Animal Rights and Environmental Ethics: Do Animals Have the Right to Moral Treatment?

We often see environmental activism geared towards protecting animals. While saving the whales and protecting endangered elephants certainly feel like the right things to do, many of us haven’t stopped to consider why this feels right. Do we have a moral obligation to protect animals?

In environmental ethics, animal rights is the belief that animals have moral value separate from how useful they are to humans, and thus have certain rights that must be afforded to them. Like human rights, animal rights are inherent rights intended to protect the basic interests of animals.

In this article, we’ll review the philosophy of animal rights in environmental ethics in order to better understand the moral questions at play in humans’ relationship with animals.

What Are Animal Rights?

Animal rights in environmental ethics is a theory that animals deserve rights just like humans do. 

Traditionally, modern societies believe in affording rights to humans based on the understanding that all humans inherently deserve rights. As the U.S. Declaration of Independence says, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” According to this belief, humans inherently deserve rights to pursue their best interests.

The animal rights movement seeks to extend moral rights to animals. Animal rights philosophers argue that animals also have basic interests (for example, the right to live free from suffering) that must be protected. Just like humans, animals have inherent value (regardless of whether the animal is useful to humans) and inherently deserve to be able to pursue their own best interests. Animal rights protect animals’ ability to pursue their best interests.

Animal rights activists support the idea that animals should not be used to meet human needs. For example, animal rights activists would argue against using animals for medical research, cosmetics and other product testing, or sport hunting.

Animal Rights vs. Animal Welfare

Animal rights is often confused with a similar term, animal welfare. Animal rights, as we discussed above, is the belief that animals have value in-and-of themselves, and therefore deserve rights to protect their interests. This leads to the argument that animals should not be used to meet human needs like food, clothing, or experimentation. Animal rights activists seek to protect animals from any use by humans.

On the other hand, animal welfare refers to an animal’s quality of life. Animal welfare proponents work to ensure animals have positive experiences in their lives, but do believe that animals can be used by humans as long as it’s in a humane way. For example, while an animal rights supporter might argue for a vegan diet, an animal welfare supporter would argue that we can eat animals and animal products as long as the animals live a pleasant life.

While animal welfare activists focus on reducing animal suffering, they don’t take any moral stance on whether it’s ethical to use animals to meet human needs. Animal rights activists, on the other hand, take a more philosophical stance, arguing that it’s immoral to use animals, and that they have a right to avoid suffering.

animal rights vs animal welfare

Environmental Philosophers on Animal Rights

Most of the field of environmental ethics is focused in some way on animal rights, as all of environmental ethics is concerned with the human relationship with the natural world. However, there are a few environmental ethicists that focus primarily on animal rights. 

While all of these philosophers ultimately agree that we should not cause animals harm simply to meet our own needs, each philosopher has a different reasoning for this conclusion and interprets animal rights a little differently. Here, we’ll review a few of the most famous thinkers and their views on animal rights.

jeremy bentham - animal rights environmental ethics

Jeremy Bentham: Jeremy Bentham, a famed English philosopher from the 18th-19th century, was one of the first philosophers to argue in favor of animals. He argued that while we can morally use animals to serve our own needs, we should do so in a way that avoids causing any unnecessary harm. He argues against earlier philosophers who said that only rational animals (i.e. only humans) deserve moral treatment; instead, Bentham argues, we shouldn’t decide who gets treated well based simply on whether they can think or reason (after all, he argues, human babies are not rational), but based simply on whether or not they can feel pain. Thus, Bentham’s basis for who deserves moral treatment is whether or not that animal can suffer. If the animal is capable of suffering, as most are, then they deserve “rights” that help protect their interests.

Bentham was one of the first western philosophers to argue that the suffering of animals is just as important as that of humans. It’s important to note, however, that Bentham believed it was still morally permissible to use animals to meet necessary human needs, as long as it was through a painless process (similar to today’s animal welfare supporters). Bentham believed in utilitarianism, or the idea that we should do whatever results in the greatest amount of “pleasure” for the greatest number of creatures – including humans and animals. 

Peter Singer: Peter Singer, an Australian eco-philosopher, argued for animal liberation, but against the theoretical framework of “rights.” He argued that we don’t actually need the concept of rights in order to ethically consider our treatment of animals. In his 1985 book Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals, Singer argues (similar to Bentham) that any being with sentience, or the capacity to feel pain and pleasure, is deserving of moral standing. 

Rather than awarding animals with specific rights, Singer argues, we should simply include animals’ interests when making ethical decisions. Singer recognizes that human rights and animal rights cannot be entirely the same. He says, “There are obviously important differences between humans and other animals, and these differences must give rise to some differences in the rights that each have” (Animal Liberation, p.2). Because human and animal rights are different, we should simply focus on avoiding causing pain to the greatest number of beings, both human and animal.

Read more about Singer’s contributions to environmental ethics: What Is Utilitarianism in Environmental Ethics?

tom regan - animal rights environmental ethics

Tom Regan: Tom Regan was an environmental philosopher who is most famous for his animal rights theory. In fact, he’s known to many as the intellectual founder of the animal rights movement. His 1983 book The Case for Animal Rights outlines his argument for animal rights. He argues for an extension of rights to “other-than-human” animals. Like Bentham, Regan rejects the idea that only rational beings (i.e. humans) deserve to be treated morally. Instead, Regan argues that animals who are “subjects-of-a-life” are deserving of moral consideration. He defines “subjects-of-a-life” as animals that are not just conscious, but animals that:

“have beliefs and desires; perception, memory, and a sense of the future, including their own future; an emotional life together with feelings of pleasure and pain; preference- and welfare-interests; the ability to initiate action in pursuit of their desires and goals; a psychophysical identity over time; and an individual welfare in the sense that their experiential life fares well or ill for them, logically independently of their utility for others and logically independently of their being the object of anyone else’s interests. Those who satisfy the subject-of-a-life criterion themselves have a distinctive kind of value – inherent value – and are not to be viewed or treated as mere receptacles. (The Case for Animal Rights, p.243)

Put simply, any animal that meets the criteria for “subjects-of-a-life” is inherently valuable, regardless of whether or not they serve a purpose for humans or other animals. Any “subjects-of-a-life” are thus deserving of rights to protect their interests. It’s important to note that, under Regan’s theory of animal rights, extending rights to animals must include actually formulating rights under a “social contract.”

Finally, Regan critiques Singer and Bentham’s utilitarianism, arguing that just because an action creates positive outcomes for a larger number of people, if that action is extremely harmful to just one person (or animal), then it’s not morally right. He gives the example of murdering a wealthy person in order to gain their fortune, and then distributing some of that money to charity. While this would result in a greater good (the loss of one life to help many), this is clearly not morally justifiable. This metaphor is used to explain Regan’s belief that killing an animal is such a great harm that it is justified only if it’s necessary and will create a large positive outcome for many people. Regan argues that animal exploitation in modern society, such as meat farming, is often not actually necessary; while killing an animal may bring mildly positive outcomes to many humans, it causes greater harm to the animal, when many of us do not actually depend on meat for health.

The Animal Rights Movement

While the animal rights movement has gained much momentum in the past century, it hasn’t resulted in the creation of many legal rights for animals. Animal rights activism has certainly pushed us to reassess how we view animals and how we treat them – but has not led to codified legal rights for animals in most western countries. However, we have seen some improvements in laws governing animal welfare. For example, the U.S. Animal Welfare Act (AWA) is a federal law that governs how animals in research facilities must be treated.

As more and more people begin taking animal welfare into account, we can likely expect to see more laws concerning the wellbeing of animals spring up. In large part, we have the philosophers of the animal rights movement to thank for helping us begin to view animals as more than basic resources to meet human needs.

Learn more about related environmental ethics:

  • What Is Biocentrism? Learn the basics about biocentric environmental philosophies, which argue that humans and living creatures deserve equal moral consideration.
  • What Is Deep Ecology? Learn about another environmental philosophy that takes the rights of the environment, not just living creatures, into account.