is the recognition that cruelty against any form of life is an act of barbarism. A second interesting point in the above definition in this regard is the definition of human rights in terms of “species.” The definition therefore already has a built-in premise which allows for its expansion: it could be enlarged so as to include all animal species. In so far as the demands of human rights only entail security and well-being there seems to be no radical objection to why these same basic principles could not be applied to animals. Does it not show a commitment to the value of life in its entirety to include non-human animal species within such a modest definition of rights? As Jonathan Benthall (2007) writes, the defense of animal rights in this regard is the product of a “tendency among some philosophers and human biologist to emphasize what human beings have in common with animals, rather than what separates us.” This is an important point in at least the following sense: human rights are meant to be inclusive. They are not intended to draw boundaries, but the exact opposite: to forge a common ethical foundation. Accordingly, following this principle, the exclusion of non-human animals from a type of rights, violates this very methodology: it aims to exclude certain life-forms from being conferred rights. Accordingly, this position violates the very spirit of how human rights have been “codified”, that is to say, through inclusion as opposed to exclusion.
Certainly, those opposed to non-human animal rights will argue that the difference is simply too radical between human beings and animals so that they should be both conferred rights. Some may even argue that this is an attack on the dignity of human life, to the extent that it is equated with animal rights: why should human beings be posited on the same ethical level as animals? For example, Tom Regan proposes an exclusionary definition, whereby “animals should be accorded rights only if they have enough mental capacity to be ‘subjects of a life’, which he defines as mammals aged over one year.” (Benthall, 1988, 1) But this overlooks the very minimal definition of human rights as cited above. When talking about human rights in the context of the codified definitions, we are not talking about some abstract concepts such as the pursuit of happiness, but rather a very intuitive and common sense notion of security and well-being. It seems radically unethical to exclude other forms of life from such a minimal definition of rights.
Certainly, the struggle for a codification of human rights took centuries to complete. This codification also does not mean that human rights are now universal: atrocities are clearly present on a daily basis. But this movement represents a consciousness that one human rights is something worth protecting: it is one of the most fundamental ethical imperatives to include all human beings within this definition. The argument in favor of animal rights follows naturally from this progress: if we finally begin to understand the value of human rights, is this not a stepping-stone in our understanding of the value of life itself? Especially when considering the very modest definitions of what human rights entails, security and well-being, the height of inhumanity would be excluding non-human animals from such ethical categories.
Benthall, Jonathan. “Animal Liberation and Rights.” Anthropology Today. Vol. 23, No. 2, April 2007. pp. 1-3.
Benthall, Jonathan. “Human Rights and Animal Rights.” Anthropology Today. Vol. 4, No. 5, October 1988. pp. 1-2.
Messer, Ellen. “Anthropology and Human Rights.” Annual Review of Anthropology. Vol. 22, 1993. pp. 221-249.