Animals think. Animals feel emotion. Animals experience pain. Yet there are members of our human society that find these facts irrelevant. In fact there are many people that have no problem disregarding these facts entirely as long as they are able to reap some type of personal reward or benefit from an animal. Whether that benefit is in the form of food, clothing, or testing the latest new lipstick, it is always at the expense of the animal's well-being. In this paper I argue that the abuse of animals is morally wrong and therefore animals ought to be afforded rights which place the same consideration on their sentience as is placed on human beings.
Sentience is a term used to describe the fact that animals feel pain and emotions in much the same fashion as human beings. It is also used as a philosophical argument in favor of animal rights and the concern for how animals are treated in our society. Animal rights positions vary from the desire to give animals all of the same rights as humans, to the avoidance of the unnecessary infliction of pain or suffering upon animals. It is the latter stance that I advocate for because I do believe that animals are necessary for human survival in many instances. However it is one thing for a native tribe to feed their families with the meat of a wild animal, and it is quite another to hurt or kill an animal so that you can wear a pretty fur coat or hang its head on the wall as a trophy. As such, a major part of the moral argument regarding animals rights is based on need and purpose.
Animal rights activist Priscilla Cohn explains her reasoning on the issue of need and purpose as follows: "Recreational hunting is killing for fun, and I am opposed to killing in all forms, unless it is clearly a rationally established matter of self-defense. Most people, I believe, desire to be treated justly…Most people understand what justice is, and most agree that inflicting pain and suffering on another living, sentient being without some important purpose is improper from a moral point-of-view. Thus, all that remains to be shown, in issues such as hunting, is whether the recreation is what we would call an important purpose" (Cohn 74). The idea that hunting for sport and recreation is sufficient cause to needlessly slaughter animals is unfathomable to me. How can the alleged "fun" of shooting a defenseless deer or rabbit possibly constitute a human necessity? It seems ludicrous, however there are millions of people who hunt for sport who feel exactly that way.
There have been several movies made about people who hunt other humans for sport. Watching these movies the viewer is supposed to be shocked and appalled that human beings could treat each other in such a cruel and heartless manner. Yet how does this differ from hunting animals for sport? Granted, animals cannot do many of the things that humans do. They cannot speak in words and sentences. They cannot do complicated math problems or write great novels. But you know what? Neither can infants. Neither can many mentally challenged people. But no one says that is okay to go around shooting them for fun, and hanging their heads up on their walls.
In many ways animals are more developmentally advanced than human infants. Therefore, the argument that animals do not deserve to be treated with the same respect as humans because they can't talk, drive or cure cancer is erroneous because not all humans can do these things either. Furthermore, those who argue that infants will eventually grow to be able to do all of the things that other people can do, while animals will not is also unfounded because this would imply that people who are mentally retarded, mute or disabled are not worthy of rights any more than animals are.
Ultimately, to declare a being's worthiness as being equal to what they can do and accomplish compared yourself is an elitist and arbitrary way to decide who deserves to be treated with decency and who does not. The "death panels" that Sarah Palin once spoke of in which a group of people get to decide who lives or dies based on a list of criteria is exactly the same type of situation that anti-animal rights activists are advocating. Who are we, as humans, to say that because we can perform certain tasks that animals cannot, that we should have more rights than they should? Animals can do many things that humans cannot do as well. Many of them are stronger than we are, can jump higher, can swing from tree to tree and can beat us in a foot race. Every creature has unique qualities, and none are more important than the other. So it simply makes no logical or moral sense to claim that humans are "better" than animals because we can talk and reason. Moreover, we do not even know for sure the extent to which animals communicate with one another or the extent to which they can think and solve problems. We have all heard the stories about dog's who save their "master's" lives or rescued a child from a burning building. Incidents such as these seem to indicate that animals do in fact have reasoning and problem-solving abilities. That aside, even if they couldn't figure out how to drop a bone in a hole, their abilities should have no bearing on whether or not they should be treated cruelly. Cruel treatment is morally wrong no matter who it is being done to and no matter why it is being done.
In addition to the purpose, or what could be called the "worthiness" argument, animals rights activists and their critics argue intently about whether animals feel pain in the same way that humans feel pain. Adam Kolber, in an article titled Standing Upright: The Moral and Legal Standing of Humans and Other Apes, refers to a quote by famous animal liberation advocate Jeremy Bentham that succinctly sums up the core of the pain argument: "[t]he question is not, Can they reason? Nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?" (164). Some critics ask how we can possibly know that animals suffer pain when they are not able to tell us. This is one of the most flimsy tenets upon which the anti-animal rights camp rests its laurels. Does a dog not yelp if he gets kicked or burned? Does that sound not indicate pain just as significantly as a human screaming "Ow! That hurt!"? Humans express themselves with the same types of sounds that animals make when they are in pain. They do not logically explain that you should not kick them because it causes an unpleasant sensation. They scream, or cry, or yelp, just as an animal does.
Kolber brings to light many of the solid arguments of animal liberation advocate Peter Singer in his article which provide a much stronger foundation of moral reasoning than any arguments made by the anti-pain camp. According to Kolber, "Importantly for Singer, the capacity to experience pleasure and pain 'is not just another characteristic like the capacity for language, or for higher mathematics,' which might arbitrarily determine whether a being's interests should count. Rather, the 'capacity for suffering and enjoying things is a prerequisite for having interests at all, a condition that must be satisfied before we can speak of interests in any meaningful way' (165) ." Kolber further explains that "On this view, because a cow is sentient, its interests in avoiding painful electric shocks during a scientific experiment count as strongly as the interests that a chimpanzee or a human has in avoiding…