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Are Animal Rights 'Human' Rights?

12/17/2013 09:15 am ET | Updated Feb 16, 2014
Floridapfe from S.Korea Kim in cherl via Getty Images

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted 65 years ago last week. Might some of its provisions one day be extended to animals or at least "higher" animals like chimpanzees? The decision by the Nonhuman Rights Project to file a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of Tommy, a chimp whom it says "is being held captive in a shed at a used-trailer lot," forces human rights advocates like me to consider how broad the concept of rights really is.

The owner of the trailer lot where Tommy lives replied to news of the writ by saying, "People ought to use common sense," implying that no rational person would believe that animals could claim the same kinds of rights as humans. That is a common view and, indeed, one that I shared when I served as executive director of Amnesty International USA, the world's oldest and largest human rights organization. But I now think I was wrong.

No sensitive person, of course, can be indifferent to the suffering of animals. Though I am not a vegetarian, I have long cringed at the brutal conditions under which poultry and cattle are often held in preparation for slaughter. Mistreatment of domestic animals like dogs and cats understandably evokes revulsion even from those who would never have them in their houses.

But there is a vast difference between opposing animal cruelty and elevating animals to the level of claimants of rights. We can support animal welfare without framing that support in terms that have customarily applied only to humans. The question is, however, why have rights traditionally been limited to humans?

The answer lies in one simple word: "inherency." The first sentence of the Universal Declaration refers to the "recognition of the inherent dignity... of all members of the human family." Human rights have been based largely on the concept of natural law -- the notion that, by virtue of their unique capacity to reason or to experience freedom, human beings are automatically -- inherently -- creatures of dignity and worth, different from all other sentient beings. This meant that human suffering was worse than the suffering of other creatures and that only human beings could claim rights by which to combat it.

But who was considered inherently worthy of claiming rights has changed dramatically over the years. John Locke, the father of natural law, believe that rights applied to everyone, except of course to women or those who didn't own property. The authors of the UDHR itself would likely be surprised to hear talk of gay, lesbian and transgender rights.

Moreover, we don't even require human beings to be able to exercise reason or feel themselves capable of acting freely in order to make them eligible to claim rights. If we did, babies and "brain-damaged" adults could be mistreated with impunity. The fact is that there is no "inherent" reason why rights claims cannot be extended to at least some animals.

And even if there were, there is a fallback argument by which we could claim rights for animals, for though the "natural" superiority of humans has been the principal basis for rights claims, it has not been the only one. The preamble to the UDHR also makes clear that rights ought to be supported for pragmatic reasons in order, for example, to avoid "barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind" or to make unnecessary "rebellion against tyranny and oppression."

Human rights provide, in other words, the description of a good and civilized society.
To the extent, then, to which we want to live in a society in which animals are not subject to "barbarous acts," we may well want to extend them at least a modest, if appropriately refashioned, set of rights.

None of this is to deny that human and animal rights are of very different orders nor that the resolution of questions regarding such things as experimentation on animals for human benefit is simple. Mine is not a call for human rights activists to start freeing pigs instead of political prisoners. But 65 years after the adoption of the UDHR is an appropriate time to consider whether a "common sense" approach to rights may well extend protection to animals. Tommy deserves his day in court!

William F. Schulz, president of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, served as executive director of Amnesty International USA from 1994 to 2006.