Should humans keep other animals in cages, eradicate them for human development, eat or wear them, feed them to one another, or move them from one habitat to another? The complexity of human relationships with other animals raises numerous challenging and frustrating questions that force us to reflect on who we are. Often people wonder why those who they perceive to be concerned with the psychological and physical health of animals can't agree on solutions to existing problems. They believe that advocates of animal welfare and animal rights will favor the same solutions that grant protection to non-consenting beings to whom we can do anything we choose. Yet often this isn't so.
People who believe it's permissible to cause animals pain, but not unnecessary pain, argue that if we consider the individual's welfare or well-being -- their quality of life -- that's all we need to do. These people are called "welfarists" and they practice "welfarism." Welfarists believe that while humans should not wantonly exploit animals, as long as we make animals' lives comfortable, physically and psychologically, we're respecting their welfare. If animals experience comfort and some of life's pleasures, appear happy, and are free from prolonged or intense pain, fear, hunger and other unpleasant states, they're doing fine. If individuals show normal growth and reproduction, and are free from disease, injury, malnutrition and other types of suffering, they're doing well and we're fulfilling our obligations to them.
Welfarists also assume that it's all right to use animals to meet human ends as long as we adhere to certain safeguards. They believe keeping animals in zoos and aquariums where there are high death rates, using animals in experiments and slaughtering animals for human consumption are permissible as long as these activities are conducted in a humane way.
But welfarists don't believe that animals' lives have inherent value. Animals' lives are valuable merely because of what's called their instrumental value or utility to humans. Basically, welfarists are utilitarians who believe that dogs, cats, hamsters, prairie dogs, or any other animals can be exploited as long as the pain and suffering that the animals experience - the costs of using the animals to the animals themselves - are less than the benefits to humans that are gained by using the animals. Animal pain and death animals are justified because of the benefits that humans derive. The ends (human benefits) justify the means (the use of animals) even if they suffer, because their use is considered to be necessary for human gains. Those who argue that moving animals around for human benefits or feeding hamsters to ferrets to train the ferrets to hunt when they are released often employ the utilitarian argument, as do those who feel comfortable eating formerly "free-ranging chickens" but not chickens who've been brutally debeaked and imprisoned in inhumane battery cages.
Now what about those who advocate animal rights? Rightists also are concerned with animals' quality of life. However, they argue it's wrong to abuse or exploit animals, to cause animals any pain and suffering, and that animals shouldn't be eaten, held captive in zoos, or used in most (or any) educational or research settings. They believe animals have certain moral and legal rights including the right to life and the right not to be harmed. According to Gary Francione, a professor of law at Rutgers University, to say an animal has a "right" to have an interest protected means the animal is entitled to have that interest protected even if it would benefit us to do otherwise.
Rightists believe humans have an obligation to honor that claim for animals just as they do for non-consenting humans who can't protect their own interests. So, if a dog has a right to be fed, you have an obligation to make sure she's fed. If a dog has a right to be fed, you're obligated not to do anything to interfere with feeding her.
Rightists also stress that animals' lives are inherently valuable; their lives aren't valuable because of their utility to humans. Animals aren't "less valuable" than humans. Also, animals are neither property nor "things," but rather living organisms, subjects of a dignified life, who are worthy of our support, friendship, compassion and respect. Any amount of pain and death is unnecessary and unacceptable.
Now, what about many conservation biologists and environmentalists? Typically, they're welfarists (utilitarians) who are willing to trade-off individuals' lives for the perceived good of higher levels of organization such as ecosystems, populations or species.
Witness debates about the reintroduction of lynx into Colorado a decade ago. Some conservationists and environmentalists, in contrast to rightists, argued that the death (even agonizingly painful starvation) of some individuals was permissible for the perceived "good of the species." Similarly, a number of wolves died for the good of their species when they were moved from Canada and released into Yellowstone National Park. People, who claim it's all right to kill some prairie dogs because there are numerous other prairie dogs, are taking a utilitarian stance. The costs to individuals (and species) are less than the benefits to humans.
Words count when we talk about our eating habits or what we accept as the permissible treatment of animals in laboratories and in the wild. So, in response to my arguing that it is not permissible to feed live hamsters to train black-footed ferrets to hunt one person commented "I'm all for animal rights, but as a wildlife rehabber, there is no good substitute for live prey when training animals for release." Accepting that using live prey to train animals is thoroughly incompatible with the rights position.
Labeling an individual a "welfarist" or "rightist" connotes important messages about their views on animal exploitation. One must be careful how these words are tossed around. Welfarists and rightists have radically different perceptions, perspectives and agendas, and solve problems differently. They preach very different codes of conduct. Welfarism and rights are extremely difficult to reconcile and many experts think it's an impossible marriage. Nonetheless, it's essential to understand their different perspectives in our efforts to protect animals who can't speak for themselves, whose voices fall on deaf ears. And, the problems we face are not only confined to animals we keep in captivity. It's important that we all work together because the solution to some pressing problems about the loss of species will require us to do so. We can't just sit around and ignore nature as we lose precious animals and habitats.
Let me end on a dream i have. Regardless of whether one is a welfarist or a rightist I would like to believe that it is, and will continue to be, human compassion for other beings that will result in our giving them the protection they deserve, because of who they are, not because of what they can do for us or because some law tells us what we have to do. It's our basic goodness, a point I stress in my book The Animal Manifesto: Six Reasons For Expanding Our Compassion Footprint, that will make the lives of other animals better and more dignified, and also our own. Other animals are that important to our own well-being and psyche.