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Animal Rights and Human Rights: Why They Are Inextricably Linked

Animal Rights and Human Rights: Why They Are Inextricably Linked

Our world is - and always has been - entirely human-centric. In almost every culture, community and country, humans are respected and revered as the dominant species - the species that deserves the freedom to live safely. Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule. History shows that human life has not always been respected, and the present shows that in many circumstances, society has not yet learnt from the past. However, an overarching rule remains: human rights are valued significantly more than animal rights. But here we answer the question about animal rights and human rights: why they are inextricably linked.

Humans have the right to live. We have the right to be free. We have the right to own possessions. For the most part, we also have the right to challenge any person or system that compromises or threatens this. As we become more aware of the social justice issues that most require our attention, we are also making progress towards our pursuit of equality and equity.

Despite this, we are still largely ignoring one major corner of human rights - animal rights. Culturally, animals have always been viewed as separate from humans, and therefore undeserving of the passion with which we fight for human justice. Yet, it is impossible to untangle human rights from animal rights.

Why? Because humans are animals. To be wholly inclusive, any movement which pertains to human rights must see humans as an animal species, and therefore should consider the rights of all other animals. The reverse is also true. For real progress to be made, any movements which pertain to animal rights - such as veganism - must also value human life and freedom with the same intensity.

By attempting to separate or compartmentalise the rights of both human and non-human animals, we run the risk of harming both. It’s a vicious cycle, perpetuated by society’s reliance upon the exploitation of the most vulnerable.

Let’s look at it this way. At which point can we start to distinguish between animals and humans? If we look back through the evolution of animals, can we put a pin in the exact moment that apes became human? Knowing that evolution doesn’t stop with us, can we also be sure that other animal species won’t develop to meet the same metrics of intelligence that we currently associate with ourselves?

These questions may be difficult to unpack, but the overarching theme is clear: animal and human behaviours are inextricably linked. We simply aren’t able to draw a clear line between every species, so we cannot - and should not - decide which species have fewer rights and are deserving of poorer treatment.

Of course, this is what humans currently do. This is a system as old as time, and one that is regularly cited in discussions of animal rights. ‘We’ve always eaten animals - why would we stop now?’ ‘Of course I wouldn’t eat my dog, but bacon is just too good to give up.’ ‘It’s just not right to keep dolphins in captivity, but I don’t get what that has to do with my tuna salad’. In every culture, the cognitive dissonance is clear when it comes to assigning rights and treatment to animal species.

The prioritisation of human rights over animal rights is much more universal. This is based on the idea that our rights are inherent: we aren’t at risk of being targeted by other species, and we have the technology and force to avoid this. Our ability to live freely is a basic right.

But, what if we consider that animal rights are also inherent? Society as a whole has traditionally rejected this idea, often assuming that if animals do not exist internally as humans do, then they cannot be entitled to the same treatment. Let’s take Descartes’ most famous argument, ‘I think therefore I am’.(1) The idea that we are only truly sentient if we have conscious thought has long shaped society’s attitude towards animals.

Yet, studies in the field of cognition and biology are beginning to show the flaws in this argument. It is becoming clearer that animals do experience the world in many complex ways. They don’t just respond to pain as a stimulus. They are sentient beings with the ability to feel many of the emotions that humans feel.

Ecologist Carl Safina, author of the book Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel, sums this up perfectly. He says: ‘If you watch mammals or even birds, you will see how they respond to the world. They play. They act frightened when there’s danger. They relax when things are good. It seems illogical for us to think that animals might not be having a conscious mental experience of play, sleep, fear or love.’(2)

There is also a whole other conversation to be had about whether the ability to feel emotion or have conscious thought should determine whether a species is deserving of basic rights. Regardless of whether a lobster feels pain when it’s cooked in boiling water, or whether cows feel grief when separated from their babies by the dairy industry, what gives humans the right to make decisions on behalf of other animal species?

What’s interesting, as we touched on before, is that we pick and choose the animals we treat fairly - and this varies from culture to culture. In the US, for instance, the slaughter of over 300 million cows a year (3) does not receive widespread criticism from any groups other than vegetarians and vegans. Yet, the idea of breeding, killing and eating ‘domesticated’ animals is generally accepted to be nothing short of abhorrent. You only need to look at the UK-wide outcry following the 2013 horse meat scandal (4) to see how differently society views the slaughter of these two animals.

Society worships some animal species and gladly pays for the suffering of others. What’s more, this is completely normalised in most groups - even those that are dedicated to fighting for a more compassionate, equitable and environmentally-sound world. However, the truth is - if we’re ever going to live in a world where fairness comes first, we need to topple the structures blocking this. Power, money, greed, violence...these all stand in the way of animal and human rights. If we fight against these structures for one group, how can we ignore the other?

If we continue to permit the exploitation of non-human animals, we simply allow space for these behaviours to impact us, too.


1. "Rene Descartes - “I Think, Therefore I Am”", Openlearn, 2015 <> [Accessed 28 March 2021].

2. Simon Worrall, "Yes, Animals Think And Feel. Here's How We Know", Animals, 2015 <> [Accessed 28 March 2021].

3. Alex Thornton, "This Is How Many Animals We Eat Each Year", World Economic Forum, 2019 <> [Accessed 28 March 2021].

4. Felicity Lawrence, "Horsemeat Scandal: Where Did The 29% Horse In Your Tesco Burger Come From?", The Guardian, 2013 <> [Accessed 28 March 2021].


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