Benjamin Bestgen: Animal rights

Benjamin Bestgen: Animal rights

Benjamin Bestgen

Benjamin Bestgen discusses the rights of animals in his latest jurisprudential primer. See last week’s here.

Britain is said to be a nation of pet lovers, with an estimated 50 per cent of British adults having a pet – dogs, cats and rabbits being the most popular. But Britain is also a nation of meat-eaters, with an estimated 1 billion farmed animals killed in UK slaughterhouses annually (2019) and additional meat imported (2018/19) from abroad. The RSPCA estimates another four million animals are killed annually for scientific purposes.

We enjoy learning how to care for a dog but tend to avoid learning about the breeding, rearing and killing of the animals we eat. Slaughterhouses and industrial farms, by design, tend to be far removed from our daily awareness. A cat hit by a car we rush to a vet but when encountering a hare wounded by a fox on a field, we marvel at “natural processes” and won’t interfere. 

Fox chases, rodeos, zoos, bull-fighting or trophy hunting are reviled by many while proponents argue in favour of responsible conservation, environmental management or cultural tradition. The fashion industry is criticised for use of fur or exotic leathers and research labs for killing millions of animals in the name of science. Heated debates between vegans and carnivores touch on nutrition and health, environment, culture, farming methods and economics, with both sides trying to justify their dietary habits and wider social philosophy involving animals.


Humans, homo sapiens, are animals. But many also say we are “special animals” or “something more than just animals”: unlike other creatures, humans have higher consciousness, build incredibly complex physical, social and mental structures and possess vast powers of abstraction, including concepts like justice and morality. We appear unique in that, so human moral interests are worth more than other animals’. Similarly, a gorilla’s or dog’s moral interests (if they have any) may be worth more than a fish’s or beetle’s. Discriminating between animals on the basis of their species membership is speciesism. 

Critics argue speciesism is an arbitrary bias, no more worthy of moral consideration than sex, race or hair colour. We award full moral status to marginal groups like comatose, disabled or infant humans, so why deny it to billions of cows, whales or birds? We should look for morally significant criteria that don’t depend on species membership, such as the capacity to experience pleasure and pain.

Animal law

The philosophical challenges around animal rights are complicated and far exceed the scope or purpose of this article. Philosopher Roger Scruton argued that animals don’t have any idea of duties and without duties cannot enjoy corresponding rights. Tom Regan countered that animals have lives, just like us, which are intrinsically valuable: while it is true that most humans are moral agents with full rights and duties, some humans (e.g. infants) and many animals are “moral patients” (with limited or no moral duties) whose interests the agents must consider and protect.

Despite (or because of?) philosophical uncertainties and robust debates, many societies worldwide acknowledge some moral and legal status for animals. Most common are laws prohibiting “unnecessary harm” or “cruelty” towards animals through neglect, exploitation for entertainment or violence, though legal definitions of “necessity” and “cruelty” vary between jurisdictions. 

Other laws try to address custody for beloved family pets in succession cases, separations or divorce. There are cases about veterinary malpractice, adoption of animals, injury to animals or “no pets” policies in housing disputes. Criminal law addresses smuggling of exotic or expensive animals or even “animal trials”, where an animal stands accused of crimes against humans, such as the imprisonment of Katya the Bear in Kazakhstan (2004) for mauling her handlers.

Animal lawyers and the future of animal rights

Animal law isn’t yet a mainstream field of legal activity in the UK. Comparatively few universities dedicate courses to it. But lawyers versed in animal rights law work not only in the farming, food and logistics sectors. Knowledge of animal law is also needed for research institutions, zoos, commercial breeding operations or any enterprise using or working with animals.

Animal rights lawyers also defend the interests of animal rights activists and sometimes animals themselves against infringements of their legal rights and moral interests.

More recently, prominent US legal scholars like Cass Sunstein or Lawrence Tribe discuss animal rights in constitutional terms of slavery, given that humans routinely buy, sell and forcibly inseminate/breed animals, put them to hard work, burn/clip them, force them to live in unhealthy habitats, medicate, maim and kill them for food, profit, science or entertainment.

Instead of debating abstractly whether animals should have rights, they invite us to inform ourselves properly about how we treat animals and reflect whether they enjoy sufficient legal rights and protections in our current legal systems. If we think the system falls short, we should work to improve it. 

Others, like Gary Francione, propose that once we no longer view animals as property in law, our entire relationship with animals in society changes  – a very interesting thought experiment indeed!

For further interest, the following sources might be a start:

Benjamin Bestgen is a solicitor and notary public (qualified in Scotland). He also holds a Master of Arts degree in philosophy and tutored in practical philosophy and jurisprudence at the Goethe Universität Frankfurt am Main and the University of Edinburgh.

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