Clarifying the Meaning of a “Right”

There is a great deal of confusion about the concept of rights. We are often unclear what we refer to when we talk about human rights. This confusion and lack of clarity are even more pronounced when we talk about “animal rights” because some use the term to describe any welfarist regulation, and some, like me, use it as a synonym for the abolition of animal exploitation.

There is no greater proof of the confusion among animal advocates than the fact that, Peter Singer, the “father of the animal rights movement” does not believe in rights for humans or nonhumans!

The concept of rights has certainly generated a great deal of philosophical discussion and debate.

But we can cut through all of this and clarify the notion of a right for purposes of understanding some basic aspects of the concept.

What is a right?

A right is simply a way of protecting an interest.

An interest is something that we want, desire, or prefer. We all have interests. We share some interests in common. For example, we all have an interest in food and medical care. Some interests are more peculiar to the individual. I have absolutely no interest in playing golf; many people are passionate about golf.

With respect to any interest, there are basically only two ways of protecting that interest:

  1. We can protect that interest only to the extent that to do so produces desirable consequences as a general matter.
  2. We can protect that interest despite whether it produces desirable consequences as a general matter.

This second way of protecting an interest is what a right is.

Let’s look at an example:

I have an interest in my liberty. We can protect that interest consequentially; that is, we can choose to protect that interest only to the extent that to do so produces a good result.

But what if I am a politically unpopular person whose opinions and views are upsetting to others who would be much happier if I were imprisoned and not allowed to voice my opinions?

If my interest in my liberty is protected only to the extent that, on balance, my liberty is a benefit and not a general detriment, then, depending on the weight to be accorded to the competing interests, I may very well be imprisoned.

On the other hand, we can protect my interest in liberty even if my political views offend others. If we protect the interest in this way, we can say that I have a right to liberty. That is simply another way of saying that my interest in my liberty will be protected even though my imprisonment would have beneficial consequences for others.

This does not, however, mean that my right to liberty is absolute. If I commit a crime and am found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt by a jury, then I may be deprived of my liberty. But that is because I did something to forfeit my interest in my liberty.

Let’s look at another example: my interest in my life.

I certainly have an interest in my life. Indeed, I would say that for most of us, our interest in our life is probably stronger than our interest in not suffering. After all, many humans undergo painful medical procedures in order to be cured of life-threatening illnesses.

Again, we can protect this interest consequentially and, for instance, use and kill me as a non-consenting subject in a biomedical experiment if this will produce data that will save many other humans. Or you can kill me in order to take my organs for transplantation into others, thereby saving multiple lives by taking my life.

Alternatively, you can protect my interest in my life even if my death would be beneficial to others through my serving as an unwilling experimental subject or donor. In this case, we could say that I had a right to life, which is simply another way of saying that my interest in my life will be protected even though beneficial consequences may occur were my interest not protected.

The right to life is not absolute. If, for example, Joe attacks me with deadly force without provocation, I am permitted to defend myself and take his life if necessary. In such a situation, we do not think that Joe’s interest in life should be protected because of action he undertook. But we do not override his interest simply because to do so would have good consequences.

A right is like a wall that surrounds an interest. On that wall is a sign that reads “You cannot trespass just because it will benefit you or others to do so.”

A Special Right: The Right Not to be the Property of Others

When people argue about human rights, what they are really arguing about is what human interests ought to be protected irrespective of consequences. And there is certainly a great deal of disagreement about what interests should receive that sort of protection.

There is, however, one interest about which most people do not disagree—our interest in not being the resource, or property, or slave, of another. This is not to say that human slavery no longer exists; it does. But no one defends it as they defend other forms of discrimination and exploitation. We regard every human as having the right not to be a slave. Indeed, the prohibition against human slavery is one of the few moral rights recognized by the international community.

Why? Why do we regard human slavery as a particularly bad thing?

The answer is because slaves do not have any real rights. Any protection that slaves receive for their interests is only consequential. That is, we protect their interests only to the extent that it benefits someone else (usually the slave owner) to do so. Slavery treats humans as having only extrinsic or conditional value. Slavery denies that humans have inherent value, or value beyond their value as property to others. If humans have any moral value at all; if they have any value beyond their extrinsic value as commodities valued by others, then, whatever other rights we may give humans, we must give them the basic right not to be the property or resources of others.

The right not to be property does not depend on individual characteristics. Putting aside people like Peter Singer, the rest of us think that a severely mentally disabled human has as much right not to be treated as an unwilling subject in an experiment as has a genius. That is, we think that the interest of the disabled person and the genius in not being treated as a resource should be respected irrespective of consequences. After all, the disabled person and the genius both value themselves even if no one else values them.

The right not to be treated as property means simply that the interest in not being treated as a commodity must be protected even if it would benefit others to treat certain humans as commodities. If we do not protect this interest in this way—with a right—then some humans (those we do not value) will be treated as commodities and will be subject to being deprived of all of their fundamental interests, including their interest in their continued existence, if it benefits us to do so.

Animals and Property

Nonhuman animals also have interests. Indeed, animals—human and nonhuman—are the only entities in the universe who have interests because they are sentient; they have a subjective awareness. As far as we know, rocks and plants do not have interests. These objects do not have minds; there is nothing that a plant or rock wants, desires, or prefers.

Sentient nonhumans, depending on their species, have all sorts of interests. They can suffer and they have an interest in not suffering. And all sentient nonhumans have an interest in life. As I have argued in my writing and elsewhere on my website, to be sentient means to have an interest in continuing to live. Sentience is not an end in itself; it is a means to the end of continued existence for certain beings who have evolved to be sentient in order to survive. To say that a being is sentient but does not want, prefer, or desire to stay alive is absurd.

Animals have interests in not being used as food, or for experiments, clothing, recreation, entertainment, etc. These activities are only made possible because animals are regarded as property. Even animals living in nature are in most cases considered as the property of the state, subject to being reduced to the status of the property of individuals who kill them in prescribed ways at prescribed times. Although some of us have nonhuman companions whom we regard as members of our families, these nonhumans are, as far as the law is concerned, nothing but things we own. Although there are some limits on how we treat our animal property, there are not many.

Animal welfare laws cannot be regarded as conferring rights on nonhumans. To the extent that these laws protect animal interests, they provide only consequential protection. That is, we protect animal interests only to the extent that we attach a value to those interests. We require that a nonhuman be stunned electrically before she is slaughtered. We do not protect the animal’s interest in being stunned before she is butchered because it is in her interest; we protect it because it is in our interest. An animal who is stunned will cause fewer injuries to workers and will have less carcass damage, thereby keeping the meat industry running “safely, efficiently and profitably” according to “visionary” Temple Grandin.

Is there a good reason not to accord nonhumans the one right that we accord to all humans irrespective of particular characteristics? As I have argued, the answer is no. The only way that we discriminate between humans and nonhumans for purposes of the right not to be treated as property is to engage in speciesism.

If nonhuman animals are going to be morally significant—if they are going to have value beyond merely beings things with extrinsic or conditional value alone—we must protect their interest in not being commodities irrespective of consequence. This requires that we abolish and not merely regulate animal exploitation, that we care for the domestic animals that we have here now, and that we stop bringing domestic animals into existence for our use.


To sum up:

  • A right is a way of protecting an interest.
  • A right is non-consequential protection for an interest; it means that we protect the interest even if there would be good consequences as a general matter were we not to do so.
  • If humans are to be included in the moral community, they cannot be the property of others. We must, therefore, protect the interest of humans in not being treated as property in a non-consequential way. We must accord every human the right not to be treated as the property of another.
  • Similarly, if nonhumans are to be members of the moral community, we must provide non-consequential protection to their interest in not being used as resources.
  • This requires that we abolish animal exploitation.

That is what I mean when I talk about “animal rights.” We must protect the interest of nonhumans in not being treated as things in a particular way. That protection cannot be dependent on consequences.

If you are interested in further discussion of this topic, you should watch Theory of Animal Rights on my website.

I have covered a great deal of ground here and there is a great deal more that could have been said. I will address this topic more in future essays in response to inquiries and comments that I get from you.

Gary L. Francione
© 2007 Gary L. Francione