The Case for Human and Animal Rights

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In a July 2019 article in the Washington Post, Yon Soo Park and Benjamin Valentino described findings from their study in which they explored both individual attitudes and state policies regarding human and animal rights. Park and Valentino noted that support for animal rights is expanding, often in conjunction with support for human rights. As they pointed out in their article, people who support an expansive view of human rights are often more likely to support animal rights:

“The abolition of slavery, decolonization, women’s suffrage, and the civil rights, disability rights, and the LGBTQ rights movements were not efforts to generate entirely new sets of rights. Rather, they sought to secure for previously marginalized and excluded groups the same rights that others were already enjoying. Animals may one day join that circle.”

But is what Park and Valentino described in their article a new phenomenon? And is it possible to advance both human and animal rights more quickly than we have in the past?

At times throughout history, human and animal rights have been treated as one cause. For example, in the nineteenth century, among religious and secular advocates in the United Kingdom and the United States, efforts to protect vulnerable people and animals united over a common moral vision. Advocates first emphasized religious creeds like mercy, care, and protection, and, with increased secularization, their emphasis gradually shifted to the importance of respect for dignity and justice. In 1874, it was the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals founder Henry Bergh who successfully made the case that a young girl named Mary Ellen deserved legal protection from abuse based on protections Bergh had secured for animals several years prior. Leaders like Bergh realized that policy measures and sanctions to protect vulnerable children and animals often required similar principles, responses, and solutions.

Today, despite some advances, activists working to secure human and animal rights still wage many of the same battles advocates like Bergh did in the late nineteenth century. Efforts commonly focus on reducing harm to people and animals, rather than securing true freedom and the opportunity to live up to one’s full potential.

To some, it may seem frivolous—given current assaults on human rights—to argue that we need to advance animal rights. But this reaction fails to see a fundamental connection: the way we treat any living being affects how we treat another.

We have come a long way since the days of René Descartes, who forwarded the notion that animals were mere machines devoid of emotion or experience. We now know that many animals have powers of deliberation, imagination, intelligence, empathy, and love. When deprived of liberty, opportunity, and justice, they also suffer like us, whether from fear, pain, or mental disorders such as anxiety, posttraumatic stress, and depression. Respect for animals’ rights determines whether they can be healthy and thrive. The same is true for us, as human beings—no matter where we come from, where we live, what we look like, what we can do, or whom we love.

At a time when fundamental rights like liberty and opportunity are under attack, we cannot yield to fear. We must be bold, push forward, and demand that principles including respect for dignity, liberty, and sovereignty, as well as compassion and justice, be upheld and expanded in a way that is both morally and legally consistent. We must finally and fully embrace these principles in our norms, behaviors, policies, and practices—from what we say, eat, and wear to the laws we secure and uphold. Only then will we foster a society that is healthy and thriving.