“Animal rights” is often conflated “animal welfare.” But they are not the same—not even close.
Animal welfare accepts that we have the right to own and benefit from the use of animals. At the same time, it posits a positive duty upon us to conduct animal husbandry properly, meeting standards of care that have improved as we have learned more about the nature and capacities of animals. Animal welfare encompasses important issues, such as establishing legal standards for using animals in research, defining the parameters of what constitutes proper and improper care for animals, and establishing shelters for abandoned animals. In short, animal welfare does not ascribe “rights” to animals, but instead places on us—as an aspect of human exceptionalism—moral and legal duties to engage in proper husbandry practices.
In contrast, “animal rights” is an ideology that explicitly equates the moral value of animals with that of human beings. In animal-rights ideology, the ability to suffer, sometimes called “painience,” is the attribute that accords any being—human or animal—value. Since human beings feel pain and cattle feel pain, the theory holds, we are equals; our differences are as insignificant as racial distinctions. Thus, in rightist ideology, cattle ranching is morally equivalent to slavery, which explains this bald assertion of PETA’s odious “Holocaust on Your Plate Campaign”: “The leather sofa and handbag are the moral equivalent of the lampshades made from the skins of people killed in the death camps.”
The ultimate goal of animal rights is not to improve our treatment of animals, but to end all animal domestication. PETA tends to obfuscate the pet issue because “animal liberation” is understood to be a multi-generational project and targeting pet ownership would compromise the organization’s ability to get donations from loving dog and cat owners who think they believe in animal rights.
But this ultimate goal of animal rights is easy to see, if you know where to look. Gary Francione, a Rutgers University Law School professor, is one of the most vigorous and well-known animal-rights advocates in the world. He may also be the most candid. Francione leads the “abolitionist” movement—yes, the allusion to the anti-slavery movement is intentional—which holds that all “sentient” beings possess the fundamental “right not to be property.”
This includes our beloved cats, dogs, birds, and other pets. Francione states this clearly—even though he adopts shelter dogs. (This isn’t hypocritical: Francione wants no more dogs brought into the world but believes we have a duty to care for the ones already here, which is why he considers them “nonhuman refugees.”)
Francione’s most recent advocacy article tackles the “pet question” head-on. Typical of animal rightists, Francione assumes a misanthropic moral equivalence between human slavery and animal husbandry:
Think about this matter in the human context. We are all generally agreed that all humans, irrespective of their particular characteristics, have the fundamental, pre-legal right not to be treated as chattel property. We all reject human chattel slavery. That is not to say that it doesn’t still exist. It does. But no one defends it. The reason we reject chattel slavery is because a human who is a chattel slave is no longer treated as a person, by which we mean that the slave is no longer a being who matters morally. … The same problem exists where non-humans are concerned. If animals are property, they can have no inherent or intrinsic value. They have only extrinsic or external value. They are things that wevalue. They have no rights; we have rights, as property owners, to value them. And we might choose to value them at zero.
No. Slavery is evil because it involves treating one’s inherent equals—that is, other human beings—as objects. All human beings are subjects. That is not the case with animals, which (not who), contrary to Francione, are not “persons.” Since animals are not our equals, owning an animal does not make one the moral equivalent of Simon Legree.
Usually, animal rightists avoid focusing on the “end all pets” part of their agenda, sticking with advocacy around making it more difficult to raise food animals, ruining the fur industry, or impeding medical research. Not Francione:
With respect to domesticated animals, that means that we stop bringing them into existence altogether. We have a moral obligation to care for those right-holders we have here presently. But we have an obligation not to bring any more into existence. And this includes dogs, cats and other non-humans who serve as our “companions.” … We love our dogs, but recognize that, if the world were more just and fair, there would be no pets at all.
So, there you have it. Beneath the emotionalism and appeals to our empathy, animal rights is a hard ideology with a well-defined goal. It seeks an end to the ownership of animals, including pets. Remember that the next time you are tempted to support an animal-rights organization when you actually favor—as I do—the animal-welfare paradigm.