In some form or another, the concept of animal rights has been around for thousands of years. In Eastern religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism, the concept of ahi?s?, meaning non-violence, is a central principle. Jainism stresses non-cruelty towards animals, prohibiting adherents from working at a zoo, cutting trees, or using any fabrics, including silk, which are produced through harming other living beings.
Walking through history the trace of animal rights can be found in ancient Greek philosophy. Aristotle, being one, viewed animals as resources and wrote that “we may infer that, after the birth of animals, plants exist for their sake, and that the other animals exist for the sake of man…if nature makes nothing incomplete, and nothing in vain, the inference must be that she has made all animals for the sake of man” (Aristotle 350 B.C.). Even then, however, philosophers began to question whether animals do deserve moral consideration. Socrates, in Plato’s The Republic: “Would this habit of eating animals not require that we slaughter animals that we knew as individuals, and in whose eyes we could gaze and see ourselves reflected, only a few hours before our meal?” (360 BC).
Within Europe and North America, there were many precursors of the modern-day animal rights movement. The first animal cruelty legislation was passed in 1635, which prohibited tearing wool off of living sheep. In 1822, Richard Martin, known as “Humanity Dick”, passed Martin’s Act aimed at preventing cruelty towards cattle. Martin went on to be one of the founding members of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the world’s first animal welfare charity, in 1824.
Such views are also held by contemporary utilitarians. Probably the most famous, Peter Singer, author of the seminal book Animal Liberation (1975), argued that because animals are sentient, they have interests (such as the interest in not suffering). In his view, ignoring animal interests is a form of arbitrary discrimination akin to racism. After Richard Ryder first coined the term, Peter Singer popularised the concept of “speciesism” in the following form: “the racist violates the principle of equality by giving greater weight to the interests of members of his own race, when
there is a clash between their interests and the interests of those of another race. Similarly the speciesist allows the interests of his own species to override the greater interests of members of other species. The pattern is the same in each case.”