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Animal Welfare and Animal Rights: A Philosophical Approach to a Political Issue

On Saturday the Isocracy Network is holding a meeting with the Victorian convener of the Animal Justice Party on the topic 'Animal Welfare Issues and the [Australian 2016] Federal Election' [1]. Even announcing the meeting has generated some useful debate, as the Isocracy Network has animal welfare issues as one of its major objectives [2]. Now one does not don't pretend for a moment to have any great knowledge on the various legislation relating to animal welfare in Australia. But it is possible to at least begin to consider some philosophical principles from which ethical behaviour and legislation could be informed predicated on the motivation of reducing harm towards others.

Evidence-Based Philosophy and Policy

A first ontological principle is the recognition that animals exist and at least some are capable of suffering. This is the sort of evidence-based philosophical underpinnings that is appropriate for a secular and pragmatic outlook. One does not need, for example, to follow the speculations of the ancient Pythagoras that we should respect animals due to transmigration of souls, nor does one need to follow the mechanistic claims of the more modern Father Malebranche, who denied that animals had souls and therefore could "eat without pleasure, cry without pain, grow without knowing it; they desire nothing, fear nothing, know nothing".

However, one does not need to accept the more supernatural to recognise where such views come from. According to Xenophanes, Pythagoras intervened when a dog was being beating, claiming that he could hear the cries of of a departed friend. What is certain is that Pythagoras could understand that the dog was expressing and trying to communicate that it was suffering. Likewise Father Malebranche arguably was noting that some things that exist can react without having apperception of the reaction. Indeed, if this is not considered it is possible to end up in an where one is ultimately arguing [3] that because there is a physical reaction to stimuli, then that constitutes evidence of sentience ("to feel").

Reactions in themselves are insufficient justification. If, for example, a person is is under anaesthetic, their body could still react biochemically to sensations, including those that would normally be classified as 'pain' [4]. But they wouldn't be aware of it, except for those unfortunate cases of anesthesia awareness. At our current level of knowledge, perhaps contrary to the animists, it seems almost certain rocks and plants do not have sensation awareness. The line seems to be placed somewhere among certain types of fish that have the necessary neurological requirements (e.g., nociception) that such a sensory awareness is possible [5]. Everything that has evolved from bony fish onwards (reptiles, amphibians, mammals), and cephalopods by convergent evolution, have these requirements. In any case, the precautionary principle applies; in the absence of research consensus that the action is not harmful, the burden of proof falls on those taking an action.

The Continuum from Welfare to Rights

At this point, discussion has been around the notion of animal welfare, rather than rights. This is actually well established in legislation and behaviour. For example, the UK Animal Welfare Act of 2006 establishes criteria for the prevention of harm and distress, the notion of a duty of care, and legal enforcement powers. In advanced liberal democracies there is a growing research in animal welfare science, which determines the degrees and necessary conditions for sentience; this includes the Animal Welfare and Anthrozoology Center at Cambridge University, the Animal Welfare Science Centre at The University of Melbourne in Australia, and the Animal Welfare Science and Bioethics Centre at Massey University in New Zealand. In this sense, ethical behaviour in animal welfare in a legal and institutional sense is certainly progressing.

The distinction between 'animal welfare' and 'animal rights' is a sticking point between various industry and advocacy organisations. Animal rights advocates argue that "there is no rational basis for saying that a human being has special rights. A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy. They are all mammals" [6]. When viewed from a position of sentience and interests alone, this position does seem to have some general justification from the aforementioned capacities. A rat, a pig, a dog, and a boy at least, to the best of our knowledge all have similar capacities to feel and be aware of pain, distress, pleasure, and so forth. They have interests and agency which may conflict with the interests and agency of other species.

However these are arguments for welfare, and even extensive welfare, but not for rights. If one is to avoid the 'nonsense on stilts', as Bentham famously criticised claims of natural rights, then one has to provide a philosophically grounded principle from which rights can be distinguished from a mere competition of interests, and which provide the foundation for political rights, which was Bentham's goal. In such a manner, a direct association is noted with responsibility; a moral right and a moral responsibility indicates the reciprocal relationship, and by which a universal right can be distinguished from a selective liberty.

Thus whilst a range of sentient animals are subject to sentient welfare, it is a much smaller class of sapient and conscious animals that can assert sufficient moral responsibility to acquire rights. This distinction is a continuum and one where certainly in the human species one's status can change over time. A child should be the subject of welfare, but as they grow in autonomy and responsibility through adolescence and mature adulthood they should also acquire increasing levels of political rights equivalent to their level of maturity. One important element in the development of rights over welfare is that there comes a point where a right can be asserted which negates existing interventionist welfare, and the subject demands that responsibility for themselves.

From a philosophical perspective, advanced welfare that recognises interests seems best suited for those animals which illustrate sapience, that is, those that have wisdom (sapere), and are able to act with judgment, in addition to the capacity for awareness and feeling. Further elaboration to those animals that fully display consciousness ("shared knowledge"), that display moral reasoning, have a sense of responsibility, and to express and communicate the same. To the best of our current knowledge, this would mean limited rights to some primates (e.g., chimpanzees), and perhaps to dolphins, and with the lowly rat being a surprising candidate [7] to many.

Practical Implementations

Is a legislative path of thorough and enforced legislation to prevent animal cruelty and promote welfare sufficient? Is there a need for an Office of Animal Welfare? Must we all become vegans or at the least vegetarians? Should we engage in direct action against blood sports and factory farming? What about the ties been environmental issues, wildlife maintenance, and animal welfare?

These particular issues are largely outside the scope of this initial sketch, which sought to provide an examination of the philosophical principles behind the notions of animal rights and welfare. Particular implementations and the most effective strategies will need to be developed further and a later point. But at the very least the appropriate foundations have been established; recognition of sentience, sapience, and consciousness as a continuum of feeling, intelligence, and moral reasoning, and the assignment of welfare, interests, and rights. From such a philosophical foundation, political implementations can be developed.


[1] Saturday, May 28, at the New International Bookshop meeting room, Trades Hall, Corner of Lyon and Victoria Streets, starting at 6pm. Facebook invite:

[2] Item four of the Isocracy "Ten Point Plan" states 'Freedom From Sufferance. We support the promotion of a true, good, and pleasant life for all life and the removal of all which causes suffering to the same. In particular this extends to animal welfare'

[3] An example of such reasoning is in the recent publication by Dr. Andrew Smith, "A Critique of the Moral Defense of Vegetarianism" c.f.,

[4] "Pain" is defined by the International Association for the Study of Pain as "an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage" - note the two-part criteria that requires awareness and damage.

[5] .
See also Rose, J.D., Arlinghaus, R., Cooke, S.J., Diggles, B.K., Sawynok, W., Stevens, E.D. and Wynne, C.D.L. (2012). "Can fish really feel pain?". Fish and Fisheries 15 (1): 97–133. doi:10.1111/faf.12010.

[6] This quote is from Ingrid Newkirk, co-founder of PETA in Vogue September 1, 1989. For further sourced references that further illustrate this approach see:

[7] See for example, Inbal Ben-Ami Bartal, Jean Decety, Peggy Mason, "Empathy and Pro-Social Behavior in Rats", Science 334 (6061) (9 December 2011), pp1427-1430, Steiner AP, Redish AD, Behavioral and neurophysiological correlates of regret in rat decision-making on a neuroeconomic task, Nature Neuroscience. 2014 Jul;17(7):995-1002

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Because animals don't feel pain, unlike moral and reasoning creatures with souls like Barnaby Joyce.