Skip to content
Animal Rights: The Abolitionist Approach

Animal rights is a very different kind of ideology. Animal rights demand from all humans to show respect for the equal basic rights of non human animals. The value of animals is not determined by their usefulness for humans, by their utility. The individual animal changes from object to subject, from thing to person. The first ideas in this direction in modern society were provided by Lewis Gompertz in the early 19th century. By the end of the 19th century, Henry Salt had founded the first animal rights organisation, the Humanitarian League. The animal rights ideology does not want to minimize “necessary” suffering. Its goal is to achieve basic rights for all animals, to guarantee their autonomy, to determine their lives by themselves. Hence, killing of animals becomes a central issue. There is no act that restricts the autonomy of an animal more than to violently kill him or her. The animal rights ideology wants to change the animal-human relationship at the roots. The movement is primarily political. The demand is justice, the motivation is to fight injustice in this world.


Animal rights also means that animals deserve certain kinds of consideration—consideration of what is in their best interests, regardless of whether they are “cute,” useful to humans, or an endangered species and regardless of whether any human cares about them at all. It means recognizing that animals are not ours to use—for food, clothing, entertainment, or experimentation. 


Humans use and exploit animals in myriad ways, including meat, milk, eggs, animal experimentation, fur, hunting, and circuses. All of these uses of animals are frivolous. People don’t need meat, eggs, milk, fur, hunting or circuses as the basic necessity for their survival. The American Dietetic Association as well as various forms of nutritional sciences and functional medical systems like Ayurveda recognizes that people can be perfectly healthy on a plant-based diet.


Regarding animal experimentation, most would agree that testing of cosmetics and household products is unnecessary. A new furniture polish or lipstick seems a frivolous reason to the blind, maim, and kill hundreds or thousands of rabbits. 


Many would also say that scientific experimentation on animals for the sake of science, with no immediate, obvious application to human health, is unnecessary because the suffering of the animals outweighs the satisfaction of human curiosity. This leaves only medical experiments. While animal experimentation may lead to human medical advancements, we cannot morally justify exploiting animals for experiments any more than experiments on mental patients or babies can be justified.


Some of the common justification for animal use are:

  • Animals are not intelligent (cannot think/reason).
  • Animals are not as important as people.
  • Animals have no duties.
  • God put animals here for us to use.


However, English philosopher and legal theorist Jeremy Bentham argues in his book – An Introduction to the Principles or Morals and Legislation, “The question is not Can they reason? nor Can they talk? But, Can they suffer?”


Rights cannot be determined by the ability to think, or we’d have to give intelligence tests to determine which humans deserve rights. This would mean that babies, the mentally disabled and the mentally ill would have no rights.


The importance is not a good criterion for rights holding because importance is highly subjective and individuals have their own interests that make each individual important to him/herself. One person may find that their own pets are more important to them than a stranger on the other side of the world, but that doesn’t give them the right to kill and eat that stranger. The Prime Minister might be more important than most people, but that doesn’t give the PM the right to kill people and mount their heads on the wall as trophies. One could also argue that a single blue whale is more important than any single human being because the species is endangered and every individual is needed to help the population recover.


Duties are also not good criteria for rights holding because individuals who are incapable of recognizing or performing duties, such as babies or people with profound disabilities, still have a right not to be eaten or experimented on. Furthermore, animals are routinely killed for failing to follow human rules (e.g., the mouse who is killed in a mousetrap), so even if they have no duties, we punish them for failing to abide by superficial human expectations.


Religious beliefs are also an inappropriate determination of rights holding because religious beliefs are highly subjective and personal. Even within a religion, people will disagree about what God dictates. We shouldn’t impose our religious beliefs on others, and using religion to justify animal exploitation imposes our religion on the animals.


Because there will always be some humans who don’t fit the criteria used to justify animal exploitation, the only true distinction between humans and non-human animals are species, which is an arbitrary line to draw between which individuals do and don’t have rights. There is no magical dividing line between humans and non-human animals.


There are six principles of the abolitionist approach to animals rights as mentioned by American Scholar, Gary L. Farncione:


  1. Abolitionists maintain that all sentient beings, human or nonhuman, have one right—the basic right not to be treated as the property of others.
  2. Abolitionists maintain that our recognition of this one basic right means that we must abolish, and not merely regulate, institutionalized animal exploitation, and that abolitionists should not support welfare reform campaigns or single-issue campaigns.
  3. Abolitionists maintain that veganism is a moral baseline and that creative, nonviolent vegan education must be the cornerstone of rational animal rights advocacy.
  4. The Abolitionist Approach links the moral status of nonhumans with sentience alone and not with any other cognitive characteristic; all sentient beings are equal for the purpose of not being used exclusively as a resource.
  5. Abolitionists reject all forms of human discrimination, including racism, sexism, heterosexism, ageism, ableism, and classism—just as they reject speciesism.
  6. Abolitionists recognize the principle of nonviolence as a core principle of the animal rights movement.


In order to embrace the abolitionist approach to animal rights, it is not necessary to be spiritual or religious, or to be an atheist. You can be a spiritual or religious person, or you can be an atheist, or anything in between. It does not matter.


What does matter is:

  • that you have moral concern about animals and that you want to do right by animals. That moral concern/moral impulse can come from any source, spiritual or non-spiritual; and
  • that you regard as valid the logical arguments that our moral concern should not be limited to some nonhumans but should extend to all sentient beings and that we should abolish, and not regulate, animal exploitation.