Starting Points

Animal Welfare and Animal Rights: What's the Difference?

[All images in this post are by Jo-Anne McArthur on Unsplash.]

Over 60 billion chickens are killed each year for food. To their number, we can add 1.5 billion pigs and hundreds of millions of sheep, goats, and cattle. If it’s wrong to kill animals for food, human beings are doing a lot of wrong.

People who argue for the better treatment of animals are commonly lumped together as advocating “animal rights.” But this is an oversimplification. Two major strands in animal ethics diverge on certain fundamental points—and only one of those strands marches under the banner of animal rights.

The other major strand invokes animal welfare rather than rights. In this post, I’ll outline the main features of animal welfare and animal rights arguments. At the end, I’ll mention some dissenting voices from both of these strands.

The Case for Animal Welfare

The most famous advocate of the animal welfare position is Peter Singer. The central argument of his landmark book Animal Liberation (1975) is disarmingly simple. Just as it’s racist or sexist to give unequal consideration to others on the basis of their race or sex, Singer argues, it’s speciesist—a term coined by Richard Ryder but made famous by Singer—to give unequal consideration to others on the basis of their species.

Sentience: Happiness vs. Suffering

To what are we giving equal consideration? The basic prerequisite for being owed moral consideration, says Singer, is sentience. Sentience is the capacity to experience happiness or suffering. My interest in experiencing happiness and avoiding suffering isn’t just one pair of interests among many. They’re the very basis for having interests at all. What it means to have interests—whether in having enough to eat or in scoring tickets to see my favourite band—is to experience happiness when those interests are realized or suffering when those interests are frustrated.

To the extent that animals are sentient, then, they have an interest in being happy and avoiding suffering. To downgrade or dismiss those interests because they aren’t of the same species as us is speciesist, argues Singer. It’s irrelevant from a moral point of view whose interests are at stake. My interests count for no more and no less than yours regardless of who you or I are—and regardless of our race, gender, or species membership.

Different Weight to Different Interests

The animal welfarist doesn’t have to deny that there’s any difference, morally speaking, between, say, humans and chickens. We might have a variety of reasons for giving greater consideration to a human’s suffering than to a chicken’s. Humans think about the future and fit our activities into a broader life narrative. Some say that this makes our interests durable and long-lasting in a way that trumps the narrower interests of a chicken. But that argument only makes reference to a difference in the nature of the interests at stake. Species membership itself ought to be irrelevant to our considerations.

A Problem Case: Animal Experimentation

This emphasis on interests reveals an important premise of the animal welfarist position. Singer and his allies subscribe to utilitarianism, a moral theory that says we should maximize happiness and minimize suffering. Utilitarianism is a consequentialist theory. What matters, morally speaking, are the consequences of our actions: we’re aiming for the maximum aggregate happiness. Happy outcomes are good and unhappy outcomes are bad.

Consider the case of experiments on animals in medical research. In some circumstances, an animal welfarist might condone some forms of experimentation (as Singer has done). If an experiment produces a good outcome and there’s no less harmful way of achieving that good outcome, we should allow it. If you can save 40,000 human lives at the cost of 100 monkey lives, that’s a net win.

An advocate of animal rights thinks the utilitarian framework is inadequate. Beyond the question of whether it produces good or bad outcomes, we can ask of an action whether it’s right or wrong. Animal experimentation might sometimes produce good outcomes but it’s still wrong to harm or kill an animal for the sake of scientific research, says the advocate of animal rights. There are certain things we must not do, regardless of the outcome.

The Case for Animal Rights

Tom Regan’s book, The Case for Animal Rights (1983) is one of the early classics in the animal rights literature. Regan contrasts his position with Singer’s by likening a living being to a cup. For utilitarians like Singer, only the contents of the cup—our experiences—have moral significance. Regan, by contrast, argues for the inherent value of the cup itself. Individuals have value above and beyond the value of their good or bad experiences.

The case for animal rights rests on the principle of inviolability. It’s a familiar idea in the domain of human rights. Humans have certain basic rights—to life, to liberty, to bodily integrity, and so on—that can’t be violated no matter how expedient it would be to do so. Advocates of animal rights extend this thinking to other animals.

The argument for animal rights emphasizes subjecthood—or whether a creature is the “subject of a life,” to use Regan’s term. The idea is that a creature has certain basic rights if there’s someone whose rights could be violated—as Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka put it, if there’s “someone home.” This emphasis on subjecthood contrasts with the animal welfarist’s emphasis on sentience. The criteria for subjecthood are less specific than the basic pairing of happiness and suffering. They tend to include a broader range of subjective experiences.

Beyond Welfare and Rights

Animal welfare arguments derive from utilitarianism. Animal rights arguments derive from a different moral theory called deontology. Deontology emphasizes the rules and obligations that make our actions right or wrong. Advocates of deontology argue that the rightness or wrongness of actions sometimes trumps the goodness or badness of outcomes. We saw one point of difference between utilitarian and rights-based arguments on the question of animal experimentation.

Welfare and Rights: Some Common Points

That said, advocates of animal welfare and animal rights have a great deal in common. For one thing, they oppose a wide range of common practices, from eating animals to many forms of experimentation. If society were to accept either form of argument, it would require radical changes in the way we live.

Less obviously, the arguments for animal welfare and animal rights have a similar structure. Both base their appeal on capacities that humans share with many other animals. For the animal welfarist, what matters is sentience. For the rights advocate, what matters is subjecthood.

In both cases the process of moral triage is similar. You start with some entity and then you ask of that entity whether it has property x (sentience, subjecthood). If the entity does have that property, it’s owed moral consideration. If it lacks that property, it isn’t. In both forms of argument, asking about anything besides this property is irrelevant. In particular, if the question of species membership comes up in your moral triage, you’re being speciesist.

Criticisms of the Welfare and Rights Approaches

This approach has critics even among the ranks of animal advocates. The arguments for animal welfare and animal rights aspire to neutrality and even-handedness. But, some say, they do this by abstracting away from the particularities of our lives and loyalties in a way that drains them of moral force. The complexity of my moral life can’t be reduced to some basic principle of sentience or subjecthood and then subjected to a decision procedure. In an influential paper, Cora Diamond criticizes both Singer and Regan for losing sight of the rich and complex texture of our moral lives. We must weave our concern for animals into this rich texture, she argues, not flatten it out into abstract principles.

Diamond is one of several philosophers who advocate concern for animals but dissent from the basic framework of utilitarianism and deontology. Raimond Gaita and Alice Crary are two other philosophers influenced by Diamond. Mary Midgley takes a different but also unorthodox approach to thinking about animals. More radically, J. M. Coetzee uses the medium of fiction to challenge the competence of abstract philosophical reasoning to think clearly and compassionately about our relations to other animals.

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