Almost all of us grew up eating meat, wearing leather and going to circuses and zoos. Many of us bought our beloved “pets” at pet shops and kept beautiful birds in cages. We wore wool and silk, ate McDonald’s burgers, and fished. We never considered the impact of these actions on the animals involved. For whatever reason, you are now asking the question: Why should animals have rights?
In his book Animal Liberation, Peter Singer states that the basic principle of equality does not require equal or identical treatment; it requires equal consideration. This is an important distinction when talking about animal rights. People often ask if animals should have rights, and quite simply, the answer is “Yes!” Animals surely deserve to live their lives free from suffering and exploitation. Jeremy Bentham, the founder of the reforming utilitarian school of moral philosophy, stated that when deciding on a being’s rights, “The question is not ‘Can they reason?’ nor ‘Can they talk?’ but ‘Can they suffer?’” In that passage, Bentham points to the capacity for suffering as the vital characteristic that gives a being the right to equal consideration. The capacity for suffering is not just another characteristic like the capacity for language or higher mathematics. All animals have the ability to suffer in the same way and to the same degree that humans do. They feel pain, pleasure, fear, frustration, loneliness, and motherly love. Whenever we consider doing something that would interfere with their needs, we are morally obligated to take them into account.
Supporters of animal rights believe that animals have an inherent worth—a value completely separate from their usefulness to humans. We believe that every creature with a will to live has a right to live free from pain and suffering. Animal rights is not just a philosophy—it is a social movement that challenges society’s traditional view that all nonhuman animals exist solely for human use. As PETA founder Ingrid Newkirk has said, “When it comes to pain, love, joy, loneliness, and fear, a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy. Each one values his or her life and fights the knife.” Watch a video with Ingrid Newkirk from the 2015 Animal Rights National Conference here.
Only prejudice allows us to deny others the rights that we expect to have for ourselves. Whether it’s based on race, gender, sexual orientation, or species, prejudice is morally unacceptable. If you wouldn’t eat a dog, why eat a pig? Dogs and pigs have the same capacity to feel pain, but it is prejudice based on species that allows us to think of one animal as a companion and the other as dinner.
Animal rights, moral or legal entitlements attributed to nonhuman animals, usually because of the complexity of their cognitive, emotional, and social lives or their capacity to experience physical or emotional pain or pleasure. Historically, different views of the scope of animal rights have reflected philosophical and legal developments, scientific conceptions of animal and human nature, and religious and ethical conceptions of the proper relationship between animals and human beings.
The proper treatment of animals is a very old question in the West. Ancient Greek and Roman philosophers debated the place of animals in human morality. The Pythagoreans (6th–4th century BCE) and the Neoplatonists (3rd–6th century CE) urged respect for animals’ interests, primarily because they believed in the transmigration of souls between human and animal bodies. In his biological writings, Aristotle (384–322 BCE) repeatedly suggested that animals lived for their own sake, but his claim in the Politics that nature made all animals for the sake of humans was unfortunately destined to become his most influential statement on the subject.
Aristotle, and later the Stoics, believed the world was populated by an infinity of beings arranged hierarchically according to their complexity and perfection, from the barely living to the merely sentient, the rational, and the wholly spiritual. In this Great Chain of Being, as it came to be known, all forms of life were represented as existing for the sake of those forms higher in the chain. Among corporeal beings, humans, by dint of their rationality, occupied the highest position. The Great Chain of Being became one of the most persistent and powerful, if utterly erroneous, ways of conceiving the universe, dominating scientific, philosophical, and religious thinking until the middle of the 19th century.
The Stoics, insisting on the irrationality of all nonhuman animals, regarded them as slaves and accordingly treated them as contemptible and beneath notice. Aggressively advocated by St. Augustine (354–430), these Stoic ideas became embedded in Christian theology. They were absorbed wholesale into Roman law—as reflected in the treatises and codifications of Gaius (fl. 130–180) and Justinian (483–565)—taken up by the legal glossators of Europe in the 11th century, and eventually pressed into English (and, much later, American) common law. Meanwhile, arguments that urged respect for the interests of animals nearly disappeared, and animal welfare remained a relative backwater of philosophical inquiry and legal regulation until the final decades of the 20th century.
Animals and the law
In the 3rd or 4th century CE, the Roman jurist Hermogenianus wrote, “Hominum causa omne jus constitum” (“All law was established for men’s sake”). Repeating the phrase, P.A. Fitzgerald’s 1966 treatise Salmond on Jurisprudence declared, “The law is made for men and allows no fellowship or bonds of obligation between them and the lower animals.” The most important consequence of this view is that animals have long been categorized as “legal things,” not as “legal persons.” Whereas legal persons have rights of their own, legal things do not. They exist in the law solely as the objects of the rights of legal persons—e.g., as things over which legal persons may exercise property rights. This status, however, often affords animals the indirect protection of laws intended to preserve social morality or the rights of animal owners, such as criminal anticruelty statutes or civil statutes that permit owners to obtain compensation for damages inflicted on their animals. Indeed, this sort of law presently defines the field of “animal law,” which is much broader than animal rights because it encompasses all law that addresses the interests of nonhuman animals—or, more commonly, the interests of the people who own them.
A legal thing can become a legal person; this happened whenever human slaves were freed. The former legal thing then possesses his own legal rights and remedies. Parallels have frequently been drawn between the legal status of animals and that of human slaves. “The truly striking fact about slavery,” the American historian David Brion Davis has written, is the The American jurist Roscoe Pound wrote that in ancient Rome a slave “was a thing, and as such, like animals could be the object of rights of property,” and the British historian of Roman law Barry Nicholas has pointed out that in Rome “the slave was a thing…he himself had no rights: he was merely an object of rights, like an animal.”
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, humanitarian reformers in Britain and the United States campaigned on behalf of the weak and defenseless, protesting against child labour, debtor’s prisons, abusive punishment in public schools, and, inevitably, the cruel treatment of animals. In 1800 the most renowned abolitionist of the period, William Wilberforce, supported a bill to abolish bull- and bearbaiting, which was defeated in the House of Commons. In 1809 Baron Erskine, former lord chancellor of England, who had long been troubled by cruelty to animals, introduced a bill to prohibit cruelty to all domestic animals. Erskine declared that the bill was intended to “consecrate, perhaps, in all nations, and in all ages, that just and eternal principle which binds the whole living world in one harmonious chain, under the dominion of enlightened man, the lord and governor of all.” Although the bill passed the House of Lords, it failed in the House of Commons. Then, in 1821, a bill “to prevent cruel and improper treatment of Cattle” was introduced in the House of Commons, sponsored by Wilberforce and Thomas Fowell Buxton and championed by Irish member of Parliament Richard Martin. The version enacted in 1822, known as Martin’s Act, made it a crime to treat a handful of domesticated animals—cattle, oxen, horses, and sheep—cruelly or to inflict unnecessary suffering upon them. However, it did not protect the general welfare of even these animals, much less give them legal rights, and the worst punishment available for any breach was a modest fine. Similar statutes were enacted in all the states of the United States, where there now exists a patchwork of anticruelty and animal-welfare laws. Most states today make at least some abuses of animals a felony. Laws such as the federal Animal Welfare Act (1966), for example, regulate what humans may do to animals in agriculture, biomedical research, entertainment, and other areas. But neither Martin’s Act nor many subsequent animal-protection statutes altered the traditional legal status of animals as legal things.
This situation changed in 2008, when the Spanish national parliament adopted resolutions urging the government to grant orangutans, chimpanzees, and gorillas some statutory rights previously afforded only to humans. The resolutions also called for banning the use of apes in performances, harmful research, and trading as well as in other practices that involve profiting from the animals. Although zoos would still be allowed to hold apes, they would be required to provide them with “optimal” living conditions.
Speciesism, in applied ethics and the philosophy of animal rights, the practice of treating members of one species as morally more important than members of other species; also, the belief that this practice is justified. The notion has been variously formulated in terms of the interests, rights, and personhood of humans and animals and in terms of the supposed moral relevance of species membership. The term speciesism was introduced by the English philosopher Richard Ryder in the 1970s and subsequently popularized by the Australian philosopher Peter Singer. Ryder, Singer, and other opponents of speciesism have claimed that it is exactly analogous to racism, sexism, and other forms of irrational discrimination and prejudice.
An influential argument against speciesism, advanced by Singer, rests on what he calls the principle of equal consideration of interests (PEC). This is the claim that one should give equal weight in one’s moral decision making to the like interests of all those affected by one’s actions. According to Singer, the PEC expresses what most people now understand (or would understand, upon reflection) by the idea of human equality. It implies, among other things, that one should not favour the interests of whites or males over the like interests of blacks or females (and vice versa). Race and sex, in other words, are morally irrelevant characteristics when it comes to evaluating the like interests of different persons.
According to Singer, anyone who accepts the PEC must agree that it applies to animals as well as to humans. Animals as well as humans have interests—though of course not all human and animal interests are the same. The interests that a being has depend on the experiences of which it is capable. Because both animals and humans are capable of feeling pain, for example, both have an interest in avoiding it. Indeed, Singer holds that the capacity to feel pain is the condition of having any interests at all. If the PEC applied only to humans, then membership in Homo sapiens would count as a morally relevant characteristic on the basis of which one could favour the interests of humans over the like interests of animals. But there is no good reason to suppose that species is any more relevant in this regard than race or sex. Why should the interest in avoiding pain (i.e., a certain kind or amount of pain) count for more when it belongs to a human than it does when it belongs to an animal? The PEC therefore applies to animals, from which it follows that speciesism, like racism and sexism, is immoral.
Many defenders of speciesism—including R.G. Frey and, in his earlier work, Michael A. Fox—respond to this argument by claiming that species is indeed a morally relevant characteristic because it is uniquely associated with one or more capabilities that are themselves morally relevant. (It should be noted that not all defenders of speciesism accept the term, and some vehemently reject it as tendentious.) Among many capacities that have been proposed are moral agency or autonomy (the ability to act freely, reflectively, and purposefully on the basis of moral principles or values), rationality, a certain level of intelligence, and language use. Because, according to speciesists, all humans and no animals have these capabilities, the interests of animals do not require equal consideration, and speciesism is not analogous to racism and sexism.
One difficulty with this response is that it is not obvious why any of the proposed capabilities should count as a reason for favouring the interests of any being. The most widely discussed objection, however, is that, for each proposed capability, the claim that all and only humans have it is vulnerable to counterexamples based on so-called marginal cases. Some animals, for example, are no less intelligent than some humans (e.g., infants and some intellectually impaired or disabled persons). Defenders of speciesism thus face a dilemma: either the interests of humans are no more important than the like interests of some animals, or the interests of some animals are just as important as the like interests of humans.
In response to marginal-case objections, some speciesists have argued that the realm of beings whose interests are most important includes those who have the relevant capability only “potentially” or those who belong to a species whose fully developed, normal, or typical members have it. Although these innovations serve to narrow the group of most-important beings in the desired ways, some critics, including Singer, have objected that they are fallacious or ad hoc.
Animal Rights Groups
There are many active animal rights groups active in Ontario.
Animal Justice is a national animal law organization that leads the legal fight for animals in Canada. We work to pass progressive new animal protection legislation, we ensure the laws on the books are vigorously enforced, we go to court to fight on behalf of animals, and we work to develop the growing field of animal law.
We recently ran 50 billboards across the GTA, promoting legal rights for animals. Learn more at www.AnimalCharter.ca.
Lectures and events will be posted on our Facebook page and our website.
Anonymous for the Voicelesss: A global animal rights organization that specializes in street activism. We employ direct action with highly effective public outreach using local standard-practice footage of what “food animals” experience every second of every day, succinctly informative resources and a value-based sales approach. We fully equip the public with everything they need in switching to a vegan lifestyle.
In Toronto we host weekly demos, which have different roles for any comfort level.
You can follow our Facebook page or join us in the AV Toronto group.
Direct Action Everywhere’s mission is to empower activists to take strong and confident action wherever animals are being denigrated, enslaved, or killed, and create a world where animal liberation is a reality. We use creative nonviolent protest to tell the animals’ story. We are not afraid to push boundaries and even polarize the debate.
Egg-Truth’s mission is to:
- To educate the public about the true nature of egg production from hatchery to plate.
- To explain the negative impact on human health from egg consumption.
- To showcase the many healthy and delicious egg-free alternatives and recipes.
- To invite you to consider leaving eggs off your plate entirely.
GRASS (grassroots anti speciesism shift) focuses on speciesism awareness.
Encouraging society to acknowledge that all animals are sentient and therefore have the right to live a life free of human exploitation.
The Save Outreach Squad (SOS) is a branch of the Toronto Save Movement. The Save Outreach Squad grew out of a need bring awareness about the plight of the animals slaughtered at Toronto’s local slaughterhouses to the streets beyond those slaughterhouses where most people do their very best to avoid thinking about where their food comes from. Through powerful images and literature we invite the public to bear witness to the truth and join us in the fight for animal liberation.
In addition to exposing Toronto’s slaughterhouses, we organize a variety of outreach events, aimed at bringing awareness to other animal exploitation issues. We often build these actions around special events and holidays. Our events are designed to be peaceful, non-confrontational, and educational. We have weekly and monthly events as well as special events.
The Save Movement is a worldwide network of groups bearing witness to farmed animals, advocating veganism, & promoting love-based grassroots activism
Toronto Pig Save (TPS) exists to erect glass walls at slaughterhouses,encourage plant-based vegan living, and bear witness during vigils. TPS and iVegan.ca relaunched the “Why love one… but eat the other” TTC campaign, and TPS also launched the Climate Vegan campaign to educate people on the devastating environmental impact of animal agriculture.
The following animal rights groups focus on farm animals and vegan outreach.
Toronto Vegetarian Association
Inspiring people to choose a healthier, greener, more peaceful lifestyle. Try the veggie challenge, visit the folks at the resource centre, attend the Veg Food Fest, browse the Vegetarian Directory, and recipe sites
Canadian Coalition for Farm Animals
(CCFA) is dedicated to promoting the welfare of animals raised for food in Canada through public education, legislative change and consumer choice. CCFA supporters are animal protection organizations across Canada representing over 120,000 Canadians.
Canadians for Ethical Treatment of Farmed Animals (CETFA)
CETFA’s purpose is to promote the humane treatment of animals raised for food. We exist to work towards the compassionate treatment of animals raised for food.
Farm Animal Rights Movement
FARM) is a 501(c)(3) national nonprofit organization working to end the use of animals for food through public education and grassroots activism. We believe in the inherent self-worth of animals, as well as environmental protection and enhanced public health.
October 2nd is World Day for Farmed Animals, a day dedicated to exposing and memorializing the needless suffering and slaughter of farmed animals.
With tens of billions of animals killed for food each year, we need your voice to help us stand up and speak out! Join activist around the world inpledging to #FastAgainstSlaughter and/or requesting 200 brouchures to pass out on October 2nd.
Mercy for Animals Canada
Creating a society where animals are treated with the respect and compassion, campaigns include the rotten truth – egg production, undercover investigations, pro-veg TV ads.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA)
PETA engages in public education, investigations, legislation, celebrity involvement, and protest campaigns to help animals on factory farms, in labs, in the clothing trade, and in entertainment
Other Canadian and International Animal Rights groups and organizations.
Animal Alliance of Canada
Working on legislative advocacy initiatives to protect animals and the environment, including Environment Voters, North America’s first environmental and animal protection political party
Animal Experience International
AIE is a group which helps connect animal loving people with animal organizations in need of volunteers around the world.
Animal Rights Kollective (Ark II) Toronto
Promoting animal rights in Toronto area — campaigns around farmed animals, veganism, animals used for textiles, animals in laboratories, hunting and fishing, and companion animals, including strays and over-breeding.
Compassion in World Farming (UK)
Farm Sanctuary (U.S.)
Promoting compassionate living through rescue, education and advocacy. Visit the farm and spend time with the animals, learn the truth behind the labels such as organic, free range
Humane Society International – Canada (HSI)
Working to protect all animals through education, investigation, litigation, legislation, and advocacy
International Fund for Animal Welfare – Canada (IFAW)
Working for animal welfare, preventing animal cruelty and abuse, protecting wildlife and providing animal rescue
International Vegetarian Union – IVU Global
Global network of independent organizations which are promoting vegetarianism worldwide — founded in 1908
Niagara Action for Animals (NAfA) is an all-volunteer, registered charity founded in 1989. NAfA works through public eduction and community outreach to foster a more compassionate society that respects the innate worth of all beings. NAfA does not condone the use, abuse or exploitation of any animal for any purpose.
Sea Shepherd Conservation Society
Marine wildlife conservation organization using direct-action tactics to investigate, document, and take action in matters of defending ocean species
TorontoPetNetwork.com provides a list of humane societies, rescues, and shelters for dogs, cats, donkeys, rabbits, horses, parrots, wildlife and more
Toronto Wildlife Centre
Striving to help people and wildlife through rescuing wildlife and public education.
Promoting informed, ethical eating via advocacy booklets, including free ‘Guide to Cruelty-Free Eating’
The Vegan Society UK
The UK Vegan Society – lots of nutrition information
The Vegetarian Society (UK)
The oldest vegetarian organization in the world. Founded in 1847. Excellent environment reasons to go veg, “Vegetarians Do Not Eat Fish” campaign
Campaigning on behalf of animals killed for food, campaigns include when pigs cry, meet the real dairy producers, stand up for chickens
Photojournalism to challenge boundaries between humans and other animals and to encourage humanity to widen our circle of compassion.
Protecting animals in captivity and in the wild – zoos, performing animals, educational programs; national and international campaigns