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An Ethical Analysis of Animal Rights Term Paper

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Updated: Sep 25th, 2019


This paper reviews the issue of animal rights from an ethical perspective. It begins by noting that this issue has gained prominence with advocates asking for animals to be given greater rights. The paper explains the human exceptionalism perspective, which gives humans a higher moral status due to their sophisticated cognitive abilities.

The paper uses a number of ethical theories including utilitarianism, Kantian theory, and virtue ethics to demonstrate that animal rights can be denied on ethical grounds. It then highlights some of the arguments given by animal rights advocates and shows their shortcomings.

The paper concludes by reasserting that animals cannot be given equal rights to human beings as long as human beings are expected to live a rich and fulfilling life.


The relationship between humans and animals has historically been characterized by humankind adopting a superior position and exploiting animals for his own good. This historical view of animals as creatures with no rights of moral status has been challenged aggressively in the recent past. A number of arguments concerning the status of animals have emerged over the decades.

These arguments revolve around the issue of whether animals should or should not be given rights in the same way that humans have rights. The contemporary animal rights movement has gained significant support over the past two decades. Members of these movements advocate for animals to be granted rights, which would limit the manner in which they are used.

On the other hand, animal rights opponents assert that human beings are the only creatures who deserve rights due to their higher moral status. This paper will set out perform a critique of the animal rights arguments with the human exceptionalism perspective in mind. It will then make use of a number of ethical theories including utilitarianism and Kantian theory to demonstrate that animals do not deserve similar rights to humans.

An Ethical Analysis of Animal Rights

The issue of animal rights has slowly emerged as a controversial topic in need of ethical consideration. Using a number of ethical theories, this issue can be analyzed in order to determine if animals deserve rights as the proponents of animal rights assert. A major perspective used to deny animal rights is human exceptionalism.

According to the human exceptionalism perspective, human beings differ psychologically from other animals and because of these differences; human beings have a special status. Human beings have more sophisticated cognitive abilities giving them a higher moral status than that of the other animals.

Beauchamp and Frey (2011) acknowledge that while animals have a capacity to think, the reasoning capacity of humans is superior to that of animals. In addition to this, human beings have a moral status that is fundamentally different to that of other animals.

Human exceptionalism declares that human beings stand uniquely at the top of moral worth. Phelps (2013) admits that the fight for animal rights will be hard to win since priority is given to the needs of human beings.

A number of ethical theories support the supremacy of human beings as underscored by human exceptionalism perspective. Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative theory can be used to address the issue of animal rights. According to this theory, for a creature to be afforded rights, it has to be able to act as a moral agent.

Acting as a moral agent means carrying out the right action in spite of the impulses of the person/creature at the moment (Scott, 2010). According to Kant’s theory, the ethical action is the one that follows the rules at all times regardless of the consequences of the action. This action is guided by pre-defined rules and regulations. From a Kantian perspective, a creature is afforded a moral status if it can follow rules at all times.

Animals lack the ability to follow rules since they are driven by desires and often act on impulse. Unlike human beings, who can suppress their desires and choose the right action, animals are compelled by their desires. Due to this lack of ability to act as moral agents, animals cannot be granted autonomy since they do not have a moral status.

Utilitarianism looks at the sum satisfaction of all beings instead of looking at the interests of a single being. For the utilitarian, the ethical action is the one that causes maximum benefit for the highest number of people (Dogan, 2011). From the utilitarian perspective, killing animals is right since it benefits many people. The animal provides food products or clothing items that are vital for human enjoyment and survival.

Animal rights activists are having a hard time convincing people to stop eating animals (Freeman, 2010). Aaltola (2011) admits that the animal industry is a substantial source of financial gain for the community. This financial gain benefits millions of people ranging from the farmers who take care of the animals to the businesspeople who trade in animal products.

From the utilitarian perspective, human beings have a right to thrive and prosper. This cannot happen without treating animals as lesser creatures since human thriving depends on utilization of animals. Wesley (2013) forcefully asserts that “animal rights are a serious threat to human well-being” (p.6). For example, killing animals for food or clothing remains inextricably bound with human thriving.

Without animals to provide meat and other products, human beings would not enjoy the balanced diet necessary for their growth and development. Animals play a significant part in medical and scientific development.

They are used for testing to provide a better understanding of illnesses and their corresponding treatments before the drugs can be administered to humans. Researchers insist that using animals in medical testing is necessary for medical advancement to be made (Marna, 2009).

Virtue ethics theory also supports the denial of some rights to animals. According to this theory, the ethical action is one that is done with good motives or without vicious motives. The character of the agent who carries out the action is analyzed to assess the ethical nature of the action taken.

Rainer and Tibor (2012) document that it is the obligation of human beings or their agents of their governments to prevent the violation of the rights of those living under their jurisdiction. The virtuous action might therefore require the extermination of animals that pose a threat to human existence.

The ethical action is the one that results in the positive actions for the parties involved. A denial of animal rights and liberty often leads to better outcomes for the animals. Cochrane (2009) argues that freedom is only intrinsically good for animals that are able to choose and reflect upon a particular kind of life.

Upon this reflection, this group of animals can then choose on a particular kind of life or change their plans based on their reflections. For most human rights activists, practices such as keeping animals in zoos or using them in circuses is analogous to human slavery and should therefore be abolished (Cochrane, 2009). However, research indicates that animals have higher chances of survival under captivity.

Rudy (2013) confirms that freedom is an elusive concept for animals and for humans since many animals appear to fare better in captivity than they would in the wild. This fact seems to negate the position that it would be ethical to let animals enjoy their freedom and autonomy since such action would be detrimental to the welfare of the animal.

In spite of viewing humans as superior to animals, human exceptionalism does not allow for animals to be treated cruelly for no apparent reason. Governments and animal welfare organizations insist that domesticated animals should be treated well by farmers (Phillips, et al., 2010).

To address the challenges that arise from experimenting with animals, there are Animal Welfare laws in place (Rollin, 2012). These laws ensure that animals are not forced to endure unjustifiable gruesome horrors.

Animal Rights Advocacy

The notion of animal rights stems from the belief that animals have valid claims to existence, which might be translated into actual rights. Dogan (2011) asserts that animals have “a right to life, to liberty, to subsistence, to relief from suffering, and to security against attacks on their physical existence” (p.473).

Animal rights advocates state that the interests of animals are of vital importance to them and they should not be limited by human beings. Herzog, Dinoff and Page (1997) observe that the animal rights perspective involves a fundamental shift in world-view. Human beings are brought up knowing that they have a higher moral status and intelligence than animals.

Animal activism requires the person to concede that animals have rights and a moral status similar to that of humans. Boddice (2011) observes that the notions of rights, suffering, personhood, and citizenship are particular to human beings and might not be transferable to animals.

A strong case of animal rights is made by the philosopher Professor Tom Regan. He argues that animals have rights based on the moral obligation of human beings not to inflict unnecessary suffering and death upon animals. Traditionally, there is a strong co-relation between the capacity for higher order thoughts and the possession of rights.

Animal rights advocates declare that rights should not be dependent on the mental or cognitive capacities of creatures. Instead, each creature has inherent rights that should be respected by others. In spite of the insistence on a uniform view of all creatures, Herzog et al. (1997) reveal that animal rights activists demonstrate more concern for particular animals.

This concern is sometimes guided by the mental capacities and perceived intelligences of different species. Animals that are perceived to have higher intelligence are given a higher moral status than those that have lower mental capacities.

Kelly (2008) elaborates on the line-drawing by animal rights activists by noting that most of them argue that great apes deserve more rights than other animals because their interests are more similar to those of human beings.

Animal rights proponents assert that the denial of animal rights has an adverse impact on human morality. While the rights of animals are disputed, there is general agreement that all human beings have certain rights.

Human beings are required to act in a manner that does not violate the rights of others and any behavior that might encourage the violation of human rights is undesirable. Denial of human rights might lead to inhuman treatment of animals. One of the extreme expressions of this inhumanity is animal cruelty.

This behavior not only affects that animal, which is the victim of the abuse, but also the person perpetrating the act. The effect of animal cruelty on individual morality is well established.

Flynn (2001) documents that animal abuse is likely to lead to a distortion or inhibition of empathy and even make it easier for the person to disregard the lives of fellow human beings. Animal cruelty is therefore likely to lead to cruelty to human beings since it leads to a blunting of the conscience.

Another argument made for animal rights is that animals, just like humans, have experiences and are subjects of lives. As such, they should be accorded respect treated like human beings in terms of being given rights. The reason for this is that animals share similarities with human beings and while differences do exist, we should focus on the similarities.

Kelly (2008) elaborates that from this view, animals are regarded as having individuality, autonomy and even sovereignty. While this might be the case, animals differ significantly from human beings. Their experiences cannot be deemed similar to those of humans.

In addition to this, animal rights advocates assert that animals should be entitled to certain rights since they are sentient, meaning that they have the capacity to experience pleasure and pain. The presence of sentience is used as the grounds for granting rights since ethical theories assert the undeniable badness of the phenomenology of pain (Hadley, 2013).

However, this argument fails to consider the fact that animals do inflict pain on each other. This is especially the case when predators attack and kill their prey (Morrison, 2009). Rainer and Tibor (2012) states that protecting the rights of animals presents a dilemma since it might mean getting rid of the animals that prey upon others. However, this would violate the rights of the predator to live freely and obtain food.


In spite of the varying viewing concerning the existence or lack of animal rights, opponents and proponents both agree that animals have value. However, this value is not equal due to the significant differences between humans and animals. Animal rights activists present human exceptionalism as a negative thing that should be done away with.

They assert that human beings should be treat animals as equal and avoid violence towards them. Morrison (2009) reveals that the animal rights activists never argue against nonhuman animal predators. The predatorial behavior of animals against other animals is tolerated even though it inflicts harm to the prey.

In addition to this, the advocacy for vegetarianism by animal rights advocates is detrimental to animals. Hudson (2011) demonstrates that vegetarianism is harmful to animals since it leads to displacement of animals from agricultural lands.


This paper set out to research the animal rights issue from an ethical perspective. It has shown that it is not practical to accept animals to the community of equals regardless of the huge differences in cognitive skills between them and human beings.

By using the human exceptional perspective, the paper has shown that various ethical values support the denial of animal rights. The paper has shown how giving animals’ equal rights to humans would substantially diminish the welfare and prosperity enjoyed by humanity.

While calling for better treatment and care for animals is a human and noble endeavor, the idea of granting animals rights as if they were people is detrimental to human existence. Such a move would subvert human rights since it would undermine the ability of human beings to utilized animals for human well-being and prosperity.


Aaltola, E. (2011). The Philosophy behind the Movement: Animal Studies versus Animal Rights. Society & Animals, 19 (1), 393-406

Beauchamp, T.L., & Frey, R.G. (2011). The Oxford Handbook of Animal Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Boddice, R. (2011). Anthropocentrism: Humans, Animals, Environments. NJ: Brill.

Cochrane, (2009). Do Animals Have an Interest in Liberty? Political Studies, 57(3), 660-679.

Dogan, A. (2011). A Defense of Animal Rights. J Agric Environ Ethics, 24(1), 473–491.

Flynn, C.P. (2001). Acknowledging the Zoological Connection: A Sociological Analysis of Animal Cruelty. Society & Animals, 9(1), 71-87.

Freeman, C. (2010). Framing Animal Rights in the ‘Go Veg’ Campaigns of U.S. Animal Rights Organizations. Society & Animals, 18(2), 163-182.

Hadley, J. (2013). Liberty and Valuing Sentient Life. Ethics & the Environment, 18(1), 87-103.

Herzog, H., Dinoff, B., & Page, J. (1997). Animal Rights Talk: Moral Debate over the Internet. Qualitative Sociology, 20(3), 399-418.

Hudson, L. (2011). A Species of Thought: Bare Life and Animal Being. Antipode, 43(5), 1659-1678.

Kelly, O. (2008). What Is Wrong with (Animal) Rights? Journal of Speculative Philosophy, 22(3), 214-224.

Marna, O. (2009). Animal Rights: Noble Cause or Needless Effort? NY: Twenty-First Century Books, 2009.

Morrison, A.R. (2009). An Odyssey with Animals: A Veterinarian’s Reflections on the Animal Rights & Welfare Debate. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Phelps, N. (2013). Changing the Game: Why the Battle for Animal Liberation Is So Hard and How We Can Win It. NY: Lantern Books.

Phillips, J.C. et al. (2010). Activism and Trust: Animal Rights vs. Animal Welfare in the Food Supply Chain. Journal of Food Distribution Research, 41(1), 91-95.

Rainer, R., & Tibor, M. (2012). Innocent Threats and the Moral Problem of Carnivorous Animals. Journal of Applied Philosophy, 29 (2), 146-159.

Rollin, B. (2012). The Moral Status of Invasive Animal Research. Hastings Center Report, 42 (1), 4-6.

Rudy, K. (2013). Ethics and Animals: An Introduction. Ethics & the Environment, 18(1), 125-135.

Scott, D.W. (2010). Animals and Ethics. Retrieved from:

Wesley, J.S. (2013). A Rat Is a Pig Is a Dog Is a Boy: The Human Cost of the Animal Rights Movement. NY: Encounter Books.

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