It is said that the modern animal rights movement began with the publication of Peter Singer’s book, “Animal Liberation,” published in 1975. But the animal rights philosophy actually has its roots much deeper in history. 19th century British philosopher Jeremy Bentham pointed to the capacity for suffering as the vital characteristic that gives all sentient beings the right to equal consideration. He wrote that the capacity for suffering — and/or enjoyment or happiness — is not just another characteristic like the capacity for language or higher mathematics. The capacity for suffering is a prerequisite for having interests at all, a condition that must be met before we can speak of rights.
Singer took Bentham’s argument one step further by drawing a comparison between discrimination against humans (racism) and discrimination against animals (speciesism). According to Singer, the racist violates the principle of equality by giving greater weight to the interests of members of his/her race than to others. Similarly, the speciesist allows the interest of his/her species to override those of other species. The pattern, in Singer’s view, is identical in each case.
In both the historic and modern views of animal rights, the key point is “sentience,” or the capacity to experience pain or pleasure.
In the animal rights view, if a being is capable of suffering, there can be no moral justification for refusing to take that suffering into consideration. No matter the nature of the being, the principle of equality requires that its suffering be counted equally with the like suffering of any other being. It is true, of course, that we cannot know exactly how animals suffer. We know what pain feels like to us but not to others. We assume that our friends experience pain as we do. They don’t have to speak a word. Screaming, writhing about, crying and other behavior tells us they are in pain. We see the same sort of behavior in animals.
In the animal rights view, the question is not merely whether an animal suffers as a consequence of any particular animal use. The question is whether humans have the right to exploit other sentient beings for any purpose. Even if a particular type of animal use is considered “humane” by traditional definitions, the fact that the animal has the capacity to suffer is sufficient to make its use unacceptable.
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