The Core Argument for Animal Rights

Mark Rowlands, a famous and well-respected animals rights philosopher, has crafted a succinct argument in favor of attributing moral rights to non-human animals. The argument runs as follows:

  • (1). Animals count morally. They count morally because they have interests that matter – consciously – to them. Animals can suffer or enjoy the things that happen to them.
  • (2). Some of their interests are vital ones(e.g. the right to avoid horrific suffering). To violate their vital interests in order to promote only non-vital interests of our own(e.g. the taste of meat) is to treat them as if they do not count morally.
  • (3). It is wrong to treat something that does count morally as if it does not count morally. 
  • (4). Therefore, violating vital interests of animals to promote non-vital interests of ours is morally wrong. 
  • (5). Many of the ways we currently treat animals involve violating their most vital interests in order to promote our non-vital interests(e.g. factory farming)
  • (6). Therefore, many of the ways in which we currently treat animals are morally wrong.

Call this the “core argument” for animal rights. This post will defend each premise of the core argument for animal rights. Most objections to animal rights are levied at either (1) or (2), so I will spend most of my time supporting these two crucial premises.

The Moral Importance of Interests

(1) invokes the concept of “interests”. But what are interests and why are they morally relevant?

To say that an entity has interests is to say that it has a welfare— it is capable of being harmed or benefited by what happens to it. To have moral rights and standing is to be the sort of being whose interests are considered from the moral point of view. 

Said another way, when we give entities moral consideration, we give consideration to how our actions can harm or benefit them. Having interests entails “having a stake” in how one is treated so to say. From this, it follows that interests form the basis of moral consideration. Hence, if non-human animals have interests, then we must consider them in our ethical decision making.

Consciousness Forms the Basis of Interests

What are the necessary and sufficient conditions for a being to have interests? Aaron Simmons gives a simple yet sensible answer to this question: consciousness.

We should start with the observation that Interests are inherently evaluative. For a being to have interests means that certain things have value for that being, certain things are good for that being. For example, a being having an interest in life implies that life has value for that being.

So then, what explains the nature of this value, where this value comes from, and why certain things have value for some beings? I think a being’s capacity for desires provides the most reasonable explanation for the idea that certain things are of value to certain beings.

To start with, it seems clear that there is a basic link between desiring and valuing . When we desire a thing, we regard that thing as good to some degree, meaning simply that we have some positive feeling toward that thing.

It is unclear where that value is meant to come from if not, in some sense, from an entity’s capacity to desire or care about things — that is, if not from an entity’s capacity to have positive feelings toward certain things, to regard things as good. If an entity completely lacks the capacity to desire or care about things, then it is perplexing how things could have value for it.

Hence, the best explanation for the value imbued in interests is the presence of mental states such as desires and goals that relate to intrinsically motivating qualitative states like joy and suffering. In other words, a system of consciousness is both necessary and sufficient for the possession of interests. Therefore, (1) has been affirmed. Non-human animals count morally.

Only Indirect Duties?

One might try and resist the conclusion of the previous section by arguing that we only have indirect duties to non-human animals. That is, whatever moral obligations exist relating to the treatment of non-human animals exist because of their relational properties with other things of value. On this view, every moral duty pertaining to non-human animals will have a rationale other than that it is for the sake of the animal and other than that the animal itself matters morally.

At first blush, such an ‘indirect duties’ view seems clearly false. To an obvious example, it would be extremely unethical for a group of teenagers to soak a cat in gasoline and set it on fire for the sadistic pleasure of watching the cat suffer. It also seems clear that the suffering of the cat is what accounts for the immorality of the action.

In order to accommodate these intuitions, indirect duties theorists often rely on a psychological thesis to the effect that treating animals in a harmful way will lead to corresponding harmful treatment of humans, or else will be symptomatic of some character trait or disposition that is of concern for what it means for humans.

This response is insufficient. For starters, it’s vulnerable to counterexamples. Consider the thought experiment given by philosopher Peter Carruthers, himself an indirect duty theorist, “Astrid has left earth on a space-rocket, on an irreversible trajectory that will take her out of the solar system and forever out of contact with her fellow human beings. Now in her rocket she carries with her a cat…. As the years pass she becomes bored … [and] ties the cat to the wall and uses it as a dartboard. Since there are no effects upon the feelings of animal-lovers, those effects cannot explain our conviction that Astrid has acted wrongly”(The Animals Issue: Moral Theory in Practice, 108).

Philosopher Robert Bass has also argued that there is internal tension surrounding the alleged psychological link between harming non-human animals and harming humans. In order to affirm duties respecting animals, the psychological link must be difficult to break or dissolve. That is, it must be difficult to treat animals badly without this affecting our well humans are treated(otherwise, the indirect duty theorist would have no cogent response to burning cat hypothetical).

On the other hand, in order to hold that our indirect duties morally permit everyday uses of animals, the psychological link must be relatively easy to break or dissolve. Otherwise, those directly involved in the animal agriculture industry, who confine animals and cause them to experience conscious suffering for our use, will pose a great danger to the rest of us. The indirect duty theorist wants to have their cake and eat it too, but it’s far from obvious that this can be done.

The Varieties of Interests

Not all interests are created equal. In particular, we can divide interests into two categories: vital interests and non-vital interests. A vital interest is an interest that corresponds to a need that must be met if an individual is to have a fulfilling life. A non-vital interest is an interest that corresponds to a need that does not need to be met if an individual is to have a fulfilling life.

Human beings have many vital interests. Among the most important include:

  • Physical safety; staying alive
  • Food and water; shelter
  • Avoiding severe pain and suffering 
  • Self-determination; autonomy 
  • Education

Human beings also have many non-vital interests. Some of which include:

  • Eating ice cream
  • Playing video games
  • Swimming in the ocean
  • Taking a vacation to the Bahamas
  • Enjoying the taste of meat

The distinction between vital and non-vital interest is essential in order to understand (2). In order to evaluate the truth of (2), we must reflect on some of the vital interests that non-human animals have. While the details will change according to the specific species under discussion, most non-human animals have the following vital interests:

  • Avoiding pain and suffering
  • Food and water
  • Appropriate Environment
  • Freedom of movement
  • Companionship/Social community

With this backdrop, we can analysis the ethical premise that underlies (2)—Violating the vital interests of non-human animals in order to promote the non-vital interest of humans is to treat non-human animals as if they don’t matter morally. Thankfully, Rowland gives a helpful analogy in order to justify this moral principle.

Suppose you wake up in a dark room and find that someone has taken one of your kidneys without your consent. This theft comes and explains that he stole your kidney in order to pay for a Ferrari 458 Italia. The thief has overridden a vital interest of yours(having two functional kidneys) in order to satisfy their non-vital interest(getting a Ferrari).Clearly, the thief has treated you as if you didn’t count morally. It is in virtue of this fact that the thief has infringed on your moral rights.

Rowland’s analogy gives strong reason for thinking that violating vital interests in service of non-vital interests is morally wrong. If overriding vital interests for non-vital ones is immoral in the human case, there is no consistent reason why it wouldn’t also be wrong in the animal case. This is due to the Principle of Equal Consideration of Interests: Similar interests should be given equal weight, regardless of what type of being they occur in.

Racism, sexism, ableism, and “intelligence-ism” violate the principle of equal considerations of interests. This is why they are wrong. The equal consideration of interest principle is denied for irrelevant reasons: “They’re not like us!”. Holding that the thwarting of vital interests in order to accommodate non-vital interests is morally monstrous in the human case, but perfectly fine in the non-human case, shows gross disregard for the equal consideration of interests. Like cases would not be treated alike. This bias in favor of the human species, known in the philosophical literature as speciesism, is very common in modern society: “They’re just animals; they’re not of our species!”.

Hence, If the principle of equal consideration of interests is correct(its explaining why racism and sexism are wrong helps confirm it), and non-human animals have interests, then speciesist uses of animals are wrong. If speciesist uses of animals are wrong, then the truth of (2) is inescapable—violating the vital interests of non-human animals to appease the non-vital interests of humans demonstrates a failure to acknowledge the moral value that non-human animals have.

Modern Treatment of Animals

The truth of (3) is self-evident and undeniable. (4) follows logically from (1)-(3), so (4) is true as well. That leaves only (5) remaining. Do modern farming practices violate the vital interests of non-human animals? Are these violations done in service of the non-vital interests of humans? The answer is affirmative on both counts.

In their paper, A Moral Argument for Veganism, Nathan Nobis and Daniel Hooley list the various ways non-human animals are harmed on factory farms:

  • Male chicks are useless to the egg industry since they don’t lay eggs or grow big enough to be useful for their flesh. As a result, male chicks are killed, either by suffocation or being ground alive. Every year about 200 million male chicks are killed in the U.S.  
  • ‘Broiler’ chickens and turkeys (raised for meat) live indoors in crowded sheds. These animals have been bred to grow very large, very quickly. In the 1920s, a chicken took about 16 weeks to grow to be over 2 pounds, now they can reach 5 pounds in just 7 weeks. As a result, they suffer leg disorders, chronic joint pain, and heart attacks. Injured birds often have their necks broken or are clubbed to death.  
  • Pigs live in crowded pens, and at a young age are castrated and have their tails cut off, all without anesthetic. Young pigs who are injured, or not growing fast enough, are killed, sometimes by being gassed, other times by being slammed to the ground. Sows are confined for the majority of their lives in metal, ‘gestation crates’ barely larger than their own body, where they cannot turn around. Their confinement causes severe physical and emotional distress.  
  • Female dairy cows are separated from their young after birth, an experience that is often emotionally distressing. Most live confined in cramped sheds on concrete floors. Young dairy cows are branded, dehorned, and have their tails cut off, all without anesthetic. When the cows are ‘spent’ and no longer produce as much milk, usually at a small fraction of their natural life span, they are sent to slaughter. Here, ‘downed’ dairy cows, who can no longer move on their own, are often kicked or shocked to be made to move to slaughter.  
  • Veal calves are a direct product of the dairy industry: nearly all veal calves are the male offspring of dairy cows. These animals are confined in individual crates, too narrow for them to even turn around, where they are tethered by their neck to further restrict their movement. Living like this causes these calves significant stress, fear, and physical pain.  
  • Cows raised for their flesh are branded, castrated, and dehorned, all without anesthetic. Most spend the last months of their lives in crowded feedlots.

These horrific practices are obviously incompatible with non-human animals living satisfying lives—or even lives barely worth living. As such, modern farming practices infringe on the vital interests of non-human animals.Moreover, the vital interests of non-human animals are violated because of non-vital human interests. Humans can live a satisfying life without eating meat, as evidenced by the millions of vegetarians and vegans in the world.

But what about health? Doesn’t meat production serve the vital human interest of maintaining good health? On the contrary, meat is not needed to remain alive, or healthy. On a vegan diet, you can even be an Olympic weightlifter, a UFC fighter, or a marathon runner. Further, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the world’s largest organization of food and nutrition professionals, states that vegan diets are healthy for all stages of life. Since animal products aren’t necessary for good health, considerations about health don’t justify the the pain, suffering, frustration, deprivation, death and other harms done to animals.

The only human interests that meat production serves are non-vital interests such as taste pleasure and preserving certain eating rituals/traditions, none of which can justify the mass amount of suffering we cause to non-human animals. With this recognition, (5) is established.


Non-human animals are deserving of moral status and moral rights in virtue of their conscious interests. The implication is that many contemporary uses of non-human animals in the agriculture industry are profoundly unethical, for they involve trampling over the vital interests of non-human animals in favor of non-vital interests of humans. This provides strong moral reason to adopt a vegan or vegetarian diet.

That is, in short, the core argument for animal rights. Taken together, the core argument provides a solid foundation for animal rights philosophy.

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