Clarifying the Meaning of “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.

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The State of the Movement

Speciesism is wrong because, like racism, sexism, and homophobia, it excludes sentient beings from full membership in the moral community based on an irrelevant characteristic. Race, sex, sexual orientation, and species are all irrelevant to the capacity to be harmed.

But the rejection of speciesism on this ground implies the rejection of discrimination based on race, sex, or sexual orientation. It is unacceptable to perpetuate the commodification of one group for the benefit of another. Commodification involves treating the other—whether a woman, person of color, gay or lesbian, or nonhuman—as an object, as something rather than as someone.

For many years, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has promoted sexist campaigns. This started with their “I’d rather go naked than wear fur” campaign in the early 1990s and has degenerated through a series of increasing sexist promotions culminating in its most recent PETA’s State of the Union Undress.

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Abolition and Incremental Reform

In response to my essay about veganism, a number of animal advocates have written to me and have asked me to discuss what other sorts of incremental reform—apart from our becoming vegans—are consistent with the abolitionist position.

This essay is an initial response to those requests and I will follow this from time to time with further essays on strategies for incremental reform.

Let me say as a preliminary matter: our personal decision to embrace veganism is the most important incremental change that we can make. Veganism is the most important form of activism. And it is the one thing that is within the power of each of us to do. Now.

For too long, the animal movement has itself treated veganism as “extreme” and has promoted the myth that animal foods can be produced in a “humane” manner and that we can be morally “conscientious omnivores.” For too long, the movement has characterized conscientious veganism as “fanatical.”

If the animal movement is ever to be anything more than a cheering section for well-off elitists who buy their “happy meat,” free-range eggs, and organic dairy products from places like Whole Foods, or a movement that promotes as ”visionary” measures designed to keep the meat industry running “safely, efficiently and profitably,” veganism must be placed front and center as a movement baseline.

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Animal Rights and Domesticated Nonhumans

One aspect of my theory of animal rights, as articulated in Introduction to Animal Rights: Your Child or the Dog? and other places, that troubles some animal advocates, is that if we accept the rights position, we ought not to bring any more domesticated nonhumans into existence. I apply this not only to animals we use for food, experiments, clothing, etc., but also to our nonhuman companions.

I can certainly understand that if you embrace the welfarist approach, which says that the use of nonhumans is morally acceptable as long as you treat them “humanely” and which sees the goal as better regulating animal use, you would reject my view. But if you, as I, see the primary problem of animal exploitation to be our use of nonhumans irrespective of whether we are “humane,” and regard the goal as the abolition of animal exploitation, then it is not clear to me why this position would cause you any difficulty.

The logic is simple. We treat animals as our property, as resources that we can use for our purposes. We bring billions of them into existence for the sole purpose of using and killing them. We have bred these animals to be dependent on us for their survival.

The central position of my rights theory is that we have no justification for treating animals as our property just as we had no justification for treating other humans as slaves. We have abolished human chattel slavery in most parts of the world; similarly, we should abolish animal slavery.

But what does that mean in the context of nonhumans? Should we “liberate” animals and let them wander freely in the streets? No, of course not. That would be as irresponsible as allowing small children to wander around. We should certainly care for those nonhumans whom we have already brought into existence but we should stop causing any more to come into existence. We have no justification for using nonhumans—however “humanely” we treat them.

There are two objections that I have heard in connection with this view.

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A New Year’s Resolution

Happy New Year.

Let us resolve that 2007 will be a year in which the animal rights movement continues to become a serious social and political movement despite our having to deal with the obstacles placed in our way by the so-called “leaders” of the movement. These “leaders” have trivialized the issue of animal exploitation and have been nothing more than an embarrassment to those of us who are trying to facilitate serious social discourse about our moral and legal obligations to nonhuman animals.

Consider a few of the literally thousands of examples:

Etc, etc, etc.

Who knows? Perhaps 2007 will be the year in which we are told by movement “leaders” that it is acceptable to have “mutually satisfying” sexual relationships with disabled children before killing them as long as we provide them with a “humanely” produced hamburger first. The predictable parade of sycophants will rush to defend the statement and anyone who disagrees will be labeled as “divisive,” and be accused of threatening movement “unity” or “hurting the animals.” After all, they’ve defended everything else to date.

Or 2007 might be the year when we see the further development of an emerging grassroots movement based firmly and unequivocally on veganism and committed to educating the public in positive and engaging ways about the abolition of animal exploitation in an intelligent, coherent, nonsexist, and nonviolent manner.

If we pursue this latter path, people might actually start taking the idea of animal rights seriously and stop regarding it as a movement about “humane meat,” endless self-promotion and cheap media spectacles, or as advocating the idea, also embraced by the Nazis, that some lives are not worth living.

How refreshing that would be.

Gary L. Francione
© 2007 Gary L. Francione