Animal Rights: A Very Short Introduction explores the implications for how we should treat animals in connection with our diet, zoos, and research. Most people are opposed to cruelty and sense that animals have moral significance. At the same time, traditional views that sanction animal use with few constraints have heavily influenced beliefs and everyday practices. How should we understand the moral status of animal’s vis-à-vis human beings? Do animals have moral rights? If so, what does this mean? What kinds of beings are animals, what sorts of mental lives do they have, and how should we understand welfare?
What are animals and what are their mental lives like? The Introduction provides a historical sketch of traditional thinking about animals and the emergence of the animal rights movement. The main sources of traditional thinking about animals’ moral status have been religion and philosophy which interact with science to shape conceptions of what we see animals as. The Bible largely reinforced the Aristotelian view of animals by asserting that God created humans in his own image, and that we are free to use natural resources, including animals, for our own purposes. Are animals able to reason?
Increasingly, people claim that animals have moral status, moral rights, or both. What does this mean? To say that a cat has moral status is to say that the cat has moral importance in her own right and not just in relation to people. ‘The moral status of animals’ considers whether animals, all animals, should have moral status and defines different levels of understanding moral rights: the moral status, the equal-consideration, and the utility-trumping senses of rights. Are all animals equal, including centipedes, slugs, and amoebas? Some animal advocates claim that they are. Not all creatures are sentient, which means having a capacity to feel.
If we see an animal in a state of fright or pain, it is natural to assume that they have the same feelings as we might. But is this well-grounded? ‘What animals are like’ using empirical evidence, considers which animals appear to have feelings — sensations such as pain, and emotional states such as fear. What does it mean to have a mental life? To have a mental state, a being must have awareness or consciousness. It is a step beyond the concept of sentience, the capacity to have feelings. It is possible that a wide range of animals possess a rich variety of feelings, including emotions such as anxiety and suffering.
What constitutes harm and benefit for animals? How can we evaluate what is the nature of animal well-being? ‘The harms of suffering, confinement, and death’ provides an account of the major ways in which animals may feel harm: by being caused to suffer, by being confined, or by being put to death painlessly yet prematurely. A certain amount of suffering is a comparable harm, regardless of who the sufferer is. Animals can be harmed by confinement. But is the interest in avoiding confinement just an instance of the interest in avoiding unpleasant feelings? Or do we harm a caged animal who doesn’t suffer from captivity, being accustomed to it, by eliminating opportunities for species-typical functioning?
Is it ever right to restrict animals’ liberty? If so, under what conditions? ‘Keeping pets and zoo animals’ investigates the ethics of keeping animals for personal or social/cultural purposes and considers the harms often imposed upon these animals. There may be circumstances where keeping an animal is regarded as necessary, such as to preserve a species or to provide a blind person with a seeing-eye dog. Discussions on such cases centre on the moral status of animals. If capacity does not always harm animals, is it disrespectful? In almost every case of captivity, animals are at least in part used for human purposes such as enjoyment, research, education, or companionship.
It is debatable under what conditions animal research is justified. Estimates of the number of animals used worldwide in research range from 41 to 100 million a year. ‘Animal research’ explores the complex issue of animal research, looking at issues such as: whether biomedical progress justifies harming nonconsenting research subjects; if so, whether there is a degree of harm to animal subjects beyond which it is unethical to go; how promising a proposed experiment must be to be ethically defensible; and how aggressively the research community should pursue alternatives to animal use. Animal research has played a part in biomedical progress, but it does not follow that it was necessary.