Animal rights versus animal welfare - Veterinary Practice
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InFocus

Animal rights versus animal welfare

What good are animal rights if they offer nothing more than, and cannot realistically be embraced by, law?

From the outset, I should declare that contrary to some circulating photoshopped imagery on the internet, I am not an animal rights advocate and never have been. I’m not offended when people make the mistake, but others who get mislabelled may be. Some fear the possible connotation of “irrationalism” or “extremism” levied at animal rights advocacy. Surely, all philosophical arenas can harbour extremists – the very term “extremist” itself infers rarity.

Regardless, evidence-wise, hardline extremism in animal rights seems extremely minimal – although extreme brutality towards animals in the food, fur and exotic pet industries, among other sectors, abounds. Think of the irony inherent to a fisherman, chicken farmer or high-street pet seller complaining about the invasiveness of an animal rights protest while crushing and suffocating tons of fish, confining stressed and broken-legged birds to dark sheds or incarcerating wild animals, degrading species populations and spreading zoonotic disease – pretty extreme stuff!

So, what is wrong with animal rights?

From an analytical perspective, arguably what matters most is the foundation of animal rights as a philosophy or a concept. Rights, animal or human, could be thought of as something so fundamental and strong that they offer immutable and superior protections to law. That would make sense if it worked and if law did not.

Common justifications for animal rights include:

  • “Animals should have equal rights with humans”
  • “Animals have a right to be able to live their lives free from suffering or exploitation”
  • “Animals have a right to life”

One can easily argue that such rights are appealing and mostly “just”. But laudable as they are, none of these rights do, or could, protect animals any more than they do people. Drilling down into these rights soon exposes some major flaws that appear to confound their aims.

For example, setting aside a bunch of irrelevant human rights, such as legally drinking alcohol at 18 and road use for taxpayers, what would be appropriate equal rights for animals? Perhaps access to healthcare or freedom from arbitrary violence? Well, the law – certainly in many countries – already makes it an offence not to provide healthcare for animals and prohibits abusive violence. Yet normal healthcare and freedom from violence get abandoned in situations such as war among humans or the factory farming of animals. Rights are, again, waived or usurped by law or circumstance.

Our acceptance of causing pain for a perceived greater good is variable and conditional, and exploitation arises based on whether something is regarded as fair at the time

Can animals really benefit from the right to live free from suffering or exploitation? Many, if not most, of us are prepared to accept the equitable trade of a minor vaccination pinprick to a squealing puppy or even the discomfort of major amputation surgery in exchange for the enduring protection of animals against unwelcome disease or injury. Our acceptance of causing pain for a perceived greater good is variable and conditional, and exploitation arises based on whether something is regarded as fair at the time.

If animals have a right to live, how would that balance with the right of a predator to survive? Does drought wrongly impinge on a right to life? Given that everything dies, the right to life is an inevitable failure. OK, we could take nature out of it and limit things to animals under human control. Then, what about euthanasia aimed at preventing suffering? Even humans do not have these or other comparable rights.

Philosophical ideals versus animal welfare laws

Perhaps it is fair to say that animal rights are based on philosophical ideals and challenges to societal thinking and behaviour, whereas animal welfare is based on science and law.

While animal welfare is now accepted as a solid science, only a few decades ago it was snubbed as emotionally driven and scientifically soft

Animal rights advocates might argue that their ideas helped to drive some moral questions in animal welfare science, which has squarely adopted, addressed and confirmed many principal issues in pretty much all studied species. These issues include pain perception, stress mechanisms, psycho-behavioural problems, self-identification, play, preference for natural or naturalistic conditions, sentience and many other considerations. Of course, animal welfare scientists may have addressed the same targets entirely on their own. Bear in mind, though, that while animal welfare is now accepted as a solid science, only a few decades ago it was snubbed as emotionally driven and scientifically soft.

Laws provide boundaries to responsibility that can be strongly enforced. But what if we enshrined animal rights into law? Wouldn’t doing so merely bring us full circle to the confounding case examples presented previously? What good are animal rights if they offer nothing more than, and cannot realistically be embraced by, law? Laws do frequently fail animals because they are not the right laws, not properly enforced or not strong enough. That’s not a fault with the law, per se; it’s a fault of society and government.

Laws do frequently fail animals because they are not the right laws, not properly enforced or not strong enough. That’s not a fault with the law, per se; it’s a fault of society and government

Final thoughts

Animal rights can be counter-balanced, outweighed or plain trampled as easily as they can be invented. Howsoever driven, society and government will – hopefully – continue to evolve ethical strategies for the protection of animals. But we could, and should, do a lot more to tip the scales favourably towards their benefit.

Clifford Warwick

Consultant Biologist and Medical Scientist

Clifford Warwick, PGDip (MedSci), PhD, CBiol, CSci, EurProBiol, FRSB, is a biologist and medical scientist. He is author of around 200 scientific articles, books and book chapters on reptile biology, animal welfare and zoonoses.


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