Animal Rights: Equal Experiencers of Suffering

Updated on December 6, 2017
Luke Holm profile image

Luke works as a middle school English, ELD, social justice, and mindfulness teacher in the sanctuary city, San Jose, CA.

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Animals Have an Interest Not to Suffer

In many a philosophical circle, there is a notion held suggesting that nonhuman animals, or animals as I will call them, should not be the beneficiaries of any sorts of rights; such as some of the ones humans often acknowledge having for themselves. There are many such reasonings for these misguided beliefs, but the one I will focus on is the notion that animals do not have rights because they do not have interests.

In this article, I will disprove the notion that animals do not have the ability to have interests, and thus prove that animals should in fact be considered as equal beneficiaries of some of the same rights that humans have. In doing so, I will first describe where these misguided notions have come from; the notions being that animals do not or cannot have interests. After which, I will prove that animals do have interests by showing that animals can experience suffering. Finally, after proving that animals have interests not to suffer, I will relate what kinds of rights they should be beneficiaries of; more specifically the right to live a life free of suffering.


Rene Descartes: Animals as Thoughtless Automata

Many of the thoughts pertaining to the notion that animals do not have interests come from the French philosopher, Rene Descartes. Descartes, often called "the father of modern philosophy," regarded animals as merely thoughtless automata. As mere automata, Descartes attributes no more cognition to animals as does one attribute cognition to a machine. Descartes came to this conclusion after incorrectly assuming that animals have no true means of communicating inner thought by means of intellectual speech.

In a letter to Henry More, found in Descartes: Philosophical Letters, Descartes writes,

"Yet, although all animals easily communicate to us, by voice or bodily movement, their natural impulses of anger, fear, hunger, and so on, it has never yet been observed that any brute animal reached the stage of using real speech, that is to say, of indicating by word or sign something pertaining to pure thought and not to natural impulse" (Regan 13).

Furthermore, Descartes believes that animals' reaction to pain is of no more relevance to its inner workings than is a machine's reaction to a button pushed after which it is programmed to say "ouch."

Washoe's First Signs

Despite a contradictive study by Beatrix and Allan Gardner suggesting that a common wild chimpanzee can learn and use forms of sign language, there have been other tests which show that some animals react to certain stimuli in much the same way as humans do. First, I will briefly describe the study by the Gardners, which I hope goes to show that animals can have the capacity to use signs to indicate a pure thought. Second, I will relate a deprivation experiment, carried out by Harry Harlow, which I believe shows that at least some animals have complex mental states which are in much the same ways similar to human mental states.

Teaching Sign Language to a Chimpanzee

In 1966, an infant chimpanzee was taken out of the wild and named Washoe. Beatrix and R. Allan Gardner received Washoe at around ten months of age and developed an environment for Washoe that closely resembles the environment which would be created for a deaf child. The goal was to teach Washoe American Sign Language (ASL) and to be able to communicate with Washoe by means of this language.

By the 22nd month of the study, Washoe had learned thirty-four signs and was able to communicate with the researchers by means of these signs (Gardner 672). Although many scientists have denied Washoe actually learning these signs and using the signs to express true thought (suggesting that Washoe was only copying or mimicking the researchers), experimenters have observed Washoe combining signs in unique ways to express different ideas for communication. Such combinations are ones such as using two or three signs to create the phrases “open food drink” to mean “open the fridge” or phrases like “please open hurry” meaning “please open it quickly.”

Washoe was also documented using certain nouns such as “flower” to express abstract ideas such as scent or smell. While Washoe was never able to fully create a grammatically or structurally correct sentence, the research provided in the Gardner’s essay “Teaching Sign Language to a Chimpanzee” expresses the notion that at least one nonhuman animal has the ability for pure and unique thought and can express such thoughts in a very human like form of communication. Washoe and other similar chimpanzees have been trained to communicate their inner cognitive states through ASL. If these studies do not show that at least some animals have pure thought above natural impulse, then perhaps the following study does.

The Pit of Despair

In the 1970s, a researcher named Harry Harlow created a device for the purpose of inducing depression in infant rhesus macaque monkeys. The device, dubbed the ‘pit of despair,’ was a vertical stainless steel chamber with inward sloping sides, forming a small sitting surface at the bottom of the chamber. The main goal of the experiments was to induce clinical depression in infant monkeys, ranging from three months to three years old. “The baby monkeys exhibited Bowlby’s first two stages of separation-protest (locomotion and vocalization) and then despair (self-clasp, rocking, and huddling). The most striking illustration of the despair stage was near-total abolition of all play behavior” (Harlow 11). Despite the cruelty performed by Harlow’s device and experimentation, research indicated that the monkeys exhibited Bowlby’s first two stages of protest and despair.

Edward “John” Bowlby was a researcher who created the “development and attachment” theory for humans. The fact that infant monkeys displayed and were categorized as to similar cognitive and physical states of depression that humans display under similar circumstances should go to show that animals really do have an internal mental world which is quite similar to that of humans’.


Animals are Like Babies

These experiments should provide good information against Descartes’ ideas that animals are mere automata, lacking not only pure thought, but also an extremely close connection to the mental states that humans display in similar situations. If further information is required to show that nonverbal beings have active and intelligent mental states, let us consider humans before they are able to communicate.

As we all know, there is a point in our lives when we are unable to verbally or physically communicate what we want. As newly born infants, we lack the ability to express our feelings, thoughts, or desires to those around us because we have not yet learned how to communicate such interests. Although infants are unable to communicate such interests, we do not assume that they are mere automata, lacking any real intellect or ability for pure thought. For, as it seems clear, there must be some prerequisite needed before one can learn language and express thought through such means. Even though infants cannot yet speak, it should seem clear that they have interests and needs just as normal adults do. It should not be said that since infants cannot communicate their interests, then they do not have interests.

For imagine a world in which this latter statement is considered true. If this latter statement was true, then we would have no reason to believe that infants had any sorts of rights, nor would we believe that we have any sort of duty to uphold their rights. If this latter statement was true, it would not be considered wrong to harm an infant or neglect harm being done to an infant. We would not believe that infants require any sort of accommodations which minimize the amount of suffering they might be subjected to if we allowed harm to come to them or neglected them in detrimental ways.

Fortunately, we do not believe that because infants cannot communicate verbally or physically to adults that they do not have interests. Fortunately, we acknowledge that they have mental states, and therefore have interests.


Animals Suffer Like Humans Suffer

What I now hope to have displayed is that verbal or physical communication is not a prerequisite for having interests. Even if it was, following the Gardner’s experiments with teaching primates ASL, it should be clear that at least some nonhuman animals have the ability to express themselves through means of physical communication.

If the Gardner’s experiments do not make it clear that some nonhuman animals have the capacity for unique and pure thought, disproving Descartes’ notions, then it should be made even clearer when examining Harlow’s deprivation experiments that nonhuman animals display similar mental states to humans in similar circumstances. Furthermore, since it has been shown that animals can display similar mental states to humans, it should be clear that animals can experience suffering in much the same ways that humans can.

Now that I have shown that animals have the ability to suffer, it might be necessary to briefly show several ways in which animals are made to suffer. Since I have already shown one way animals are made to suffer—as tools for experimentation—I will limit my exposition to the suffering animals experience when they are used and manufactured for food, clothing, and public performance. The underlying purpose is to later display that animals have rights not to be forced into such experiences; experiences which cause them suffering. In each instance, I will further note how one can tell that the animal is indeed suffering.

Often times the indicators are obvious and do not take much examination. The reason these indicators of suffering often times go unnoted is simply because people do not want to acknowledge that what they are actively participating in or supporting is directly causing another being’s suffering. Throughout each instance, it should be kept in mind that the animals suffer in much the same ways that humans would suffer, if humans were made to have such experiences.


Factory Farms: Animals Bred for Human Consumption

Chickens Caged

In my opinion, the number one way the majority of animals are made to suffer is by humans massively producing the animals for human consumption. One of the main animals made to suffer by mass production are chickens, both layers (those that lay eggs) and broilers (those that are produced for direct human consumption). In both cases of chickens, the chickens are confined in tight quarters. Often times, two, three, or more chickens can be stuffed in cages no larger than an average sheet of paper. Because these chickens are so crammed, they are unable to open their wings, move about, or even stand up in many cases.

The chickens are made to stand on wire-mesh cages from early infancy to just before the point of destruction. The wire meshing is an unnatural ground for the chickens to stand or lay on, and because of this several terrible things typically happen to the chickens. First, the chickens’ feet end up growing around the wire meshing. When the chickens are removed from their cages, they oftentimes have to be ripped out of the cages, sometimes detaching them from their limbs, because the chicken’s skin and foot has grown and formed around the wire meshing.

The chickens lose their feathers from rubbing up against each other and the wire cages. The loss of feathers causes abrasive sores and damage to the chicken’s skin. If one observes a chicken on a natural, open farm setting to that of a chicken in confinement, indicators of suffering are prevalent.

In a natural setting, we find that chickens are intelligent creatures that can establish a pecking order of up to around ninety chickens. This pecking order is a hierarchy of chickens which the chickens learn and learn to respect. When chickens are forced into confinement, or forced to be among many more than ninety chickens, they become disoriented and cannot establish a true pecking order. This causes the chickens to start attacking each other by pecking at each other or smothering each other.

In order to avoid this unnatural pecking, farmers usually cut off the tips of the chickens’ beaks. This causes the chickens much pain, for they have highly sensitive nerve endings near the tips of their beaks. Aside from the pain caused by cutting off the tips of the beaks, further forms of suffering can be noted if one watches how chickens act in natural settings.

Free Range Chickens

In a natural setting, chickens are often seen taking dust baths, in which they fluff their feathers while they wallow or kick up dirt and dust to cover themselves. In doing so, they run around in the dirt, kicking up dust and flapping their wings. This is a natural activity for chickens; one they cannot perform if crammed and confined into tight spaces, unable to move about as they would in an open setting.

Disallowing an active creature to do what is natural for them must be a form of suffering. Its equivalence reigns on the level of disallowing a human to move from one spot for their entire life. Since we have noted that chickens are intelligent creatures, capable of sophisticated pecking orders, we directly cause them suffering when we do not allow them to act in ways that are natural for them to act. The suffering is further noted when we observe them unnaturally attacking each other and consequentially being maimed as a direct result of such attacks.


Factory Farms: Animals Bred for Fur

When it comes to animals be used for fur, the animals do not fair much better than those who are produced for human consumption. Like animals being confined in cages for food production, animals raised for fur are also often confined in cages. In the case of minks being caged and bred for their fur, their suffering can be noted because it is much like the suffering of a human being if a human were subjected to similar circumstances. Minks, typically having a natural territorial range of two and one-half miles, display signs of suffering when they are observed spending much of their waking hours, “...pacing back and forth,” and showing signs of, “...psychological maladjustment.”

Other forms of repetitive motions (...jumping up the sides of cages and rotating their heads) attest to the same thing. Unnaturally confined as they are and denied an environment in which they can express their natural desires to roam and swim, fur mink (and we find the same behaviors in all caged fur bearers) give every appearance of being neurotic at best, psychotic at worst (Regan 109).

Free Range Fur

If free-range animals used for fur seems much better, it should be noted that typically the animals are caught in steel-jawed traps, unaware of what is happening to them, and are sometimes trapped for days before the trapper comes back and ends their life.

However, trappers do not always get their prize, for sometimes, “...trapped animals chew through their trapped leg (“wring off” in the language of trappers) before crawling away” (Regan 110). For these animals, they are destined (if they survive) to spend the rest of their days in an unnatural misery due to the loss of an appendage. In the case of animals used for fur, it should be obvious that they display signs of suffering through neurotic and psychotic behavior, not to mention the implied suffering of a wild animal that can no longer correctly function or live out the rest of its days without the pain of a lost limb.


Animals Used for Entertainment

Finally, we shall turn to the last form of suffering animals are subjected to through their exploitation for human interests: animals used for public performance. In the case of circuses, we find that, often times, wild animals are used or exploited for the enjoyment of human beings. Animals such as elephants, tigers, and lions seem to bring about a sense of exotic excitement for all ages, but do the animals feel the same excitement? The obvious answer at this point is no, they do not.

In fact, as seen in the other cases of exploited and confined animals, animals used as circus performers display abnormal behavior and lack of natural energy; this we know is a result of the animal’s confinement and suffering. Examples of how circus performance animals are made to live in unnatural environments are not difficult to find or understand. As circuses are typically on the road, “...forty-eight to fifty weeks a year” (Regan 126), the animals are often trapped in cages for most of their natural solitary life.

I say solitary, because it is not always the case that circus animals are solitary creatures. “Elephants live in groups (herds) numbering anywhere from eight to fifteen, with a dominant female in charge. ... With a home range for African elephants extending five hundred miles, the herd’s migratory routes are not known ‘instinctively’ but must be taught by the elders” (Regan 128). In the case of lions and tigers, “In the wild, the home range for lions varies from 8 to 156 square miles; for male tigers, from 8 to 60 square miles (in India) and up to 400 square miles (in Siberia)” (Regan 127).

We begin to understand why the animal is suffering when confined at a circus when we learn that the cages of lions and tigers are only, “...thirty-six feet long and provides ample room for the seven to nine animals housed in it to walk about, interact, and exercise” (Regan 127). Again, the animals are observed either pacing back and forth (much like minks) or lying down and unresponsive out of complete boredom and deprivation of natural instinct.

As has been shown, animals held in extreme captivity—environments that completely go against their natural habitats—are made to suffer. Indications of suffering are observed when animals engage in repetitive behavior, such as pacing back and forth, and when animals fail to act in ways that resemble their natural actions, such as large cats acting lazy and unresponsive or chickens failing to flap their wings or becoming violent as they peck at each other.

If it has been shown that animals held in close confinement are animals which are suffering, then I shall next display why animals have a right not to be made to suffer.

Argument Summary

As we have seen, by reflecting on experiments done with animals such as Washoe, animals have the ability for pure thought. With the ability for pure thought, we have further observed, through deprivation experiments such as the ones conducted by Harlow, that animals have the capacity for suffering in much the same ways that humans do. In such a case, the animals were even categorized by means of human stages of depression. This means that, at least when it comes to the subject of a thought bearing creature to experience suffering, animals and humans have equal mental states.

If animals can experience suffering in the same way that humans experience suffering, then this means that whatever rights humans have to avoid suffering, animals must also have. For the reason humans have such rights is because they understand that other humans (beings of equal mental states when it comes to suffering) do not want to experience suffering. Because no one human wants to experience suffering. For that matter, humans have created equal rights across the entire human race to ensure that each human is not made to suffer.


The Invisible "No Trespassing" Sign

Tom Regan, a human and animal rights activist and philosopher, has dubbed this right not to be made to suffer as something that is much like an invisible “No Trespassing” sign. What is it that this sign prohibits?

Two things. First, others are not morally free to harm us; to say this is to say that others are not free to take our lives or injure our bodies as they please. Second, others are not morally free to interfere with our free choice; to say this is to say that others are not free to limit our free choice as they please. In both cases, the No Trespassing sign is meant to protect our most important goods (our lives, our bodies, our liberty) by morally limiting the freedom of others (Regan 39).

This No Trespassing sign has been created as a right for all humans, because humans have equal experiences when it comes to experiencing suffering: the limitation of free choice and bodily integrity. If it is found that beings that experience suffering equally have equal right to this No Trespassing sign, then it should be a right that is truly expressed for all beings that have equal experience when it comes to suffering.


Speciesism Does Not Deny Similar Mental States

As we have seen, animals are such beings that are included when considering the realm of equal experiencers of suffering. Animals are made to suffer when we limit their freedom of choice, by caging and confining them in environments that completely go against their natural habitats. Animals are also made to suffer when we exploit and use them as food for human consumption; hence, eradicating any right to bodily integrity that they might have. Furthermore, animals respond to suffering in the same ways that humans respond. This means that animals have an equal claim to the right of the No Trespassing sign. They are owed such a right, just as is every human being.

To deny animals having such a right would be to deny the premise on which this right was created: that beings who have equal mental states when it comes to suffering are owed such a right. To disregard that animals have equal mental states when it comes to suffering and to justify such a claim by stating that only humans should have such a right is considered speciesist. Speciesism, the notion that one species is superior to another because the claimer belongs to such a species, is not a valid ground for denying that animals have similar mental states when it comes to suffering.


Animals Have the Right to Free Choice and Bodily Integrity

In conclusion, it should now be clear, through observation of the research done with Washoe, that animals do have the capacity for pure thought; thus refuting Descartes claim to the contrary. Likewise, it has been proven that animals have much the same mental and physical states to humans in the experiencing of suffering. Similar instances of suffering are observed when we exploit animals for food, clothing, and public entertainment. Since animals have the same mental states as humans do when being experiencers of suffering, they should be regarded as having equal rights with humans, when considering the realm of avoiding the experience of suffering. This right has been dubbed a No Trespassing sign. The No Trespassing sign entails that animals and humans alike have the right to free choice—elimination from restricted environments—and bodily integrity—the right not to be harmed by others.

NonHuman Rights


Gardner, R. A., and B. T. Gardner. "Teaching Sign Language to a Chimpanzee." Science 165.3894 (1969): 664-72.

Harlow, Harry, and Stephen Soumi. "Induced Psychopathology in Monkeys." Engineering and Science (1970): 8-14.

Regan, Tom, and Peter Singer. Animal Rights and Human Obligations. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1976.

Regan, Tom. Empty Cages: Facing the Challenge of Animal Rights. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004.

© 2017 JourneyHolm


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    • Jay C OBrien profile image

      Jay C OBrien 5 weeks ago from Houston, TX USA

      Yes, you are quite right about animals being able to suffer, but we still need high protein food. See the following article to solve the problem.

    • Luke Holm profile image

      JourneyHolm 5 weeks ago

      Thank you, John. I hope this article does reach the right ears, minds, and hearts. While I think the topic is still open for discussion, it is very difficult to refute the claims made here.

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 5 weeks ago from Queensland Australia

      This is a wonderful article, Luke, and needs to be widely read. Animals have every right to be treated equally as humans and allowed to live their lives in dignity and without suffering. Well done.

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