Ethical Issues

Animal RightsThe emotional attachments that develop between human and animal, especially when it comes to pets, complicates the rational arguments over the rights and wrongs of how we consider animal welfare. Stories of animal research in relation to vivisection, for example, are often portrayed in a negative light in the media and buoyed up by animal rights activists.

But whether society likes or dislikes animals, changes in the law (ie  formation of the Animal Welfare Act in 2006) demonstrate a public consensus in the UK in favour of treating animals with care.

Animal Rights vs Animal Welfare

If animals have rights … which animals should be granted these rights … and what rights should we expect are reasonable for us to respect?

The distinction between these two definitions can be summed up as follows:.

Animal Rights campaigner:

They consider that no animal should be kept in a cage. It is also considered that however humane an animal is looked after it is not a given right for the human race to use or exploit animals in any way whatsoever regardless of the costs and benefits to humans.

Animal Welfare campaigner:

They campaign for larger cages. It is considered acceptable to use and/or exploit animals so long as the animals do not suffer. In the case of animal research it is argued that they may not be any other alternative than to use animals to achieve the objectives of the experiment.

Are some animals more worthy than others with regard to how we treat them?

Should we consider the rights of a simple common bumblebee to be as important as a stable horse? Some consider that those animals that have a ‘biography’, rather than ‘biology’, should have some rights.

Animal rights versus human rights.

While we all enjoy certain rights it is considered absurd that we should bestow the same rights onto animals, - such as freedom of speech and religion. But are there some rights which animals should be granted and respected by humans? For example, should humans avoid the exploitation of animals in all cases? Should we consider the interests of animals to be of equal merit to our own?

How do we decide which animals have rights and what are those rights?

Some may argue that animals that don't look especially cute or are more aggressive towards humans should be granted lesser rights than others. Another method of making these distinctions include:

The following group have fewer rights:

  • less complex animals
  • less obvious consciousness
  • less sociable animals
  • animals that don't appear to feel pain
  • animals that cause harm to humans

Of these groups of animals an exception is made for endangered species.

With regard to treating animals in a humane way there is a wide range of views. At one extreme we might say that animals have no rights at all and we can treat them in any way we wish, for food, clothing, entertainment, experimentation etc.

At the other end of the spectrum we might argue that if we do something wrong to an animal we are actually degrading our own morality and our understanding of a caring humanity, which challenges our human rights. In this case there is no need to recognise and agonise over a debate on animal rights so long as we hold true to our own moral code. In other words:

We acknowledge that causing pain and suffering to any living creature undermines our own moral standing as a human being. Therefore it is wrong to inflict pain and suffering on an animal.


This refers to the idea that our own species is more important than any other animal and has higher moral values. For example if a child and dog are trapped in a fire and we could only save one of them what should we do? Our automatic answer is usually "save the child".

However, the recent case of a child falling into the pen of a 17-year-old gorilla called Harambe at Cincinnati zoo might challenge this answer. The child fell into the pen because it was not being looked after by it's parents. Evidence shows that the gorilla was trying to save the child. And yet the zoo authorities opted to shoot the gorilla.


Objective Measurements of Animal Well-Being

  • Productivity: eg: growth and reproduction rates.
  • Health assessments: e.g. levels of mortality, injury or disease.
  • Physiological measurements: e.g. fluctuations in heart rate, catecholamine secretion and changes in the immune system. Changes in these criteria may be indicative of stress.
  • Changes in behaviour: An animal that is distressed may appear to be unhappy. This may be demonstrated by abnormal behaviours, including aggression, repetitive movements, avoidance behaviour and crying.

In each case these measurements can be deceptive and misleading. The use of drugs can protect farm animals against disease and increased mortality. Reproductive and growth rates can be artificially manipulated by the use of drugs and diet.

Religion and animal rights

Early Christians mainly ignored animal suffering. Humans have souls and animals don't. Modern Christian thinking has changed and is more kind to animals.


Example of the arguments for using animals: Circus Entertainment:

An Animal Rights campaigner’s case is that the use of animals to entertain human beings is wrong because:

  • it treats the animal as a means to achieve some human end
  • it fails to treat animals with the respect they deserve
  • it violates the animal's right to live in freedom

An Animal Welfare campainger’s case might object because:

  • it removes animals from their natural habitat and social structure
  • it involves the animal in performances that are foreign to their natural behaviour
  • it may involve cruelty during the show (e.g. bullfighting, rodeos)
  • it may involve cruelty in training the animal
  • it may involve cruelty in the way the animal is kept and transported
  • animals can be taught to perform provided their minimum needs for food and shelter are met; proper respect for animals requires better treatment than the minimum