Animal rights are the legal wording of animal protection or animal liberation. They are based on the idea that the needs and interests of nonhuman animal species – feeding, moving, reproducing and avoiding suffering, for example – are sufficiently complex and linked to cognitive development that allows them to have moral and legal rights. Animal rights advocates believe that animals should no longer be considered as objects that one can own or use, but that they should be considered as legal persons.
The idea of granting rights to animals is supported by law professors such as Alan Dershowitz and Laurence Tribe of Harvard Law School, and animal law courses are now offered in 92 out of 180 law schools in the United States.
In the Middle Ages, lawsuits against animals (pigs, weevils, caterpillars, mice, snakes, etc.) are organized by the Church. Lawyers are appointed in defense of animals. The first excommunication of an animal eas declared by the bishop of Laon towards caterpillars and field mice for the injury caused to the crops. In 1451 the bishop of Lausanne excommunicated the leeches of Lake Geneva.
The recognition for the first time by a court of a legal personality to an animal dates from December 2014. On the 21st of this month, the Criminal Cassation Chamber of Buenos Aires, considering that an orangutan is “a non human person”, pronounced a writ of habeas corpus. However, the debate on animal rights is not recent.
It was initiated by philosophers of antiquity as Pythagoras in the sixth century BCE, who was called “the first philosopher of animal rights.” He demanded respect for animals because he believed in the transmigration of souls between humans and non-humans: by killing an animal, one could have killed an ancestor. He defended vegetarianism, rejecting the use of animals as foods or sacrificial victims.
Peter Singer, in his Oxford Companion to Philosophy, believes that the first chapter of Genesis describes how God gave humans dominion over animals, moderated in the Torah by injunctions to gentleness; for example, not having his oxen working on Shabbos. The New Testament lacks such exhortations, Paul interpreting this requirement for the benefit of human owners and not the animals themselves. Augustine considers that Jesus allowed the pigs of Gadarene to drown in order to demonstrate that man has no duty to care for animals, a position adopted by Thomas Aquinas, which says that humans should not show charity towards animals only to ensure that habits of cruelty do not creep into our treatment of human beings, a position taken up by Locke and Kant.
Aristotle, 4th century BCE, declared that the animals were placed far below the humans in scala naturæ, because of their irrationality, and because they would not have any own interest. One of his students, Theophrastus, disagreed, stating against meat consumption, alleging that it was depriving animals of their lives, and that it was therefore unfair. Animals, he says, can reason, feel, and feel in the same way as human beings. This view did not prevail, and it is Aristotle’s position – that humans and non-humans lived in different moral realms because some were endowed with reason and not others – which persisted largely until protests of some philosophers in the 1970s.
In the 17th century, the French philosopher René Descartes argued in his animal-machine theory that animals had neither soul nor spirit, and that they were only complex automata. They could not think or suffer. They would be equipped to see, hear, touch, and even experience fear and anger, but they would not be aware. In opposition to this thesis, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in the preface to his Discourse on Inequality (1754), recalls that man began as an animal, although not “devoid of intelligence and freedom”. However, animals being sentient beings, “they should participate in natural law, and … man is subject to certain duties towards them”.
Later, in the eighteenth century, one of the founders of modern utilitarianism, the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, declared that the suffering of animals is as real and morally important as human suffering, and that “the day will come when the rest animal creation will acquire those rights which should never have been denied to them except through the hand of tyranny “. Bentham considered that the faculty of suffering, and not the faculty of reasoning, should be the criterion for evaluating the just treatment of other beings. If the ability to reason was the criterion, many human beings, including babies and disabled people, would be treated as if they were things, he wrote in a famous quote.
In the nineteenth century, Arthur Schopenhauer states that animals share the same essence as humans, despite the lack of ability to reason. Although he considers vegetarianism excessive, he defends respect for animals in morality and denounces vivisection. His criticism of Kantian ethics contains a long and often heated controversy against the exclusion of animals from his moral system.
In 1822, the United Kingdom Parliament passed the world’s first animal welfare law, the Martin’s Act, introduced by Irish MP Richard Martin. It prohibits acts of cruelty against “cattle” (horses, cows, sheep …). The first animal welfare or animal welfare association, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, was founded in Great Britain in 1824, and similar groups soon emerged in Europe and then North America. In France, the Société protectrice des animaux (SPA) was created in 1845, in Paris, with the aim of improving “the lot of animals, in a thought of justice, morals, well-understood economy and public hygiene.” On July 2, 1850, General de Gramont passed a law relating to the ill-treatment of domestic animals. The first group in the United States, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, entered the New York State Charter in 1866. The first anti-vivisection movement was created in the second half of the nineteenth century. The concept of animal rights became the theme of an influential 1892 book, Animals’ Rights: Considered in Relation to Social Progress, by the English social reformer Henry Salt, a year after forming the Humanitarian League, with the goal of prohibit hunting as a sport.
At the beginning of the 20th century, associations defending animal welfare and the laws against cruelty to animals, were present in almost every country in the world. Specialized animal welfare groups have increased between those dedicated to the preservation of endangered species and others, such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), who protest against brutal hunting methods. or painful, maltreatment of animals reared on intensive farms, and the use of animals in experiments and entertainments. In 1978, a Universal Declaration of Animal Rights was proclaimed at the House of UNESCO. However, it has no legal value.