What Moral Rights, if Any, Do Non-human Animals Have?


Today, the relationships between people and non-human animals undergo several debates. Some researchers prove the importance of differentiating human and animal rights and relying on actual responsibilities and contributions to global development. Still, many individuals, including environmentalists and activists, advocate animal liberation and promote equal well-being for all creatures. Enough arguments can be found to support and oppose both positions. Political and moral approaches are constantly developed to demonstrate current achievements in understanding moral status peculiarities. For example, Richardson (2018, p. 65) describes moral status as “a matter of being the sort of being to whom one can have an obligation of the short of being whom one can wrong.” In other words, to have moral status means to have certain respect and value in life and understand a role in society. The capacities of animals may be similar to those of humans in terms of feeling pain or awareness of their existence, but animal consciousness remains a questionable issue. This paper aims to define the worth of moral status in human and animal behaviors and explain if non-human animals have any moral rights.

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Current Status

Almost every year, people witness a variety of modifications in different spheres of life, including law, technology, and health care. The impact of change is never the same, depending on individual adaptability qualities and available resources. For example, the consequences of accepting the fact that animals have rights are hard to predict. In most cases, this decision means that humans should stop doing many things about animals like no experiments, breeding, hunting, or using zoos for entertainment (‘Animal rights’, n.d.). That is why it is difficult for governments to create and approve the law with animal rights being properly developed. At this moment, the American legal system, as well as other systems worldwide, differentiates between property and personhood and defines animals as property only (Animal Legal Defense Fund, 2020). Therefore, this “property” status provokes certain challenges for activists to defend animal rights and freedoms. According to the Animal Legal Defense Fund (2020), some corporations have already obtained a “non-human person” status and use their limited legal rights. It is high time to gather enough grounds and remove animals from an unfavoured category for protective purposes.

At the same time, the way how modern people treat animals proves the emergence of revolutionized ideas, animal rights, and possibilities. More than 36 million American households own about 60 million domestic dogs, and half of them organize parties and give presents to their pets (Sunstein, 2003, p. 387). The intentions of people to appreciate the presence of an animal in their lives are ambiguous. Some individuals want to create the best conditions for their lovely cats or dogs. All at once, they continue living under the rule of Immanuel Kant, who defined animals as “man’s instruments” (cited in Sunstein, 2003, p. 387). In both cases, it seems that people support animals for their benefit, neglecting the latter’s rights and moral statuses. The progress of animal-assisted interventions is another proof that animal moral freedoms are challenged by humans as animals are used in education, health care, and entertainment for supportive functions (López-Cepero, 2020). People indeed recognize non-human animals as a significant element of their existence, but they are not ready to provide them with appropriate moral statuses.

Various disciplines exist to explain the moral aspects of human-animal relationships. Animal ethics focuses on harm to animals rooted in human behaviors and identifies if animals can belong to a moral community (Benz-Schwarzburg, 2019, p. 175). Fox (2004, p. 118) defines a moral community as “a group of beings that shares certain characteristics and whose members are or consider themselves to be bound to observe certain rules of conduct”. Rules are commonly understood as obligations that beings have concerning each other. Gorke (as cited in Benz-Schwarzburg, 2019, 176) offers four types of environmental ethics that define moral considerations, namely anthropocentrism (being a human), ethnocentrism (suffering), biocentrism (being alive), and holism (existence). Most arguments prove the correctness of moral rights for animals because they can feel and live almost the same life people do. The principles of non-maleficence, beneficence, justice, and autonomy may be applied to animal life nearly in the same way people follow them. Still, no laws and standards are offered to encourage direct obligations of people to animals.

A moral community is a society, the members of which possess common characteristics. According to Sencerz (2019, p. 39), animals lack rationalism and understanding of what is right and wrong, which makes them outside of morality. The current position of moral ethics is not in favor of animals due to many factors. It is correct to say that animals could have just an inferior moral status that never meets people’s moral rules and obligations.

Arguments for Moral Rights for Animals

Although the recent state of affairs does not allow providing animals with legal rights, and many people support this idea, it is necessary to think about moral rights for animals. Crozat (2020) introduces working definitions for legal and moral rights as a privilege to perform an action or gain benefits, with a slight difference for both. Legal rights have to be given by state authority, and moral rights are held by people as rational moral agents (Crozat, 2020). Regan (1985, p.13) is critical of the mistakes people make in understanding animal life not through “the details that vary from case to case,” but as “the whole system” that is damaged. It is normal for people to view animals as “resources” that can “be eaten, or surgically manipulated, or exploited for sport or money” (Regan, 1985, p. 14). There is no need to worry about animals’ feelings like loneliness, fear, pain, and suffering. However, these elements are crucial to support the idea of moral rights for animals in today’s world.

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Suffering is one of the most evident issues that environmentalists and activists are used to initiating their debates. Even if some people stay indifferent to the outcomes of their behaviors, they cannot neglect the fact that animals can suffer, not only physically but also emotionally. As the animal rights question has already become an international type of debate, one should investigate the existing opinions and suggestions. For example, in Germany, the government added the words “and the animals” to its constitution to demonstrate respect for all beings (as cited in Sunstein, 2003, p. 388). In Jewish law, animals feel and suffer, and it is forbidden to inflict physical or emotional pain (Wittenberg, 2017). Some European countries and the United States began to reconsider their attitudes toward animals. It is hard for a person who has never experienced animal emotions to understand what a cat or a dog might feel. Still, when people spend some time with animals, they recognize common feelings, suffering, and love (Wittenberg, 2017). Many things depend on individual treatment and the offered environment.

In addition to suffering, pain is what animals feel almost the same way humans feel. There are many reasons for this argument, and one of the major points is human scientific classification. A person belongs to the Mammalia class, Primates order, the same as great apes and baboons. It means that humans share common biological, genetic, and neurological characteristics with other mammals (Sterelny, 2017). As a result, animals are chosen for many experiments that aim at improving the quality of human life, health, and behaviors. Compared to real people, who are usually informed about the nature of experiments and sign informed content, animals do not have any rights from this perspective. Scientists find dogs, rats, cats, and monkeys on the streets or at zoos and use them for their selfish and usually not safe purposes. Regarding their physiological similarities, animals are appropriate for many human-based experiments. Still, if people are not aware of animal thoughts and attitudes toward pain, it does not mean that animals feel nothing (Langley, 2016). Therefore, this explanation may be used to prove that animals feel pain as well as humans.

Many non-human animals demonstrate their emotions in different ways and behave according to the offered environmental conditions similar to humans, which meets ethnocentrism, biocentrism, and holism criteria. According to Crozat (2020), the capacity of animals to experience pain and suffer has to be regarded as a sufficient condition to possess certain moral rights. When one person hurts another person either physically or emotionally, it is expected to think about the moral appropriateness and wrongness of an action. Regan (1985, p. 16) underlines that “pain is pain wherever it occurs” and suggests looking closely at the utilitarian principle of equality when everyone’s interests should count. It is a moral obligation for a person to respect another person. The question is why people of one race consider the interest of another race but neglect the interests of mammals that belong to the same class in scientific classification. Moral rights should not be the same as legal rights, and it is an individual decision of every human either to recognize and follow them or not.

Arguments Against Moral Rights for Animals

As well to supporters of equal rights for animals, opponents give new examples and justify their position. Animals and people may share similar physiological characteristics, but the level of consciousness is usually different. If an animal is protected under certain rights, it is also expected for this animal to comprehend obligations. Morality cannot be one-sided, and its promotion in society means the exchange of thoughts, respect, and support. Compared to people, who defend their rights and freedoms, no single animal can do the same. These are some people obsessed with providing animals with rights, and they have never tried to ask if an animal needs it because they cannot do it directly. Therefore, to prove the statement that non-human animals should not have any moral rights, the obligations and possibilities of animals must be evaluated.

Moral Community

One of the evident arguments is that animals are not moral and do not have any consideration, thus, they cannot have any rights. A moral community is society as per the definition given by Fox (2004). Rights should belong to beings that define themselves as moral agents and function properly, demonstrating high responsibility and accountability (Fox, 2004, p.121). Regarding the current state of affairs and the impossibility of communicating with animals in the same language, it is difficult to learn if animals recognize themselves as moral agents. Even if someone accepts animals as a part of the moral community, they can easily fail to meet membership conditions. For example, professionally trained dogs may demonstrate their resentment toward their masters by groveling, howling, or attacking. Fox (2004) questions the nature of their bad conscience because animals do not know why they have to follow specific norms. Dogs have orders, and if a human chooses an effective approach to teaching a pet, positive results are achieved. Punishment for doing something prohibited or wrong is not the same as understanding what is wrong and why.

It is necessary to say that even people do not believe that animals do morally wrong actions. For example, a dog bites a person due to a reason that is unclear to this person. The dog thinks that there are enough grounds to do this harmful act (protection or desire). However, a human punishes the dog not to give a lesson or explain something but for protective means (‘Animal rights’, n.d.). As a result, only the members of moral communities get access to moral rights, and non-human animals cannot belong to this type of community due to poorly defined similar characteristics. Thus, animals are less valuable beings, and people, as highly valuable beings, can use animals for their purposes (‘Animal rights’, n.d.). Not all animals can judge or evaluate a situation. Even if some of them (usually dogs or parrots) demonstrate extraordinary skills in communication or behavior, it does not mean that all animals can do it.

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A Matter of Obligations

Moral rights usually presuppose the importance of obligations and orders that should be followed and promoted in society. Cohen (1997, p. 94) correctly admits that people have obligations to animals, but these obligations may arise from commitments or personal attitudes, not from rights. Therefore, if one person can buy pet clothes or expensive food and another person cannot, these choices depend on many financial, social, and individual factors. The pet has no rights and is even able to share discontent about the offered care. In their turn, people believe that the promotion of anthropomorphism (the attribution of human traits to non-humans) is what they do properly from a moral point of view (Airenti, 2018). They dress their pets up, offer spa services, and even share their wills. Manfredo et al. (2019) admit the effects of such attitudes on traditional approaches to wildlife management and unpredictable value shifts. It means that despite demonstrating their respect and care for animals, people continue using animals for their purposes and satisfaction.

Similar examples of obligations are observed in everyday life in different spheres. A parent is obliged to support a child, but a child has no legal or moral right to demand support. An administration is obliged to be polite with clients, but a client does not have the right to insist on politeness. According to Cohen (1997, p. 95), rights and obligations should not be treated as reciprocals, and every obligation does not flow from another’s right. People have to differentiate between what they ought to do and what they may demand. Following this perspective, people may be obliged not to torture animals, even if the latter do not have rights. However, animals never get the right to demand love or care from humans. They do not understand the peculiarities of human relations, punishment, and even the differences between what is right and what is wrong. Cats like scratching expensive sofas and do not think about their moral obligations. Wolves attack the cattle and provoke financial losses, neglecting their possible moral responsibilities. The list of such examples is long and evident, which proves the absence of moral judgments in animals.

Moral Alternatives for Humans and Animals

Taking into consideration the presence of strong arguments to support and oppose the importance of moral rights for non-human animals in modern society, it is critical to consider the alternatives that may be offered. Singer (1993, p. 131) teaches that some non-human animals are rational and self-conscious, which makes many human actions (like killing and eating animals) immoral and wrong. On the other hand, not all animals (namely, chickens, fish, or crabs) are rational, which weakens the case against killings (Singer, 1993, p, 132). For a long period, people were killing animals to survive and not to experience hunger. The problem of extinction and the choice of human vs. animal life exists, and some people prefer a vegetarian alternative, while others do not. Vegetarianism can be a solution to minimize harm in human-animal relationships. However, this approach may considerably challenge many businesses (fast-food restaurants and farming) and human health (meat is a source of necessary vitamins like iron, calcium, and protein). Modern people are hardly ready for such changes to appreciate their belief in moral rights for animals.

Another significant alternative is related to the participation of animals in biomedical science and research. Millions of activities around the globe demonstrate their negative attitudes toward animal experiments. Rai and Kauskik (2018) suggest 3D cell culture models, silicon simulation, and other technological advancements to replace animal sacrifices in the name of science. Many individuals and organizations have already accepted these options to meet the demands of activists not to use animals for their scientific purposes. Still, not all developing countries may allow using high technologies and have to work under less humane conditions. Even for such situations, Rai and Kauskik (2018, p. 896) find a solution – to consider the participation of humans on voluntary grounds. In this case, many documents and approvals are necessary, and not all researchers are satisfied with this alternative.

Therefore, concerning progress and moral rights supporters, the only reasonable alternative is not to impose strict legal regulations but make people remember their obligations and possibilities. Non-human animals can never be defined as moral agents, and it is correct not to provide them with any moral rights (Crozat, 2020). Still, if humans are moral agents, they can consider, change, and understand their rights and responsibilities. It is not as difficult to promote equal and fair attitudes toward animals as it seems. Fox (2004, p. 121) underlines that people may “try to avoid the sort of species chauvinism or narrow anthropocentrism,” and this position help to reduce the differences in arguments. Today, society cannot come to the same conclusion due to the necessity to pursue various purposes and use multiple resources. Moral rights for animals should not diminish the rights of humans as the main intelligent inhabitants of the planet.


The discussion of moral rights for humans and non-human animals remains open regardless of multiple approaches and arguments for and against the topic. Because people are free to develop their opinions and attitudes towards animals, it is possible to understand the roots of ethical morals. Still, one should understand that moral rights are the outcomes of moral communities where moral agents are the only participants. Animals are never regarded as intelligent, moral agents who complete certain functions. Thus, they are not able to demand or expect some rights, freedoms, and protection from society. It is a responsibility of a human to demonstrate tolerance, understanding, and support. However, it is not a legal or moral right for animals. Many individuals behave negatively, provoke trouble, raise conflicts, and even kill each other. They are aware of moral obligations and the consequences of their actions and thoughts. Animals do not know such rights, choices, and morality of their behaviors and, as a result, have no moral rights.

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Reference List

Airenti, G. (2018) ‘The development of anthropomorphism in interaction: intersubjectivity, imagination, and theory of mind, Frontiers in Psychology, 9.

Animal Legal Defense Fund (2020) Animals’ legal status. Web.

‘Animal rights’ (n.d.) BBC. Web.

Benz-Schwarzburg, J. (2019) Cognitive kin, moral strangers? Linking animal cognition, animal ethics & animal welfare. Translated by M. Kanak. Boston, MA: BRILL.

Cohen, C. (1997) ‘Do animals have rights?’, Ethics & Behavior, 7(2), 91–102.

Crozat, E. R. (2020) Do nonhuman animals have rights? Web.

Fox, M. (2004) ‘The moral community’, in Hugh LaFollette (ed.) Ethics in practice: an anthology. 2nd edn. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, pp. 117-127.

Langley, L. (2016) The surprisingly humanlike ways animals feel pain. Web.

López-Cepero, J. (2020) ‘Current status of animal-assisted interventions in scientific literature: a critical comment on their internal validity’, Animals, 10(6).

Manfredo, M.J. et al. (2019) ‘How anthropomorphism is changing the social context of modern wildlife conservation’, Biological Conservation, 241.

Rai, J., and Kaushik, K. (2018) ‘Reduction of animal sacrifice in biomedical science & research through alternative design of animal experiments’, Saudi Pharmaceutical Journal, 26(6), pp. 896-902.

Regan, T (1985) ‘The case for animal rights’, in Peter Singer (ed.) In defence of animals. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, pp. 13-26.

Richardson, H. (2018) Articulating the moral community: toward a constructive ethical pragmatism. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Sencerz, S. (2019) ‘Moral standing of animals and some problems in veterinarian ethics’, Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 33, pp. 37-48.

Singer, P. (1993) Practical ethics. 2nd edn. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Sterelny, K. (2017) ‘Humans as model organisms’, Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 284(1869).

Sunstein, C.R. (2003) ‘The rights of animals’, University of Chicago Law Review, 70(1), pp. 387-402.

Wittenberg, J. (2017) ‘Animal sentience – do animals suffer?’, Huffpost. Web.

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