Animal rights and the theory behind it

What is the most fundamental principle underlying animal rights?

Is it respect, freedom, intrinsic value, love, compassion, equality, or another concept altogether? What should serve as the foundation for establishing animal rights?
While animals naturally assert themselves within their own habitats, this behavior alone does not equate to having rights. The concept of 'rights' is a construct conceived by humans, and it is only humans who employ it.

So why do we discuss animal rights?
The answer is straightforward: animal rights are intended to establish boundaries on human behavior. Without clear legal boundaries governing human conduct toward animals, there would be no basis for legal action against those who transgress these boundaries.
Animals are often defenseless, vulnerable, and entirely subject to human control. Individuals who disregard the well-being of animals should face legal consequences and be held accountable for violating animal rights.


What motivations for animal rights are relevant?
What is the basis for granting rights to animals?
Some concepts are unsuitable as a legal basis for animal rights.
Animal rights have the same basis for all animals but different implications.
Other concepts and summary.
Is it possible to conceive a satisfactory judicial basic principle that can be adequately employed?
If some people tend to violate the basic rights of animals, is freedom still employable as a fundamental right?
See also (in a different article)
Isn't it a fact that possessing an animal actually contradicts the right of freedom?
Standing up for animal rights should be financially rewarded.
Should all wrongful actions towards animals be prohibited?
People and animals relate to each other in different ways:
  • animal lovers keep them as pets
  • those who like the taste of animals eat them
  • some people believe their religion demands them to sacrifice animals
  • some people who like animals just leave them alone.
protesting rabbit The ways in which we relate to animals and the rights we grant them has to do with ethics. Albert Schweitzer stated that ethics should be rooted in compassion. A right without compassion cannot be implemented as a justifiable action. How these issues interconnect will be elaborated in this article.
The concept of animal rights can be interpreted in widely different ways. On the one hand, some may exercise the right to kill animals for the purpose of consumption or sports. Some people, on the other hand, will deprive themselves of the right to kill even the smallest animal by mistake.

What is the basis for granting rights to animals?


  • Is there a satisfactory basic principle?
  • Can freedom be maintained as a fundamental right if it is infringed?
  • Isn't being an owner of an animal in conflict with the right of freedom?
  • Advocating animal rights should be financially rewarded.
  • Should all wrongful actions towards animals be prohibited?
protesting hedgehogAnimals are only capable of expressing themselves indirectly in case of abuse. Therefore it is up to us to answer the question above.
Concepts that are eligible for forming the basis of animal rights are intrinsic value, welfare, respect, freedom, equality, compassion etc..
Many of these concepts seem appropriate but are less suitable if we apply them in practical situations.
We will now test the workability of each concept according to a number of important principles.
  1. The formulation of animal rights should be a workable and practical concept that can be legally reviewed.
  2. Animal rights are meant to benefit all individual animals including all species from wildlife and agriculture e.g. domestic animals, mammals, but also insects.
  3. Considering the diversity of those species we should take into account their specific nature.
  4. Animal rights apply to people and should be called upon by people.
  5. Death holds a distinct position in animal rights: the slaughter, hunting by experts for the purpose of wildlife management and professional fishing. Regulations should be enforced to ensure a fast and painless death, which must serve a purpose (in contrast with undesired extra fish to the catch). This also applies to killing off harmful vertebrae, which can otherwise not be stopped.
  6. Rights of the species outweigh the rights of the individual (if a plant or animal threatens to become extinct people should be forbidden to disturb its life). A certain species (e.g. sow or salmon) has the right not to be produced or caught in excessive numbers for export purposes. This mass production is unworthy of an animal and it is meant to satisfy more than only our basic needs.

Some concepts are unsuitable as a legal basis for animal rights

On the basis of the first mentioned principle we should exclude the concepts of intrinsic value and respect. Though these concepts are widely used, it is impossible to formulate unequivocal animal rights on the strength of either concept. It is perfectly acceptable to mention intrinsic value and respect when talking about behavior towards animals but the concepts cannot be used to judge human behavior from a judicial point of view.
"Madam, we intend to summon you to appear in court for treating your lap dog without respect". Of course it is always possible to distance yourself from objectionable behavior and to label it as disrespectful behavior. An example is when circus bears and lions are forced to do tricks unworthy of an animal, you may say that this is treating animals in a disrespectful way. Likewise you cannot enforce civilized behavior or good taste but you can comment on these matters.
The concept of intrinsic value is also unsuitable as a legal basis for animal rights. It could only apply to rare species in the sense of: "this specimen must be protected because of its intrinsic value as it occurs nowhere else on earth". The commercial value of pigs instead of their intrinsic value will only incite the pig breeder to take better care of his livestock. The above-mentioned concepts are actually too vague to be legally defined as a basis for animal rights.

Animal rights have the same basis for all animals but different implications

If we take the second basic principle the implication may be that each species has to be dealt with separately. Animals include earthworms as well as elephants, fish but also insects. We have to come up with a general formulation for animal rights including certain preconditions that apply to all categories of animals. A number of preconditions may include:
  • the availability of suitable food for an animal: meat (predators) or vegetable food
  • presence being a health risk for humans or threat to public safety
  • size and nature of natural habitat.
Animals should primarily be given the legal right to demonstrate their natural behavior (dependent on their natural disposition) even if they are found to be harmful and their movements have to be restricted. Land animals do not ask to be surrounded by water. Whales need more than just a swimming pool for a habitat. It would be wrong to allow wolves to dwell in areas where humans and their livestock live. Farm animals should be looked after properly, animals in the wild should not be fed at all.
All measures, such as shooting predators or introducing diseases, taken to counteract ecological "pollution and degeneration" or "substitute habitats" or "protection", should be rendered unnecessary.

Other concepts and summary

When issues are at stake such as animal welfare, their intelligence, feelings and instincts, it must be concluded that it is virtually impossible to formulate clear guidelines to judge by. Questions arise like "do fish have feelings?" or "does a pig or pet get bored?" It would be impossible to give accurate answers to these questions and for this reason they cannot be included as basic concepts for animal rights. On the other hand, it would be acceptable to include these concepts in working out animal rights in actual practice or when trying to prevent violation of animal interests.
Maltreatment of animals is punishable by law as laid down in e.g. the Dutch Welfare Act but does not include penalizing passive maltreatment of animals by e.g. extreme curtailment of an animal's freedom of movement. Disregarding an animal's well being is related to animal rights but animals also have fundamental rights in case of an obscure relation between human behavior and the animal's well being. Our view on this point deviates from that of Jeremy Bentham who believed that the key question is "is an animal capable of suffering"? If so, animals have the right to be considered equal to humans in this respect but it does not grant the animal rights.

Concepts and their relation with well being and animal rights (summary)

The concepts that we have discussed are summarized in the outline below. The squares portray how the various issues should be seen in relation to each other. The starting point of the outline is that animals have rights and that the purpose of granting rights should safeguarding the conditions for their well-being. An example of how to read the outline: emotions have to with well being but have nothing to do with rights.

Unrelated to well being Related to well being
Unrelated to animal rights Intrinsic value, edibility, animal love, beauty, intelligence, instinct, memory, nature conservation Emotions of animals, capable of feeling pain, boredom
Related to animal rights Respect, equality, interests Freedom, natural behavior

The remarkable thing is that the concepts that are unrelated to well being should be precisely the aspects in which animals strongly differ from humans and that the issues that are related to well being apply equally to both animals and humans. In principle there is no difference between man and animal when it concerns important aspects of well being and this fact should be given expression by acknowledging the right of freedom for both animal and man. See also Paola Cavalieri (The Animal Question: Why Non-Human Animals Deserve Human Rights, see book-reference below) and our ethical barometer.

Is it possible to conceive a satisfactory judicial basic principle that can be adequately employed?

A workable option is to apply the same principle for human rights as for animals rights, which is the right of freedom. The Farm Animal Welfare Council, for example, has determined that animals in cattle farming have a right to "5 forms of "freedom" (freedom from hunger, thirst and malnutrition; freedom from fear and distress; freedom from physical and thermal discomfort; freedom from pain, injury and disease; and freedom to express normal patterns of behaviour).

Freedom is a paradoxical concept: freedom defined is freedom denied. Clear boundaries are to be formulated as to its beginning and its end; otherwise the concept is unworkable. In order to employ the concept of freedom in actual practice, the best thing is to describe all situations that frustrate an animal's ability to be free.
Setting limits applies to both humans and animals and it is therefore a powerful concept. We may consider the minimum standard of an animal's freedom but also physical boundaries (e.g. fences).

An important advantage of freedom is that it entails a limit to the obligation to be concerned with animal rights. By safeguarding these rights, the animal can be left to interpret freedom in its own way and be free to exercise behavior that is in accordance with its innate nature. How an animal exercises its freedom in terms of behavior has no bearings on the basic principle of animal rights. For animals in the wild it is sufficient to be able to maintain a natural balance without disturbance by human beings. For domestic or agricultural animals the important thing is to ensure that they are able to exercise their natural behavior to a certain extent. In addition to this, freedom also entails the right of physical integrity: no more bodily harm by interventions including cutting beaks, castration of piglets, genetic engineering (selection sustained) or extreme unhealthy forms of breeding (e.g. double-muscle calves delivered by caesarian operations).


Limaits that can be set with respect to animals without infringing their fundamental right of freedom are:
  • sterilization and castration of pet animals; separate housing of male and female (agricultural) domestic animals for the purpose of birth control
  • fencing off meadows and demarcation of motorways
  • euthanasia and abortion in cases of great suffering, similar to cases of human suffering when patients are not capable of expressing themselves.
protesting owlAnimal studies should focus on defining the boundaries for each animal species. When considering animals we should start from the principle of freedom, enabling us to be more adequate in treating animals with respect. A significant asset of the concept of freedom is that it can also be utilized by people who in principle disagree with the ultimate consequences.
A person may for example take the view that keeping pets deprives animals of their freedom. It would still be an option for him to discuss the matter with a pet lover in order to define the right circumstances for keeping pets. Reaching a compromise enhances the workability of the concept. Another significant asset of the concept is its immediate controllability. If we lay down the circumstances in which an animal's freedom is being obstructed, it will cost little time to conclude whether the freedom of an animal is being encroached upon. In contrast, the status of all other concepts can only be established after a prolonged period of observation.

If some people tend to violate the basic rights of animals, is freedom still employable as a fundamental right?

There are two levels of interpretation.
  1. legal violation that is temporarily condoned
  2. legally inadmissible violation
protesting pigKeeping animal pets and to a certain extent using and then slaughtering of agricultural animals seem incompatible with the rights of animals as formulated above. Animals for slaughtering should also be entitled to behaving naturally during their limited lifetime. These animals including fish have the right to be killed as fast as painless as possible.
If a person intends to curtail an animal's freedom, the requirement could be set that this person should warrant a certain degree of the animal's natural behavior. Suchlike interpretation enhances broad social acceptance as it also conveys a clear message to the public. Pursuing the right of freedom to its ultimate consequence is something to consider in the future.

logoThis page describes one aspect of the influence that man has on the quality of life of an animal. We wish to promote the (in other countries as well) growing of awareness, that freedom is also important for an animal. An animal is not a thing, but a being that has the right to quality of a natural way of life. If you want to do something to help animals, click here for our suggestions.

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