I recently wrote a letter to Congresswoman Karen Bass (CA) explaining my reasons for opposing the Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act. Either a failure to read or understand the content of my letter, led her to reply as follows:
I am not sure if the congresswoman is indeed an advocate of animal rights, or if she simply does not understand the difference between the animal rights and animal welfare positions. I would surely like to know. But before she explains her position, and for the benefit of all legislators out there, let me clarify again what the terms mean.
Animal rights is based on the notion humans owe equal moral concern for all sentient, living beings, from a worm, to a mouse, to a human. It insists all living beings have the same basic right to live in freedom. The position holds that species membership is not morally relevant, meaning that we must be prepared to treat a mouse in the same way as a mentally impaired human being with similar capacities. According to the animal rights position, animals have a right not to be used by humans for any purpose whatsoever.
Animal welfare is based on the notion that we owe moral consideration to all living beings, but not equally. That our moral concern ought to be graded according to each species’ capacity for suffering. That all living beings must be treated humanely and without unnecessary suffering. In this view, there are cases where the interests of humans and non-human animals conflict where it is morally permissible to decide in favor of human beings. Such as their use to advance medical knowledge and human (and non-human) health.
Are you an animal rights proponent?
Now, with these brief definitions at hand, here is a quick test to determine if you are an animal rights advocate.
Does a mouse deserve the same moral consideration as any other member of your family? If not, why not? (Animal rights answer: Yes)
Are there any situations where you may justify any harm to an animal based on the benefits it produces to the human and non-human animal population? (Example: the development and production of vaccines.) (Animal rights answer: No)
Do you consider your ownership of a dog equivalent to owning a slave? (Animal rights answer: Yes)
Do you consider Jonas Salk’s experiments leading to the development of the Polio vaccine to be morally equivalent to the experiments of Nazi doctors on Jews in concentration camps? (Animal rights answer: Yes)
Do you support the use of animals to advance medical knowledge and human health funded by the National Institutes of Health? (Animal rights answer: No)
Do you believe rights arise from mutually agreed responsibilities and obligations that result from a social contract among members of a society of equals? (Animal rights answer: No)
If so, do you think all living beings can participate as members of our moral community? (Animal rights answer: Well… but what about the mentally disabled?)
Are you a vegan? (Animal rights answer: Yes, of course. After all, all animals have the same right to life and freedom as we do. Eating a chicken would be the same as eating my neighbor.)
Did your answers match those of the animal rights position? If so, you can declare yourself an animal rights proponent and present yourself as such to your constituents. If not, you probably recognize there are ethical dilemmas in life that are complex and not so easily resolved by declaring all animals to have the same basic rights as humans. You are an animal welfarist and you should make that clear to your voters as well.
One last point — these positions are mutually exclusive; they are not philosophical positions that can be reconciled in any meaningful way. You cannot pretend to be an animal welfarist one day and an animal rights proponent another. You have to make up your mind.