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Rights theories: Different positions

Rights are safeguards of interests that people have. Rights may protect someone’s interest in doing something without interference, in having access to a certain good, in not being harmed by others or in being benefited by others (see the rights approach). Rights theories concern what types of rights belong to or should be given to whom and why.

Rights theories can refer to moral rights or legal rights. Moral rights are conceived of as rights that individuals are born with and have regardless of whether or not they have legal rights to protect them. Some rights theorists do not believe there is such a thing as moral rights but argue for legal rights for nonhuman animals as a way of protecting their interests. The theorists discussed below all have theories of moral rights.

There are many different forms of moral rights theories, each of which has its own framework and arguments to support the claim that humans, and sometimes nonhuman animals, have rights. According to the influential moral philosopher Immanuel Kant, we should only act in a way that we would want to become a universal law. In other words, it is only right to do something if we would want everyone else to do it, too. He believed that this entails treating all humans as ends in themselves, rather than as mere means to an end.1

In present times, theorists such as Christine Korsgaard2 and Julian Franklin3 have defended Kant’s approach, but have rejected his conclusion that it should be applied exclusively to humans. They have claimed that since nonhuman animals are sentient, if we were in their place we would not find it acceptable to have our interests disregarded as theirs are. Therefore, not only humans but all sentient animals should be considered as ends in themselves.

Some current authors have developed theories based on a Kantian viewpoint but have tried to avoid some of the problems such a viewpoint entails. One author, Alan Gewirth, has claimed that all agents, by the mere fact of acting, are assuming they have the right to act, as well as other rights needed to act (such as the rights needed for survival),4 and that therefore, if we want to be consistent, we should respect the rights of others. This argument has been accepted by Evelyn Pluhar, who has argued that it should be applied to all sentient beings, since they also have the interests and needs that we as agents have and must have in order to be protected by rights.5

Tom Regan, a well known defender of a moral rights view for nonhuman animals, has another perspective. He claims that there are several reasons to conclude that nonhuman animals (or at least many of them) have moral rights. Perhaps each of them, taken separately, wouldn’t be conclusive, but when we consider them together we have a cumulative argument which makes a strong case for that claim.6 He believes that we would have to reject as unsatisfactory any theory that denied direct duties towards nonhuman animals, that denied that we should accept and respect moral rights, or that claimed that only humans have inherent value. Regan uses a subject-of-a- life criterion, which in order to be met requires consciousness and a certain level of cognitive ability. According to Regan, anyone who is a subject-of-a-life has inherent value. This includes not only humans but all mammals and many other animals.

Another theorist who has argued in favor of rights for nonhuman animals is Gary Francione. He claims that nonhuman animals should enjoy legal rights which would consist mainly of the basic right not to be used as resources by others. Francione does not limit his view to legal rights, and claims that nonhuman animals also have moral rights. He has argued that all sentient animals have basic moral rights due to the very fact that they are sentient.7

Finally, other theorists have argued that nonhuman animals should have rights because that is what follows from a consistent and unprejudiced application of contractualist theory.8 This view is explained in Contractarianism.

Further readings

Francione, G. L. (1995) Animals, property and the Law, Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Francione, G. L. (2003) “Animal rights theory and utilitarianism: Relative normative guidance”, Between the Species, 13 (3) [accessed on 14 April 2013].

Francione, G. L. (2008) Animals as persons: Essays on the abolition of animal exploitation, New York: Columbia University Press.

Francione, G. L. (2010) “Animal welfare and the moral value of nonhuman animals”, Law, Culture and the Humanities, 6, pp. 24-36.

Gewirth, A. (1978) Reason and morality, Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Gewirth, A. (1982) Human rights, Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Gewirth, A. (1996) The community of rights, Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Pluhar, E. (1981) “Must an opponent of animal rights also be an opponent of human rights?”, Inquiry, 24, pp. 229-251.

Rainbolt, G. W. (2006) The concept of rights, Dordrecht: Springer.

Rawls, J. (1999 [1971]) A theory of justice, rev. ed., Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Regan, T. (1975) “The moral basis of vegetarianism”, Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 5, pp. 181-214.

Regan, T. (1976) “McCloskey on why animals cannot have rights”, Philosophical Quarterly, 26, pp. 251-257.

Regan, T. (1977) “Frey on interests and animal rights”, Philosophical Quarterly, 27, pp. 335-337.

Regan, T. (1978) “Fox’s critique of animal liberation”, Ethics, 88, pp. 126-133.

Regan, T. (1980) “Utilitarianism, vegetarianism & animal rights”, Philosophy & Public Affairs, 9, pp. 305-324.

Regan, T. (1987) The struggle for animal rights, Clarks Summit: International Society for Animal Rights.

Regan, T. (2001) Defending animal rights, Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Regan, T. (2004) Empty cages: Facing the challenge of animal rights, Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Regan, T. & Singer, P. (eds.) (1989 [1976]) Animal rights and human obligations, 2nd ed., Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.

Regan, T. & VanDeVeer, D. (eds.) (1982) And justice for all, Totowa: Rowan and Littlefield.

Rollin, B. E. (2006 [1981]) Animal rights & human morality, 3rd ed., New York: Prometheus.

Rowlands, M. (2002) Animals like us, London: Verso.

Sumner, L. W. (1987) The moral foundations of rights, Oxford: Oxford University Press.


1 Kant, I. (1964 [1785]) Groundwork of the metaphysic of morals, New York: Harper and Row, 4:429. See also, for instance, ibid., 6:442; (1997 [1788]) Critique of practical reason, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 5:7; (1997) Lectures on ethics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

2 Korsgaard, C. (2005) “Fellow creatures: Kantian ethics and our duties to animals”, The Tanner lectures on human values, 25/26, pp. 77-110; (1996) The sources of normativity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 152-153.

3 Franklin, J. H. (2005) Animal rights and moral philosophy, New York: Columbia University Press.

4 Gewirth, A. (1978) Reason and morality, Chicago: Chicago University Press.

5 Pluhar, E. (1995) Beyond prejudice: The moral significance of human and nonhuman animals, Durham: Duke University Press.

6 Regan, T. (2004 [1983]) The case for animal rights, 2nd ed., Berkeley: University of California Press.

7 Francione, G. L. (2000) Introduction to animal rights: Your child or the dog?, Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

8 Rowlands, M. (2009 [1998]) Animal rights: Moral, theory and practice, 2nd ed., New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

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