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Do animals have rights?

Icon Books, Cambridge, £7.99, 240pp
ISBN 1 84046 623 5

Many will suppose that the question as to whether animals have rights has had enough ink and energy expended on it already. However, I can recommend Alison Hills’ Do Animals Have Rights? is a balanced and extremely well written book on the subject.

One of the great strengths of this book is that while almost anyone will learn from it, for however long they have been involved with issues to do with animal welfare and rights, it is written with great clarity in a most accessible style. Accordingly, an intelligent and interested 17-year-old would find it readable and engaging.

Alison Hills is a philosopher and has the habit of dealing with arguments logically. One of the pleasant consequences of this, for a reader, is that she sometimes ends up with conclusions that surprise. This engages the reader and, in particular, means that one cannot easily place her on a ‘pro-animal rights – anti-animal rights’ continuum.

She also has an engaging habit of making rather good use of fiction to make or illustrate points. Animal Farm, Black Beauty and the Odyssey all feature, along with many other texts. This is exemplified by the following passage:

“The difference between human and ape language use is well illustrated by an unlikely encounter that took place between William Shatner, the actor well known for playing Captain James T. Kirk of Star Trek, and Koko, a signing gorilla. Shatner muses on the significance of the meeting:
‘Koko and I talked. We touched hands and we touched minds. Feeling her powerful hand on the back of my neck was unlike any experience I’ve known. …’

Koko’s concerns, as expressed in a conversation with her trainer,
Dr Francine ‘Penny’ Patterson, are more straightforward:
Candy give-me. Drink apple. Sleep lie-down. This red red hurry.

Whereas Shatner expresses abstract ideas like the problematic relationship between man and nature in quite complex sentences Koko talks about her immediate environment, what she sees and what she wants, in the simplest of terms.”

Hills divides her book into three parts: Animal minds; All animals are equal …? and How should we treat animals? This division works well. Along with careful reviews of some fairly familiar material (animal rights through the ages, can animals suffer?, can animals reason?), Hills presents some helpful arguments to extend understanding. For example, I found her treatment of death and its moral effects for humans and non-humans particularly insightful and clear.

When it comes to the particular issues covered in the third part of the book (How should we treat animals?) Hills, perhaps somewhat unusually for a philosopher, rarely leaves us to make up our own minds. Rather she produces well-written analyses of the issues, often drawing on arguments from evolutionary biology as well as philosophy and other disciplines, that lead to clear conclusions. Some of these may surprise the reader. For instance, she concludes that the total ban on foxhunting (as is now pretty well the case in the UK) on the grounds of cruelty was not warranted.

It is her chapter Science and suffering that may particularly interest members of the RDS. After careful consideration of the issue of consent, the Nuremberg Code, the Helsinki Declaration and the available evidence she concludes:

"We ought not to make animals suffer unnecessarily, but the benefits of scientific research can be considerable, and can warrant experimenting on animals. Scientific research on animals should not be prohibited altogether, but it should be very carefully regulated, to ensure that scientists carry out experiments only when the expected outcomes are sufficiently worthwhile and that they avoid causing unnecessary suffering. Animal activists are right to campaign to ensure that appropriate animal welfare regulations are enforced, though it is quite wrong for them to do so by threatening violence ....”

As to Hills’ answer to the question posed in the book’s title – I’ll leave you to read it for yourself! It too may surprise you.


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