Expanding the moral circle to nonhuman animals – Joe Wills
12 December 2018
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) by the UN. The UDHR represented a watershed moment in moral progress. Previously, individuals were widely regarded as mere ‘objects’ of states under international law with no rights of their own.
The atrocities that took place in Europe during the Second World War were a major catalyst for moving away from this state-centred view of international relations. As Johannes Morsink notes in his meticulous historyof the drafting of the UDHR, the Holocaust was the single most important event that shaped its writing.
The UDHR recognises that ‘all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights’ regardless of their race, sex, national origin or other status. But did it go far enough? After all, the vast majority of the earth’s inhabitants are nonhuman. Just as individual humans are particularly vulnerable to the excesses of state and other forms of concentrated power, so too are animals particularly vulnerable to abuse at the hands of humans.
The tyrannical exercise of human power over the other animals is ubiquitous, whether it’s subjecting them to painful biomedical experiments, destroying their natural habitats, forcing them to perform in circuses and aquariums, or industrially rearing and exterminating them for food. Are we systematically violating the rights of animals when we treat them like this? Ought we take steps to rectify this with a Universal Declaration of Animal Rights?