Skip to content

Chime in Regarding Definition of Animal Rights

The pamphlet I’m composing:

Thinking Critically About Animal Rights:
What you need to know, what you need to question

isn’t for you. Sorry. It’s for someone who thinks vegetarians eat chicken, vegans are communists, all animal rights advocates belong to PETA, happy meat rocks, and animal people are misanthropes. Again, that’s not you.

I’ve been doing some personal, anecdotal research, having discussions with educated, intelligent, mainstream individuals who purport to "love animals" to observe the patterns in the questions and responses, and there is remarkable similarity in the way the discussion progresses. I feel confident that I’ve hit the major issues (thought there is variety in the order in which they are raised, and I could argue for a handful of sequences).

Here’s a sort of protocol problem: I am defining Animal Rights as I see it (based on my own impulse, beginning at age 14 with the conundrum that if we eat cows we should be eating cats, and the theory of rights and property developed by Professor Gary Francione). Everyone talks about the definition of AR that they subscribe to, and let’s face it, they’re different. And certainly the strategy for achieving AR has at least two major camps, as well.

Oh, and the problem: I wrote the following, very close to the beginning . . .

When most people refer to animal rights they are talking about one right only: the right to not be owned by another–not be the property of another. If an animal cannot be your property, you have no right to use her in any way: not as food or clothing, and certainly not for your entertainment. (See the work of  Professor Gary Francione at for a thorough explanation of the importance of the property status of nonhuman animals.) People who believe in animal rights, then, are necessarily vegans: those who try their level best to live their lives without using animals.

The problem is that that’s the definition I use. And for many other people, those who believe in AR don’t have to be vegan. This quandary is easily resolved with the phrase: "For the purposes of this pamphlet, animal rights is defined as . . . . " Does that make it sound like what follows will be a narrow, infrequently used definition that the rest of the world doesn’t agree with? Our moral baseline might be veganism, but as you all know, much of the world thinks that’s "extreme."

And, related, what do you think about the word "most" at the beginning? I could say "abolitionists," but I’m trying to be as clear, simple, and accessible as possible. Though I bring in the term abolition later for a moment, I think it would be a mistake to start with it, as the target market is someone who might close their eyes and ears when they encounter it.

I ask for your input here because the purpose of the pamphlet is to think about terminology, ask questions, challenge authority, and educate yourself before you say you’ve found your own place within this issue. It would therefore be inappropriate to say "Animal rights is" (definitively) anything.

If you’ve ever written a book, you know that the most difficult part to write is usually the beginning, and it’s the last thing you should attempt, because you don’t know how to introduce what you’re going to say until you’ve already said it. Having written most of my pamphlet, I know how important it is to not sound like I’ve already made a decision for the reader, or that my belief is the only one or the right one.

My experience tells me that most people do what they do out of habit and ignorance. If they knew more about the origin of their food, or if they seriously considered the phrases "humane farming" and "humane slaughter," or if they learned what’s behind the handful of magnificent thoroughbred horses they saw each year, they might alter their behavior. They might develop new habit patterns based on knowledge of the facts or approaching the issues with a different lens. That’s my goal.

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ellie #

    Mary, my experience would support what your saying about critical thinking. The more I thought about "humane slaughter", the more I realized it was an oxymoron. It took time, but once I was able to confront the hypocrisy of welfarism, which I myself naively supported, I was able to see the difference between "humane" animal husbandry and righs, and appreciate groups like Friends of Animals.

    I'm not sure I undertand why you think it would not be appropriate to say animal rights is (definitively) anything. Just thinking outloud here………..rights are protections of personal interests……..animal rights is based on recognizing and protecting the personal interests of non-human animals…..So what are these interests? …… Obviously, since animals are not just furred or feathered ganglia, these interests include staying alive, and everything that facilitates that, as well as experiencing their lives on their own terms …….

    Anyway, I welcome distinction from PeTA, misanthropes, and the like. I also think we need to work at clarifying what animal rights is, because even reasonable journalists don't seem to have a clue. Unfortunately, animal rights has become an umbrella term for any activism that relates to animals.

    September 9, 2007
  2. I only disagree where you consider the possibility that you might not outrightly say "animal rights is…". If you don't outrightly and unequivocally say "animal rights is…", you will give the impression that the meaning of animal rights is a matter of opinion. It is not.

    So I would insist on the "animal rights is…" while adding an explanation as to why this is so.

    September 10, 2007
  3. First, I'd disagree with the opening statement of your pamphlet: "When most people refer to animal rights they are talking about one right only: the right to not be owned by another…" Most abolitionists? Definitely. Most animal rights activists of all flavors (a superset which includes abolitionists, PETA, HSUS, etc.)? Sure. Most people? I don't think so.

    Isn't that part of what you're trying to get across, both here and in your pamphlet? That you're trying to bring people around to your way of thinking by showing them why you believe what you believe?

    And Kenneth's statement notwithstanding, the definition of "animal rights" certainly is a matter of opinion (in my opinion). I don't necessarily think you need to account for that in your pamphlet, though, so I agree with Kenneth on that point. Just state your definition. There's no point in beating around the bush.

    September 10, 2007
  4. Boyd,
    My goal isn't to bring them around to my way of thinking, believe it or not. It's to educate them and have them make their own decisions. I find most people have beliefs that are based on things that simply aren't true. For instance, I have yet to meet a person outside of the AR world who knows what goes on behind the egg and dairy industry. This is why there are so many vegetarians–they simply don't have the facts. That notwithstanding, that first sentence is atrocious and needs a rewrite.

    September 10, 2007
  5. Okay, Mary, I think we could split hairs over what the desired result may be, but aren't you at least hopeful that through the presentation of fact and argument, and the resulting critical thought, that people decide they agree with your position?

    September 10, 2007
  6. Yes, I do hope they agree with me, but critical thinking is so lacking in America today, and it's so important, that I wouldn't say it's splitting hairs. I hope the readers will be able to take the same principles into other areas of their lives–religion and politics–for example, and conduct a similar kind of questioning process.

    September 10, 2007
  7. emily #

    I think 'animal rights is': should be followed by the definition used by most people who consider themselves to support that principle. c.f. 'I consider animal rights to be':

    September 10, 2007
  8. Cheater – this is supposed to be *your* project, not a group project. 😉

    First, i'd challenge your definition. =)

    While *many* might be aligned in this view, it's certainly not universal..and perhaps that needs addressing.

    Another example (which i prefer) that is promoted by Lee Hall (and FoA), defines AR as essentially the right to be 'left alone'. I think this differs significantly from the way Francione defines AR (property), and rather than focusing on what we don't want (property status) focusing on what we _do_ want (peace, freedom and respect).

    To me, it's the end-point we're looking for, and abolishing property status is a step in that direction, but i think this more clearly defines 'what we want' (again, rather than 'what we don't want'.)

    As an example, if you were dealing with a human rights issue, say how women are 'owned' by men in Islamic states, would you argue 'they shouldn't be treated as property', or 'they deserve freedom and the right to be left alone'? Which is more compelling and more accurately describes our goal?

    I don't believe we'd use the 'property status' description for humans, and perhaps it's not necessary for non-humans as well…

    But anyway, to get back to your project, i think 'for the purpose of this leaflet' or 'the best description i've encountered' works well, or 'a few common perspectives are..' Just be sure to sustain parallels between AR and human rights…rights are rights, right?

    September 10, 2007
  9. Sean b #

    Honestly, I would just go for "Animal rights means…", because different groups seem to have their own definitions of it, no reason why you can't too. I would have no problem linking animal rights to veganism, because I don't really think people can believe in animal rights and not be vegan if they really understand what it means, it's a complete contradiction.

    September 10, 2007
  10. Sheila #

    I have been working on a T shirt design with definitions on the back. I labeled the animals "Sentient Beings" on the front. I used Websters Dictionary to define Sentient, and Right on the back. Then I have my definition…Animal Rights – Acknowledging that ALL sentient beings have moral significance and have the right to live a life free from exploitation. I don't know if this helps. It is still my "work in progress".

    September 11, 2007
  11. Ellie #

    Boyd, I can understand why you think the meaning of animal rights is a matter of opinion. It's because "animal rights" has become an umbrella term for different and conflicting forms of activism. Mainstream animal welfare groups, like HSUS, have co-opted the term, and journalists (who tend to interview the wealthiest organizations) have simply accepted it.

    (It's similar to the way the term "euthanasia" was co-opted, which is also relevant to animal rights, but I don't want to digress too much.)

    In truth, though, HSUS is not an animal rights organization. Any group that seeks to modify the use of animals is not an animal rights group.

    To the surprise of many, that includes PeTA. I thoroughly dislike PeTA's tactics, but putting that aside, a group that kills animals is not an animal rights group. Yes, in this case Consumer Freedom was right. The only legal defense for those petaphiles who killed homeless cats and dogs was speciesism. And PeTA campaigns to modify animal husbandry.

    I agree with Dave Shiskoff about Friends of Animals. It's an abolitionist group, but it focuses on peace, freedom, and respect, which for many animals is the right to be left alone.

    September 12, 2007

Leave a Reply

You may use basic HTML in your comments. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS