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Can Vet J. Dec 2002; 43(12): 913.
PMCID: PMC339898

An ethicist's commentary on animal rights versus welfare

Organized veterinary medicine and most animal users, particularly in agriculture, have consistently failed to understand emerging social ethics for animals. They have mistakenly equated advocating the abolition of animal use in society with a belief in animal “rights.” In fact, on the one hand, a person can believe in the legitimacy of the use of animals by humans in society and still believe that animals have rights, and on the other hand, a person can deny the legitimacy of such use without believing in “rights.” This misunderstanding puts veterinary medicine in conflict with society, since the overwhelming majority of citizens (over 80%) believe that animals have rights. It then jars society when veterinarians deny that animals have rights and affirm that they only have “welfare.”

Widespread belief in animal rights emerged as a creature of radical changes in animal use in the mid- twentieth century. For most of human history, the overwhelming use of animals in society was for agriculture — food, fiber, locomotion, and power. And the key to successful agriculture was respecting the animals' natures, putting them into environments for which they were biologically suited, and augmenting their natural ability to survive and thrive with protection from predation and provision of food during famine, water during drought, medical attention, and so on. This approach was called “husbandry” (from the Old Norse phrase for “bonded to the household”) and is optimized in the 23rd Psalm's depiction of the shepherd: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He leadeth me to grean pastures, he maketh me to lie down beside still waters, he restoreth my soul.” We want no more from God than the shepherd provides to his sheep!

As long as this contract of “we take care of the animals, they will take care of us” obtained, society needed no additional ethic or laws, save prohibition of cruelty to animals, for self-interest was the greatest stimulus for proper animal treatment, and the anticruelty ethic picked up by the sadist and psychopaths unmoved by self-interest. No traditional husbandry agriculturalist would have put 100 000 chickens in 1 building, for all would have died in weeks.

Technology broke this ancient contract when it allowed us to put animals into environments and uses that didn't impair their productivity but harmed their well-being. We could now put square pegs into round holes and suppress with technological fixes the loss of revenue. Because of antibiotics, vaccines, air handling systems, et cetera, we could raise 100 000 chickens in 1 building or pigs in crates. Similarly, the rise of significant funding for biomedical research at mid-century broke the contract; we now inflicted disease, pain, fractures, wounds, et cetera, on animals with great benefit to ourselves and to other animals, but with no compensatory benefit to the subjects.

When society became aware that the proper treatment of animals was no longer natural and integral to their successful use, as was the case in husbandry, people began to demand that such proper use be guaranteed in the law. In our social ethic for humans, such protection for human nature against individuals being submerged for the sake of the general welfare is prescribed in the Bill of Rights and in other legal rights deduced therefrom. In the same way, society began to demand legal protections or rights for animals to protect them against exploitation for the sake of profit and productivity or medical advancement. Animal protection laws beyond cruelty have proliferated, and this is the mainstream sense of “animal rights.” Animal rights is simply the demand for legal protection for fundamental aspects of animal need and nature in the face of high technology-based loss of husbandry in agriculture and infliction of suffering in research, neither of which counts as deliberate cruelty. Animal rights is the form that animal welfare concerns have taken since the mid-twentieth century.

For the sake of its own social credibility, veterinary medicine should cease to deny that animals should have rights, when most of society sees such protection as essential.


Articles from The Canadian Veterinary Journal are provided here courtesy of Canadian Veterinary Medical Association
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