Here’s a recent piece by philosopher Peter Singer, in Forbes magazine:
Animal Advocates Surpass NRA In Political Influence.
…With wider public support, animal advocates gained serious political clout. By 2015 Humane USA eclipsed the National Rifle Association in the influence it wielded on politicians. That led to a wave of other changes: stricter controls over the use of animals in research; a crackdown on puppy mills, new incentives for people to adopt animals from shelters rather than buy from breeders; a national school lunch program that promoted vegetarian meals; expansion of live webcams in slaughterhouses, factory farms and other places where animals were susceptible to abuse….
The sub-title of the article claims that “Farm animals will enjoy more rights than ever before.” But though some of the changes referred to are in fact entrenched in law and hence imply a kind of legal right for animals, it’s not generally clear that the moral notion of a “right” is the best or only way to understand the changes that are afoot. It’s worth noting the philosophical complexity (and divergence) lying below the consensus that Singer refers to.
There are many possible reasons to think that animals deserve protection, many different arguments that might lead to the conclusion that, for instance, animals raised for food ought not to be treated brutally. Some will think in terms of reducing suffering, others will think in terms of the nobility of conscious creatures or the sanctity of living things. Certainly not all will think in terms of (moral) rights. Singer himself, for example, is philosophically speaking not a proponent of “animal rights”. Singer is a utilitarian, and utilitarians typically focus on the moral imperative to improve well-being (or happiness or ‘utility’). Utilitarians typically aren’t big on the notion of rights (for anyone) — though some are happy to acknowledge rights (or maybe “rights”) as handy rules of thumb or as mechanisms for the protection of important interests.
Of course, some people will agree with the conclusion that animals deserve some protection without having thought much about the reasons. They might not have reflected much on the matter, but still be willing to acknowledge, at some gut level, that animal abuse “just ain’t right.”
Do the underlying reasons matter? For some purposes, likely not. Even if there are lots of different reasons supporting the conclusion that “animals matter, ethically,” it’s important to note that those reasons do point in the same direction. But it’s also worth acknowledging that different people, relying on different kinds of arguments, are very likely to support different rules about the care of animals, and different kinds of limits on how humans treat them. A ‘right’, for example, is typically taken as an argument stopper. If I have a right to something, it is generally unethical for you to violate it. Period. Rights are (typically) not to be weighed and balanced against other interests. A utilitarian focus on wellbeing, on the other hand, is typically understood as a balancing act — we can’t all enjoy maximal wellbeing (there are cases where my interests conflict with yours) and so we should do what we can to balance interests, to trade them off, and (arguably) to maximize happiness while minimizing misery. But promising to try to minimize an animal’s misery is pretty different from promising to respect its rights.
In case you haven’t heard of him, Peter Singer is the philosopher most likely to be nominated as the godfather of the modern animal welfare and vegetarian movements. His book Animal Liberation is one of the ‘bibles’ of the movement. But he is also — even setting that aside — among the most prominent and respected philosophers of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Even those professional peers who don’t agree with him acknowledge that he’s a force to be reckoned with. My own very first scholarly publication was a review of the revised version of Singer’s book, Practical Ethics. I disagree with most of what’s in that book, but it’s an important book in the field and Singer is not a thinker to be taken lightly.