Expanding the moral circle to nonhuman animals – Joe Wills

12 December 2018 by

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?

Only Human Rights?

Perhaps there is a justifiable basis for enshrining human rights in international law but not animal rights. A common response that defenders of human rights give is that humans have rights simply by virtue of their humanity. However, such a response is either question-begging or a fundamentally unsatisfactory attempt to ground rights. Humanity per se is a mere biological category, yet the UDHR was born precisely in opposition to the idea, embraced by the Nazis, that individuals could be denied rights simply by virtue of their biological or anatomical constitution.

A more promising basis for grounding human rights is to appeal to the qualities that humans possess that other animals purportedly lack. This is the approach that the drafters of the UDHR decided to take. Article 1 of the Declaration states that humans are ‘endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood’. Charles Malik, who drafted this article, explained that its function was to ‘state those characteristics of human beings which distinguish them from animals’ (Morsink, p.298).

Let us put to one side the contentious claim that animals lack reason and conscience and instead highlight a different problem: if reason and conscience are necessary for the possession of rights, where does this leave those humans who lack those capacities (in the sense that the UDHR drafters understood them) such as infants and profoundly cognitively impaired people? It is both utterly implausible that such humans lack fundamental rights and contrary to the first part of article 1 which states ‘all human beings’ possess rights.

This problem did not go unnoticed by the Declaration’s drafters. The Brazilian Government noted that ‘unfortunately, it is not exactly true that all men are endowed by nature with reason and conscience’ and the USSR delegate, Vladimir Koretsky, made the striking observation that this claim could be ‘interpreted as justification of the fascist destruction of feeble-minded people on the grounds that they were not reasonable beings’ (Morsink, p.297). Morsink points out that the majority of the drafters came to recognise this phrasing as ‘quite problematic’ (ibid, p.299) but reluctantly maintained it for pragmatic purposes. It is perhaps not surprising that subsequent humanrightsinstrumentseschewed such dubious metaphysical claims from their texts.

When subject to scrutiny it becomes apparent that the claim that humans possess rights and animals do not lacks a coherent foundation. If reason (however defined) is not the basis for rights, then what is? When it comes to humans there is virtually no disagreement that at least all post-natal sentient individuals possess rights, regardless of their reasoning abilities. However, humans are far from the only sentient species, this is also a capacity that all vertebrate species possess and some invertebrates too. If species per se does not matter for rights-posession, as suggested above, then there does not seem any principle reason to deny that other sentient species possess rights too.

Are Animal Rights a Trivial Distraction from Human Rights?

Some might argue that the preceding arguments miss the point about the UDHR: its principle value is not metaphysical but political. Its function is to stipulate values and standards against which the conduct of Governments can be measured and critiqued so as to provide for better opportunities for the protection for humans. Animal rights are regarded by some as a trivial distraction from these important political goals. As the philosopher Peter Carruthers put it:

“Just as Nero fiddled while Rome burned, many in the West agonise over the fate of seal pups and cormorants while human beings elsewhere starve or are enslaved. (p. xi).”

Such viewpoints falsely assume that concern for animals is trivial. Yet given the sheer scale of the suffering and death that we inflict on our fellow creatures, the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari was not exaggerating when he described factory farming as ‘one of the worst crimes in history’. Many now believe that one day future generations will look back on our routine treatment of animals as, in the words of the preamble to the UDHR, ‘barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind.’

Moreover, the view that advancing animal rights is a trivial distraction from human rights ignores a number of ways in which our present mistreatment of animals harms humans as well. Whether it is the catastrophic impact of industrial animal agriculture on the environment, the well documented linksbetween violence against animals and violence against other humans, the psychological and physical hazards associated with slaughterhouse labour, or the impact of Western patterns of meat consumption on food security in poorer countries, our systematic neglect of animal rights also has a litany of bad consequences for the enjoyment of human rights.

Do Animal Rights Threaten Human Rights?

An even more serious charge directed against animal rights advocates is that it is not just that their cause is a trivial distraction from what matters, but also that the very idea that animals have rights or moral status comparable to humans is one that is damaging to the integrity of human rights. When the Nazis compared Jews to rats or Hutu extremists compared Tutsis to cockroaches or, more recently, Donald Trump called Mexican immigrant gang members ‘animals’, they were deploying strategies of dehumanisation, intended to lay the foundations for the abuse or destruction of their human targets. Some argue that the only way to guard against such dehumanisation is to sharply demarcate humans from the other animals and one way to do this is to grant the former fundamental rights while denying them to the latter. 

The claim that marginalised humans would be endangered by greater species equality in ethics and law is an empirical claim. However, available data from social psychology suggests the opposite. Earlier this year a study found positive correlations between speciesism (i.e. the assigning of differential moral value based on species membership) and

“prejudicial attitudes such as racism, sexism, homophobia, along with ideological constructs associated with prejudice such as social dominance orientation, system justification, and right-wing authoritarianism”.

This study is one of many that shows connections between speciesism and other forms of discrimination and prejudice. 

Fostering a legal and political culture in which animal rights are protected would not only spare the suffering of billions of animals but could also strengthen the social and cultural norms necessary to foster greater empathy and pro-social attitudes that a human rights-respecting environment is predicated on. In other words, it could help contribute towardsa ‘social and international order in which the rights and freedoms’ of the UDHR can be ‘fully realized.’


The adoption of the UDHR was a great leap forward towards the building of a more inclusive, more equal world. However it does not address one of the great injustices of our time: the systematic violation of the most basic and fundamental interests of animals to satisfy trivial and fleeting human goals. The silence of domestic and international law on the issue of animal rights is not only catastrophic for animals but also undermines the rationale and foundations of human rights protection.

70 years on, it is time to rectify this injustice and to acknowledge nonhuman animals as fellow rights-bearers worthy of dignity and respect. A Universal Declaration of Animal Rights — protecting fundamental animal interests to be free from torture, enslavement and killing — would be a powerful symbolic break with humanity’s unbridled anthropocentrism which is so harmful for the other species, the planet and, ultimately to humans as well.

Dr Joe Wills is lecturer in Law at the University of Leicester.

Related posts:

Animal Welfare after Brexit: adjustable downwards or upwards

Legal personhood for nonhuman animals? The case for the nonhuman rights project

Legal personhood for nonhuman animals Part 2

Pet shock collar ban: barking, or a new era for rights?

Hunting, animals and the new landscape of rights

Export of live animals for slaughter: European Court rules

One trade freedom we could do without

The only people really not allowed to mention the Holocaust

Cosmetics tested on animals banned in the EU – or are they?

Pigs have no rights

Human rights for Homo sapiens’ closest relatives?

Pigswill and public health: a load of EU bull

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