Since as far back as we know humans have exploited animals, chiefly as labour or food, more recently for scientific experiments. For the most part this has been done without much qualm. People have believed that animals are not entitled the same moral concern as humans.
Attitudes are changing.
In many places kindness to pets is expected. Moreover many countries now allow criminal proceedings against those who are cruel to animals. There are also regulations for people whom interact with animals, those such as laboratory researchers, farmers, zookeepers, abattoir workers and circus personnel.
These changes have not come quickly or easily. Surprisingly, there is a long history of concern for animals.
Outside of the rich world, ideas of animal rights are not as developed or entrenched, but they are spreading.
Writing in the forth century BC, Theophrastus, a Greek philosopher, is the first to record his beliefs on the matter. He thought that animal’s emotional and mental traits were alike. Today, modern science and those that have pets, support his claim. Which dog lover doesn’t know of their ability to pick up on and feel emotions? Back then Theophrastus was very much a lone voice. He didn’t find much support for his arguments.
He also promoted vegetarianism, something that has only recently become acceptable. It’s hard to imagine that two millennia ago he dared to state such ideas. Even today they are still a minority view.
His beliefs were lost during the later Christian era, during which people followed the Bible’s guidance, using animals for the ease of mankind, exploiting them for food and work.
Bentham and Singer
Two thousand years later those ideas revived. Arguing in the early 19th century, English philosopher Jeremy Bentham thought that because animals can suffer we are morally bound to treat them with respect. He was again disputing the prevailing view.
Today, however, it is possible for activists such as Peter Singer, an Australian philosopher, to take Bentham’s thoughts a step further.
He claims animals have a capacity for feelings: For suffering and happiness. These correlate to similar feelings in humans, putting them on an equal plane.
The viewpoints of Bentham and Singer argue against using the human capabilities of speech, communication and rationality to place mankind on a higher plane than animals.
They stress that the ability to perceive, feel, and experience are the factors that set animals and humans as moral equals.
These views effect many aspects of human life. Everything from eating meat, to hunting, dairy production, cosmetic and medical research, whaling, poaching, hunting and even pet keeping. All are questionable if animals have the same moral status as humans.
Some argue that animals cannot choose moral correctness, and are unable to accept and abide by responsibilities. It is this that makes them mankind’s inferior.
They make a minimal demand that humans treat animals ‘humanely’. But only at their own convenience.
Their logic has flaws. We uphold the rights of infants or demented individuals, even though they lack the ability for duties or moral choices. We afford rights to these individuals because we view them in our own image.
Animal rights critics lack a logical argument for the view that only those able to bear commitment to duty are worthy of moral regard.
Further destroying their claim is the research on primate ethology. This indicates that there is a high level of commitment to obligation and duty by higher primates such as monkeys, baboons and apes.
The influence of these arguments initiated the animal rights movements that began as far back as 1824. Starting with the establishing of the SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) in Great Britain.
This trend of supporting animal rights continued through the turn of the century and in the 1960’s took on a different hue.
Here arguments stated ‘specieism’ was form of prejudice and unjustified privileging of one group (humans) over others (other animals). Just as sexism and racism were prejudice and unjustified of one group (males, whites) over others (females, blacks).
Specieism is a term derived by psychologist Richard Ryder that refers to the prejudice of humans over animals.
The impact of specieism is widespread. The United Nations is considering a Universal Declaration of Animals Rights, similar to the Universal declaration of Human Rights (1948).
An important initiative in changing attitudes is The Great Apes project. A project to embrace all the great apes, including chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans.
Organised by an international organization of primatologists, anthropologists and ethicists. Together they advocate for a specific declaration of the Rights of Great Apes that would confer basic legal rights for these species.
Once secured, it will be easier to educate human sensibilities about the moral claims of other sentient creatures.
Both declarations invoke the overwhelming evidence that animals can experience pain and pleasure, and emotional states of depression and anxiety (as for example when in captivity or when being herded in abattoirs). Both call for their protection from suffering.
They further argue that a difference in species, as with a difference of race, is no justification for differential treatment or regard. Difference does not justify exploitation or oppression, imprisonment, and subjection to experiment.
On the grounds of the ‘evolutionary and moral kinship’ of all animals they call for animals to be given rights, and for their rights to be protected.