Recently I had the privilege of speaking at an IQ2 Debate in Sydney, hosted by The Ethics Centre, on the proposition that animal rights should trump human interests.
As a staunch believer in animal rights, I spoke for the motion. With pre-debate votes showing support for the motion, I was disturbed when the post-debate votes showed a substantial swing against the motion. (Interestingly the online vote at the time of writing is 90% for the motion and 10% against).
Perhaps one of the reasons for the swing was confusion about the rights model animal rights advocates are seeking for animals.
Let me be clear here, we are not seeking human rights for animals. We are seeking rights appropriate to the relevant species. Rights akin to those that have been legally recognised for the environment such as the right of nature recognised in Ecuador to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution.
For example, a pig would likely have no interest in a right to vote or to own property. Rather, she would likely have interest in a right to life, a right to shelter, a right to good health, a right to bond with and nurture offspring, a right to enrichment, a right to freedom, a right to safety (which would include a right not to suffer).
We are not talking about enshrining in law rights that would seek to protect an antelope being killed by a lion. I agree with the opposition here - that would be nonsensical. Animals need and deserve recognition of rights that provide protection from harm inflicted by humans.
They need these rights recognised because Australian law does not adequately protect animals from harm inflicted by humans. It does not recognise the inherent value of animals.
Instead, animals are regarded as property, much like chairs, cars, books, houses and computers; inanimate objects, with no sense of feeling. They are not recognised as sentient beings – that they feel pain, joy, hunger, loneliness, cold, heat, fear, stress; that they form social bonds, claim ownership, fight for their lives; that they are aware.
Instead the law sanctions animal suffering.
For example, people who engage in the farming of animals, are permitted to inflict cruel practices on farm animals for the sake of human interest. "Normal" animal husbandry practices are allowed. If you're a farmer, you have a defence to a charge of animal cruelty because the law allows you to cut off the beaks, teeth, tails and genitalia of chickens, cows, pigs and sheep without pain relief. You are allowed to confine animals in a way that prohibits any significant movement for extended periods of time; you can transport animals for long periods of time without adequate space, water, feed and attention; you can prevent natural behaviours such as chickens dust bathing; and of course, you can kill.
The sentience of animals and the inadequacies of our laws are just two reasons why animal rights should trump human interests. This is exemplified by the manner in which humans think of animals – that animals are lesser beings, that as a superior species, we can use and abuse animals as we see fit for our own benefit without recognising the inherent value and moral rights of animals.
More than ever, animals are at our mercy. More than ever, animals need their rights recognised. More than ever, humans need to appreciate the inherent value of animals and learn to coexist rather than to discriminate and destroy.