Seal hunters drive European anti-sealers off the Magdalen Islands. Pickets in Edmonton protest against Alberta farmers who keep pregnant mares under "inhumane conditions" to sell their estrogen-rich urine to an American pharmaceutical firm. Emotional confrontations such as these signal that not all is well in the human-animal world.
Like the environment, feminism and other such "movements," animal rights appears to be a new issue. But debate about what constitutes animal rights is not fringe stuff, as opponents allege. In 1989, a Parents magazine survey revealed that 80 per cent of the magazine's mainstream, middle-class American readership believed that animals have rights--though 80 per cent also believed that it was morally permissible to use animals for human benefit.
Animal rights began to receive significant attention in the mid-1960s, first with the advent of Ruth Harrison's book Animal Machines in Britain and then with Australian philosopher Peter Singer's contention of "animal liberation"--that we should attach as much importance to the suffering of animals as we would to similar suffering of people. The term "animal rights" didn't catch on until the American philosopher Tom Regan argued that most current uses of animals are wrong, not because they cause suffering but because they violate animals' inherent rights as much as slavery violates basic human rights.
The idea of animal rights centres on relationships--relationships between animals and those who farm them, hunt them, trap them, use them for research, and eat them (which for most of us is our most direct contact with animals outside of pets and wildlife sightings). If the idea of animal rights seems to be new, our relationship with animals is actually one of history's oldest philosophical discussions, beginning when our ancestors clubbed their first mastodon. The ethical attitudes that shape this relationship do not occur ex nihilo; rather, they are built on previous experience.
The issue receives unprecedented attention today because of unprecedented changes in our dealings with nature and other people and our accountability to God. This combination of continuity and change makes animal rights a natural step in the evolution of human ethical thought.
Our present-day ethics hail from ancient Greece, whose citizens shared our gamut of beliefs. Stoics and Aristotle said that animals fall outside our sphere of moral concern because they lack reason and beliefs. Pythagoras promoted vegetarianism because killing livestock equalled human bloodshed. Early Christianity absorbed this diversity, with some Christians becoming moral vegetarians. Thus, the Rule of St. Benedict forbade monks from eating meat unless they were ill. The pro-meat side rejoiced when St. Augustine declared that "Thou shalt not kill" didn't apply to beasts that "fly, swim, walk or creep because they are linked to us by no association or common bond."
St. Augustine's influence, and later St. Thomas Aquinas's similar views, turned this perception of animalus domesticus into the accepted Christian ethic. In contrast to Native and eastern philosophies, which saw animals as having souls and therefore as being part of these philosophies' sphere of ethical concerns, western thought excluded animals from our legal and moral systems until the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, strong biblical injunctions fostered a common social consensus forbidding wanton cruelty to animals. Granted, there were exceptions, such as the time when Christ sent the Gadarene Demons into a herd of swine (which promptly lunged off a cliff) and when Queen Elizabeth I burned an effigy of the pope stuffed with live cats.
History justifies claims that the idea of animal rights reflects our distancing from nature. In the Middle Ages, 90 per cent of the population worked in food production. Indeed, western civiliation was agrarian until the last two centures. At Confederation, 80 per cent of Canadians laboured on farms; others fished or hunted for a living, implying a close reliance on nature. …