The term “interest” is used to describe what is beneficial for someone. That is, in other words, what promotes what is good for anyone whose life can go well or ill. We say “that’s in the interest of someone” when something is positive for someone. When we think about how to act, as we do when we engage in moral thinking, we consider the interests of others that we should respect.
Do nonhuman animals have interests? As our text on animal sentience shows, they clearly do. They can feel suffering and joy. Their lives can go well or ill for them. This means they do have interests, just as humans do.
Traditionally, the interests of nonhuman animals have been largely disregarded. Nonhuman animals have only been granted minimal moral consideration. As a result, they have been systematically exploited in many ways that cause them to suffer. They have also been killed in great numbers to provide humans with commodities made from their bodies.
In addition, the vulnerability of animals to many things that are not caused by humans has usually been disregarded as if it were nothing that we should worry about. So, the idea that we should refrain from harming nonhuman animals or that we should try to act in a way that benefits them has barely been given any consideration, with just a few exceptions.
However, in present times, that viewpoint has been strongly challenged. Since the 1970s, the field of animal ethics has arisen and achieved growing support as a field of research that actively informs the defense of nonhuman animals.
Sentient beings have an interest in having a happy existence. The first thing this implies is being happy rather than miserable. Suffering is by definition a negative mental state, and it’s therefore harmful for animals.
In addition to having an interest in not suffering, animals need to be able to live in order to have a happy life. Many people think humans, but not nonhuman animals, have an interest in living. There are strong reasons to refute this.
Many people acknowledge that nonhuman animals do have interests, but it is a commonly held opinion that their interests do not count for much. It is important to refute this myth. Equal interests should count equally.