People have joined together in hopes of gaining respect for the rights of animals since the 1800s. In the course of time, the number of activists and the causes they support has grown considerably.
Traditional philosophy in the West had little respect for
animals. They were viewed as being incomparably inferior to humans. Philosophers of former eras seldom felt that humans should be required to care about animals at all, and that animals' happiness was certainly irrelevant in evaluating human decisions.
Jeremy Bentham changed the philosophies of many people by changing the way they looked at animals. Rather than regarding them as inferior to human beings because of their inability to reason, Bentham applied ethical utilitarianism to animals. He said that because animals suffered, their happiness was indeed relevant.
In Animal Liberation, Peter Singer argues that humans have a moral obligation to animals because they feel happiness and pain. He too bases his theories on utilitarianism. Singer criticizes human "speciesism" as no better than racism or sexism.
Towards the end of the 1970s, some moral philosophers applied
the idea of rights to animals. They argued that animals, like humans, have certain absolute rights. This meant that there were human actions which were simply unacceptable, and that humans must respect animal rights at all times.
The groups that make the rights argument are less compromising than the utilitarian philosophers. Tom Regan, a professor of philosophy, maintains in The Case for Animal Rights
that many types of animals have inalienable rights like people.
Today, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is the foremost group protesting against mistreatment of animals. Founded in 1980, the organization now has over 300,000 members.
Many, but certainly not all, of the modern animal rights groups focus their arguments on the rights perspective, rather than the utilitarian theories. Their opponents, however, feel that human and animal life simply cannot be
While opinions on the issue of animal rights still differ, there is today a much higher degree of respect for the happiness and suffering of animals than there was centuries – and even decades – ago.
Animal Rights opponentsAnimal Rights Law CenterA Shockwave presentation on cruelty to animals