Frequently Asked Questions, Part One

In my essay of December 13, 2006, I offered a response to a frequently asked question about whether plants should be considered as rightholders. I received many emails from readers who found that essay useful in talking with others about animal rights and veganism, and who requested that I provide some more answers to the sorts of questions that animal rights advocates are often asked.

In this essay, I provide three questions and answers that I hope will be useful to you in your advocacy. Next week, I will provide three more.

1. Question: Domestic animals, such as cows and pigs, and laboratory rats would not exist were it not for our bringing them into existence in the first place for our purposes. So is it not the case that we are free to treat them as our resources?

Answer: No. The fact that we are in some sense responsible for the existence of a being does not give us the right to treat that being as our resource. Were that so, then we could treat our children as resources. After all, they would not exist were it not for our actions—from our decisions to conceive to decisions not to abort. And although we are granted a certain amount of discretion as to how we treat our children, there are limits. We cannot treat them as we do animals. We cannot enslave them, sell them into prostitution, or sell their organs. We cannot kill them. Indeed, it is a cultural norm that bringing a child into existence creates moral obligations on the part of the parents to care for the child and not exploit her.

It should be noted that one of the purported justifications for human slavery in the United States was that many slaves would not have existed at all had it not been for the institution of slavery. The original slaves who were brought to the United States were forced to breed and their children were considered property. Although such an argument appears ludicrous to us now, it demonstrates that we cannot assume the legitimacy of the institution of property—of human or nonhumans—and then ask whether it is acceptable to treat property as property. The answer will be predetermined. Rather, we must first ask whether the institution of animal (or human) property can be morally justified.

And as I have argued in my website presentation on Animals as Property, the institution of animal property is no more defensible than the institution of human property.

2. Question: Rights were devised by humans. How can they even be applicable to animals?

Answer: Just as the moral status of a human or animal is not determined by who caused the human or the animal to come into existence, the application of a moral concept is not determined by who devised it. If moral benefits went only to the devisers of moral concepts, then most of humankind would still be outside the moral community.

Rights concepts as we currently understand them were actually devised as a way of protecting the interests of wealthy white male land owners; indeed, most moral concepts were historically devised by privileged males to benefit other privileged males. As time went on, we recognized that the principle of equal consideration required that we treat similar cases in a similar way and we subsequently extended rights (and other moral benefits) to other humans. In particular, the principle of equal consideration required that we regard as morally odious the ownership of some humans by other humans. If we are going to apply the principle of equal consideration to animals, then we must extend to animals the right not be treated as a resource. I explain this further in my website presentation Theory of Animal Rights.

It is irrelevant whether animals devised rights or can even understand the concept of rights. We do not require that humans be potential devisers of rights or understand the concept of rights in order to be beneficiaries of rights. For example, a severely mentally disabled human might not have the ability to understand what a right is, but that does not mean that we should not accord her the protection of at least the basic right not be treated as a resource of others.

3. Question: If you are in favor of abolishing the use of animals as human resources, don’t you care more about animals than you do about those humans with illnesses who might possibly be cured through animal research?

Answer: No. This question is logically and morally indistinguishable from that which asks whether those who advocated the abolition of human slavery cared less about the well-being of southerners who faced economic ruin if slavery were abolished than they did about the slaves. The issue is not whom we care about or value most; the question is whether it is morally justifiable to treat sentient beings—human or nonhuman—as commodities or exclusively as means to the ends of others.

For example, we generally do not think that we should use any humans as non-consenting subjects in biomedical experiments, even though we would get much better data about human illness if we used humans rather than animals in experiments. The application to the human context of data from animal experiments—assuming that the animal data are relevant at all—requires often difficult and always imprecise extrapolation. We could avoid these difficulties by using humans, which would eliminate the need for extrapolation. But we do not do so because even though we may disagree about many moral issues, most of us are in agreement that the use of humans as unwilling experimental subjects is ruled out as an option from the beginning. No one suggests that we care more about those we are unwilling to use as experimental subjects than we do about the others who would benefit from that use.

Source: Gary L. Francione, Introduction to Animal Rights: Your Child or the Dog?, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2000).

Gary L. Francione
© 2007 Gary L. Francione