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What "Animal Rights" Really Means

Updated on May 9, 2012
My dog Sakura.
My dog Sakura. | Source

Do animals have rights? In Carl Cohen's essay by the same name as the corresponding question he states several reasons why animals do not have rights. He suggests that animals lack moral autonomy and the ability to defend any rights that might be given to them. Furthermore, he claims that an animal has no moral state of mind and therefore, cannot be convicted of a crime like a human can. Because of this we as humans have a moral obligation towards animals and I completely agree.

Now, I know that some of you are gasping right now because you might think, "Animals certainly do have rights!" Well, I intend to compare Cohen's views on animal rights, or lack thereof, to Mary Ann Warren's views on animal rights and why Cohen's view is the more rational, and more humane towards animals.

Carl Cohen's View

Cohen states that an animal cannot be the bearer of rights because this concept is completely foreign to them. That makes sense. He offers the example of a lioness killing a baby zebra to feed its cubs out on the Serengeti. The lioness is only doing what her instinct dictates and the fact the baby zebra is defenseless plays no part in her singling it out as food. A human knows that it is morally wrong to kill a child, an animal does not. One could argue that if the lioness has to kill at all, a baby zebra is the worst possible choice. The fact that this does not factor in to the lioness’ actions show that she is incapable of knowing the difference and therefore, she is incapable of being held responsible for her actions because she cannot defend them. Similarly, the lioness is incapable of defending the “right” to kill that baby zebra, if one can even call it a right. It is purely instinct.

Because of this, Cohen states that animals have no rights, but that instead, we as humans have a moral obligation towards animals. We are their defenders, or at least, we should be. But let's compare this view with Mary Ann Warren's.

My chickens.
My chickens. | Source

Mary Ann Warren's View

Mary Ann Warren claims, on the other hand, that animals are entitled to certain rights like life, liberty, and happiness. This, however, suggests that an animal knows what these things are. Warren also argues that if humans are allowed rights based on the fact that they are morally autonomous and that is why animals are not allowed rights, what of infants, the mentally retarded, and other morally inferior humans? If these nonparadigm humans are still allowed rights because of their potential autonomy, then it follows that they are exempt from the moral autonomy argument, and it should also follow that animals must be exempt of that argument as well. She argues that because of this exception it can be said that humans have intrinsic value. If nonparadigm humans are allowed sentience then animals should be allowed sentience and intrinsic value, too. But here's the problem.

An animal does not have the right to liberty since it has no conception of it, but we as humans have a moral obligation to provide it with liberty—there is a difference. Warren’s suggestion implies that an animal can be held responsible for its actions. If it knows enough to desire liberty it has the capacity to distinguish between captivity and liberty. In his example of the lioness and the baby zebra, Cohen states that the act of the lioness killing the baby zebra does not imply that she had a right to kill it because then we as humans would have the right to defend that baby zebra—but we don’t. Why? Because it is the circle of life and a natural act. It is an amoral act. The lioness has no concept of right or wrong, she is just doing what comes naturally to her therefore it can’t be her right to kill the baby zebra, it is just nature.

Warren’s argument on noparadigm humans being allowed moral autonomy is also easily refuted by Cohen in his essay. Nonparadigm humans are inclusive of morally autonomous humans as a whole. They are still humans. Similarly, while there may be animals with a higher capacity of intelligence, they are inclusive of animals as a whole. As Cohen states, it is not the individual human that qualifies humans as a whole to the possession of rights. Rights are universal so qualifying them isn’t necessary.

My daughter's cat, Triella.
My daughter's cat, Triella. | Source


In conclusion, Cohen’s argument poses a stronger defense of animals whereas Warren’s implies that animals are to be held responsible for their possession of rights or lack thereof. Ultimately, Warren places too much weight on unknown values, such as the possible desire of an animal to have liberty. Cohen acknowledges that this cannot possibly be known and prefers to base his argument on what is known—that animals lack the capacity to distinguish from right and wrong. Given that an animal cannot be held responsible for its actions and is therefore not entitled to any rights, the duty to protect and treat animals humanely falls entirely on humans.

Some of you may still not be convinced. It's too easy to say that an animal has rights because in our minds, we have rights and we value them. But not having rights does not mean that an animal shouldn't be treated humanely, as Cohen argues. I think it is far more ethical to acknowledge that an animal is amoral and therefore has no rights, but that ethical and humane treatment should be enforced. This way, the responsibility falls completely on humans to do what is right. We should be held responsible when an animal or animals suffer, not another animal.

I hope I have shed some light on this topic. As you can see from the pictures, I am an animal lover, so I care deeply about the humane treatment of all animals. For more information I have posted my sources below and a link to Mercy for Animals.


Cohen, Carl. "Do Animals Have Rights?" Ethics and Behavior. 1997, vol. 7, no. 2, pp. 91-102.

Warren, Mary Ann. "Human and Animal Rights Compared," in Disputed Moral Issues, a Reader. Mark Timmons, ed. 2011, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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    • profile image

      Bill 4 years ago

      I have read Cohen's essay, but I don't share his point of view. I don' think you need to be able to understand moral obligations to have rights otherwise toddlers, mentally disabled, debiles and psychopaths wouldn't have rights. So animals could have rights, too.

    • emmaspeaks profile image

      emmaspeaks 5 years ago from Kansas City

      Thanks for that great comment!! Yeah I love animals, too, obviously. And thanks to Hectate for the mention!!

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 5 years ago from England

      Hi, I do get the idea of animal rights, and the fact that as they don't understand any difference then they are not entitled to those words if you like, as far as I am concerned as long as nobody hurts an animal in any way then that's fine by me, like you, I love animals and they will always need protecting. I always say that if I saw anybody hurt an animal I would wade in straight away, all five foot 2 and a half inches of me! lol! by the way, I got here through hecate horus, you are mentioned in her hub! she is such a sweety, cheers nell

    • emmaspeaks profile image

      emmaspeaks 5 years ago from Kansas City

      Well, I think you would have to read his entire essay to understand it better, and read Warren's essay to for comparison. Like I state in the hub, I went into this thinking I would disagree with Cohen as well, but he presents a very good argument. I think you are putting rights and obligations in the same category, and that is one thing that Cohen dispels early in his essay. But thanks for the comment.

    • Geoff Cousins profile image

      Geoff Cousins 5 years ago

      Good article, though I'm not sure I agree. As I understand it, rights without obligations are meaningless. If I am the only human left alive then I don't really have any rights, because there is no one who has any obligations towards me. Rights are created out of the obligations of others.

      So when you say we have an ethical obligation towards animals to respect their lives, not cause suffering, and so on, then you are essentially granting those animals rights. The lioness doesn't understand the concept of rights (and needs to eat to survive anyway), so the baby zebra has no rights where the lioness is involved. But where humans are involved the zebra does have rights, simply because of the obligations we believe we have towards it.

      I would also question Cohen's theory of rights. Why are nonparadigm humans inclusive of humans as a whole? I've not read any Cohen before so I'm going on your explanation of his theory, but it does sound arbitrary - humans have rights simply because they are humans, and animals are disqualified simply because they are animals - and this is not a very good defence of rights in my view. What about the higher primates for example? Could they never understand the concept of rights?

      Anyway don't take all this as a criticism, I liked your article! Just my thoughts on the matter.

    • emmaspeaks profile image

      emmaspeaks 5 years ago from Kansas City

      Thanks. I found reading both Cohen's and Warren's essays very interesting as well. Heading into it I was certain that animals did indeed have rights, but Cohen really put things into perspective for me. I feel like I can defend animals better now than before, because I know how to approach this issue from a philosophical and moral view, instead of from an emotional one.

    • hecate-horus profile image

      hecate-horus 5 years ago from Rowland Woods

      This makes total sense to me. Very insightful.