The Wrongs of Animal Rights


One might perhaps be forgiven for thinking that the proponents of rights for animals are the only ones left who have not yet heard about the challenges posed to the liberal subject of right from all sides. While this is not strictly true, neither is it particularly false.

A large part of the problem centres upon the fact that the so-called “fathers” of contemporary animal rights theory absolutely refuse any truck with possible alternatives, dismissing them out of hand as without relevance. As a result, a great many activists today – having inevitably turned to animal rights discourse in the first instance due to its privileged media position – believe that rights theory is not so much the best as rather the only position from which to address animal concerns. This is part of a retrograde and, at times, extremely bitter defensive battle concerned only with preserving that privileged position. While this is of course an all too human reaction, it is, however, just such anthropocentric conservatism that must be done away with.

Here then, the discourse of “animal rights” must be contested from both sides, that is, as regards both animal and right. Ironically perhaps, this can best be illustrated by way of its two greatest proponents, Peter Singer and Tom Regan, whose books, Animal Liberation (1975) and The Case for Animal Rights (1983) respectively, are generally considered the founding texts of contemporary animal rights theory.

According to Singer’s utilitarian philosophy, it is insofar as nonhuman animals are sentient, and only by virtue of this, that they are therefore entitled to have their interests taken into account in any utilitarian calculation. In this, however, Singer is not – as he himself makes clear – making a case for animal rights, but rather only for the necessity of including sentient animals in the determination of morality by utilitarian calculation in order to avoid falling into contradiction and thus irrationality. Singer’s basic position, in other words, remains inevitably inscribed within the calculus of ends, a human mastery which thus views the animal only according to its enclosure within an ordered technological schema. A schema, moreover, within which any oppression of a minority for the sake of that judged – by human standards – as the “common good” can all too easily be justified.

While Singer is not strictly proposing a theory of animal rights, Tom Regan meanwhile is not proposing a case for animal rights. Rather, Regan attempts merely to demonstrate that certain privileged nonhuman animals are the “same” as humans insofar as they too are “subjects-of-a-life,” that is, that they, in common with humans, possess interests and desires regarding their own individual existence. In other words, Regan’s neo-Kantian liberal approach determines the place of the nonhuman animal only according to an essential human morality, and in so doing inscribes human subjectivity as the ground of the animal. As philosopher Matthew Calarco notes, “Regan’s work is not a case for animal rights but for rights for subjects, the classical example of which is human beings.”[1]

Already then, we see how the notion of “animal rights” necessarily moves within the same or another humanism, redrawing again and again the same unthought lines of exclusion, the same metaphysics of either-man-or-animal. In both cases, it is man who must determine, and thus delimit, the animal. Similarly, the bourgeois liberalism upon which rights theory rests is clearly evident in the shared privileging of the individual – of individual consciousness (Regan) and of an individual capacity for suffering (Singer) – at the expense of wider considerations. In short, for both Singer and Regan it is only ever sentient animals who count, that is to say, it is only the most human animals who matter.

Here then, it is not only the anthropomorphising of the animal that renders rights theory hugely problematic, but also the liberalism that necessarily inheres within the notion of “right” itself. As Jacques Derrida insists, insofar as rights theory remains structurally incapable of dissociating itself from the Cartesian cogito, it necessarily finds itself condemned to helplessly reiterating an interpretation of the masculine human subject “which itself will have been the very lever of the worst violence carried out against nonhuman living beings.”[2] This inevitable contamination of the notion of “right,” as well as the refusal of its principal theorists to consider other possible avenues, has resulted in the alienation of several potentially sympathetic groups from thinking with other animals, feminists chief among them.

This chasm is further broadened in that, insofar as the Western human male constitutes the measure of everything, rights theory fondly imagines that the inferior status of nonhuman beings can be fundamentally challenged by way of the legal and political institutions of that same Western human male. As a result, as Calarco again points out, animal rights activism is left with no other choice than to adopt “the language and strategies of identity politics.”[3] which in turn serves to further isolate animal concern from other arenas of political activism that are similarly seeking to challenge structures of oppression such as ecofeminism.[4]

Moreover, there are further, less directly related problems regarding the underlying liberalism of rights discourse. Consider the political and ethical issue of veganism, for example. The individualism inherent in animal rights, itself dependent upon the liberalist idea of the free human subject of will, results in the ethico-political praxis of “enlightenment.” Politics, in other words, becomes for the adherent of animal rights the ethical practice of enlightening others through the power of that very will.

As a result, it becomes very easy to understand the widespread negative perception of veganism as the last pure, proselytising religion. Indeed, in a book written with Anna Charlton, rights theorist Gary Francione and even attempts to defend animal rights on the basis of its reduction to a “belief system,” that is, to a religion.[5] It thus comes as no surprise that animal rights activists tend to believe that “active inclusion in the movement carries with it certain proscribed beliefs such as the assertion of the moral righteousness of the movement and the necessity of spreading that revelation.”[6] Or, as Tom Regan puts it, one must – with all the moral superiority that this entails – enlighten “one person at a time.”[7] Here then, the focus is once again returned to the human “believer,” with animal concern being displaced onto a human concern serving what Jamison, Wenk and Parker describe “as an alternative expression of ‘repressed transcendence’” – a repression that is itself characteristic of modernity.[8]

It should be noted, however, that all such people in need of moral “enlightenment” in fact already know about the almost unspeakable horrors, about the intense suffering and resolutely quotidian cruelty undergone by other animals every minute of every day all over the world – a systematic and systemic torture-slaughter machine which, transcending every geographical boundary, carries on regardless. Where then does this leave the righteousness of “persuasion”? Presumably waiting either for a much more effective art of rhetoric, or for a messianic (re)incarnation. In the meantime, how can a proselytising practice founded precisely on liberal or neoliberal individualism ever result in the cessation of exploitation and consumption?

Intimately related to these Christo-capitalist foundations of contemporary animal rights theory is the all too frequent recourse to the rhetoric of moral innocence as regards nonhuman animals. At the same time as reinstating a very traditional human-animal dichotomy, this conservative yet unfounded rhetoric again serves only to burden animal concern with religious overtones – activism thus becomes penance for the moral culpability of the fact of being human. In this way, human exceptionalism finds itself once more safely inscribed within a Christian teleology as the only animal to Fall into sin and thus in need of salvation.

By contrast, the priority of animal liberation resides instead in disclosing an epistemic shift that, already underway, ultimately makes eating flesh simply unthinkable. In this sense, the issue of veganism is both subordinate to, and a necessary consequence of, a thorough deconstruction of speciesism, itself dependent upon the dismantling of the various mutually-articulating structures of oppression. Without this, veganism all too easily risks becoming merely a pious operation of ressentiment.

One way to think about this is through Carol Adams’ concept of the absent referent understood here as that which solicits – in the double sense of both shaking and importuning – that unacknowledged knowledge of the global torture-slaughter machine. Not, however, in the staging of a one-to-one dialogue – itself an all too human, all too individualist, all too egoist privilege – but by way of an undeniable manifestation of an habitual and constituent refusal to think and to see, one with the potential to solicit on a far larger scale. From this we can begin to understand why the future cessation of exploitation and consumption of other animals does not rest with the persuasive power of the minority of “enlightened” humans, but with the return of the repressed. A return which, as that which is most real, quite simply can no longer be denied at the level of our very being. Only then will consuming other animals become unthinkable in an absolutely literal sense.



1. Matthew Calarco Zoographies: The Question of the Animal from Heidegger to Derrida (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), p.8.

2. Jacques Derrida and Elisabeth Roudinesco, For What Tomorrow … A Dialogue trans. Jeff Fort (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004), p.65.

3. Matthew Calarco Zoographies, op.cit., p.7.

4. It would seem that, forming a group dedicated to exposing connections between sexism and speciesism, ecofeminists Carol Adams and the late Marti Kheel sought perhaps to “queer” the associations of rights theory by naming the group Feminists for Animal Rights (FAR). This, however, only confuses the issue, which is that of removing the focus on “rights” entirely.

5. See Francione & Charlton Vivisection and Dissection in the Classroom: A Guide to Conscientious Objection (Jenkintown: The American Anti-Vivisection Society, 1992).

6. Wesley V. Jamison, Caspar Wenk, & James V. Parker “Every Sparrow that Falls: Understanding Animal Rights Activism as Functional Religion” in The Animal Ethics Reader 2nd Edition. Ed. Susan J. Armstrong & Richard G. Botzler (London & New York: Routledge, 2008), pp.609-614 (p.611).

7. Tom Regan “Preface: The Burden of Complicity” in Susan Coe Dead Meat (New York & London: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1995), pp.1-4 (p.4).

8. Jamison, Wenk, & Parker, op.cit., p.610.

About Richard Iveson

Postdoctoral Research Fellow I have a PhD from Goldsmiths College, University of London; my teaching and research interests include animal studies; Continental philosophy; posthumanism; cultural studies; biotechnology and cyberculture; post-Marxism. Books; Being and Not Being: On Posthuman Temporarily (London & Washington: Rowman & Littlefield International, 2016), forthcoming. Zoogenesis: Thinking Encounter with Animals ( London: Pavement Books, 2014). View all posts by Richard Iveson

7 responses to “The Wrongs of Animal Rights

  • goiken

    I believe, you’re misquoting Francione & Charlton here. Their original suggestion was limited to using the do make a case for conscientious objection to vivisection in the classroom. Even the paper makes it very clear that they “leave it to individuals to determine if their beliefs [in AR] function as religions.” Neither of them is [to my knowledge] proposing, to base a case for animal rights on religious beliefs.

    And w.r.t. your main point, I have two problems with it.

    The first is that I really don’t see much of an alternative. How can any idea of justice be conceptualised without the idea of a subject? If you can no longer even say who acts upon whom, how can you problematise any action? If you go down that road I really fail to see how one can escape moral relativism; But maybe I just lack the creativity to do so…

    And the other thing I take issue with, is that while I appreciate the criticism towards the framing and application of rights theory, I really fail to see why these problems are inherent to the concept of a right or of a subject. You’re right to analyse and criticise that Regan’s argument relies heavily on the “similar [to human] minds” narrative.

    But why can’t the idea a subject be detached from a teleologically anthropocentric perspective? Why can’t it be understood on the basis of “objective” criteria that don’t include a reference to cognitive abilities?

    If your argument against the subject is, that any concept of a person must define an us and a them, then this is in perfect harmony with my moral intuitions. For some beings it plainly makes no sense to think of them as having subjective awareness. The question “What’s it like to be X” makes no sense for some beings X. Why would it be problematic to deny them personhood?

    And if you, like Francione for example, take sentience (i.e. the ability to have subjective awareness) as the necessary and sufficient condition for personhood, then I really fail to see any white male subjects dominating everyone else at this core level of the theory.

    • Richard Iveson

      Thanks for the comment. I’m not suggesting that Francione is arguing that AR *is* a religion. My point is simply that AR functions *as* a religion, and that Francione’s argument that AR *can* be defended as a religion in the context of vivisection (a context that is clear from the title of his book) is profoundly symptomatic of this functioning. Neither Singer nor Regan claim AR is a religion either, yet my point is that every rights argument based upon the liberal subject of free will depends upon the “one-to-one” structure of moral righteousness and proselytising, hence the ref to Jamison et al in the context of Francione’s use of religion. The problem here is not the notion of the “subject” per se, but of the fully transparent “subject of free will,” and it is this which ensures that *every* humanism functions as a religion in just this manner – think of the “radical atheism” of Richard Dawkins for example.

      • Peter Walsh

        Hi Richard, I’m joining this conversation a bit late but just wondered if you could say a bit more about what it is that makes Richard Dawkins a ‘radical atheist’ rather than just an atheist. And do you see his atheism functioning as a religion? Thanks, Peter

  • Richard Iveson

    Hi Peter – thanks for the comment. As regards Richard Dawkins, the idea of his atheism being “radical” is really just a shorthand sarcasm (hence the scare quotes around the phrase) – in materialistic reductionism in general there is a strong impression that cognitive scientists / sociobiologists are inordinately proud of the (self-)perceived “radicalism” of their atheism, when in fact it is nothing of the sort. Invariably reinstating human exceptionalism through the back door, they in fact constitute yet another “secular humanism” despite all the mechanistic metaphors (the phrase “secular humanism”, like “ethical capitalism”, is an oxymoron) . For a detailed analysis of this in the “less reductive and more nuanced” version proposed by Daniel Dennett, Cary Wolfe’s “Language, Representation, and Species” in What is Posthumanism? (2010) is very good. And yes, in the last instance I would consider all humanisms, secular or otherwise, to function as religions.

  • Gerard

    Hi Richard,

    First I wanted to thank you for putting all this up. I found it accidentally and I’ve been reading bits here and there waiting for the right moment to give it more thorough attention, but I wanted to tell you that I appreciate it anyway (super necessary introduction because yes).
    Now, isn’t that ‘they already know’ a bit reductive? I agree with your perspective, but haven’t you felt people’s reactions once they start knowing? They sure know that something is going on, but in a rather vague and subconscious manner (yes, it does sound awful; ‘they’, ‘start knowing’, etc.) Despite it’s philosophical stance, hasn’t Earthlings had way more impact than Derrida ever will? Suffragettes or civil rights movements were as bourgeoising humanists as one can get, but should they be repudiated? These are not rhetorical questions, I’m honestly interested in what you think.
    Anyway, thanks for your work (although I’m puzzled abut the lack of references to Agamben). Seriously, thanks. Cheers.

    • Richard Iveson

      Thanks for taking the time to comment, Gerard – it’s appreciated. Very briefly, I am unfortunately unclear as to the position and broader context that informs your questions here and, as such, my response risks being interpreted as deliberately facetious, when not meant that way. Firstly regarding the Derrida question, Derrida too is obviously one member among many others of the set ‘Earthlings’ – so, what exactly are you asking? Second, at no point did I suggest, nor would I, that the suffrage and civil rights movements should be somehow repudiated. What I am attempting is rather to outline a different strategic approach which hopefully learns from the past in order to become increasingly effective. And on the very basic level, it’s hardly just to repudiate the past simply because it is not the present. Lastly, regarding Agamben – I have engaged with his work in various places, although in the present context I’m not sure what your question is – you want the anthropological machine, homo saver, witness as archive? I’m sorry if these aren’t the responses you were hoping for!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s