Making space for animals and their rights

Making space for animals and their rights

Most people, including legal scholars, still have a strong species bias. Yet there are significant developments and new insights which give good reason to expand our conception of rights beyond the human world, to include (other) animals.

On this blog site Janneke Vink argued recently in an interesting blog that legal scholars, like most people, unconsciously are speciesists: they have a species bias, which means they believe that ‘humans are categorically more important than all other animals’. I would like to add a few ideas to what she wrote. There are several significant developments and new insights with regard to our relationship with animals which have brought us closer to them and to the animal inside of us, inviting us to become a little less species bias. Since some legal scholars might not be aware of these developments and insights – which can help to put animal rights into a proper context – I will provide a brief overview of these.

Shifting barriers

Let’s start with our changing views of the animal species. Raymond Corbey argued (in The Metaphysics of Apes) that after the 'Age of Discovery', when Europeans for the first time were confronted with real apes – who were brought over to be exposed in Europe – a change was initiated in the relationships between humans and animals. In the 19th century Darwin´s theory of evolution brought about further changes in this respect. But it is in the last decades that research into animal behaviour has finally caused the barriers between humans and animals to really start shifting. From the 1960s onwards, primatologist Jane Goodall has shown – with much conviction – that intimate, compassionate and long-lasting relationships between humans and chimpanzees are possible, inspiring us to become better human beings, and needn’t conflict at all with our ideas of scientific research. Another primatologist, Frans de Waal, has discovered through many years of research that animals are not just ‘brute beasts’ exclusively bent on a struggle to survive and on competition (which we once believed they were), but also have a large capacity for empathy and moral behaviour like humans.
As it has turned out that this animal empathy and morality is rooted very deeply, probably even deeper than their more aggressive survival impulses, this fact has also helped us to fully acknowledge the animal forces within ourselves. Several researchers have already explored this interesting subject with a lot of passion: for instance, David Abram has written about Becoming Animal and Frans de Waal about Our Inner Ape in The Age of Empathy.

Have we discovered something new?

We may ask ourselves whether the realisation that we are ‘just’ animals among other animals also means we have acquired a new human capacity. The deliberate and constant low regard for animals through the centuries should have made us a little wary: the Bible stating that God had given humankind the reign over all animals and that only humans (and not animals) were created in His image; the negative role of the snake in the Garden of Eden; animal-like depictions of the Devil, with horns, hoofs and a tail; Descartes much later confirming this human feeling of superiority philosophically and scientifically by declaring that animals were mere machines without any feeling. And what is most revealing in this respect is the widespread and persistent imagery of the dragon – a frightening mythical creature who (in Christian times) was slain by heroes like Saint George or Saint Michael and who seemed to include all existing sea, land and air creatures. For centuries, and even millennia, this imagery has kept on fascinating people. Why this ongoing effort to lower the reputation of animals?

The 'pagan' past

Because there was a powerful cultural heritage the Christian authorities wanted to get rid of! We might have forgotten that human beings once – in the pre-Christian past, when people still practised their so-called ‘pagan’ religions, more accurately called nature religions – had a high regard for the animals. In those religions, in particular those centred on the worship of a Goddess, animals played an important role, and were even considered sacred, very much part of the religious or spiritual experience. We know that through the centuries Christian institutions always kept on struggling fiercely against these nature religions, and thereby also against their worshippers who identified strongly with the animal world (and the whole of the natural environment). But fortunately they never got rid of them all! There are indigenous tribes still living today all over the planet who haven’t lost this high regard for animals.
Although these people never put their customs and laws down in writing, it is among them we can find the roots of animal rights! It makes a big difference whether we think of animal rights as something completely new or as a reconnection to something valuable that we have lost.

Animal rights as an expression of feminine values

It is interesting that in her blog Janneke Vink links our species bias to racism and sexism, in which ‘the interests of the specific others are systematically and categorically regarded as inferior…’. This made me think of Riane Eisler’s groundbreaking ideas about dominator and partnership societies (which she wrote about in her book The Chalice and the Blade and others). Hierarchical relationships – with one party always superior to another; the top excluding the bottom; the focus on control and separation; and life as a continuous, all-pervading struggle – are part of a dominator society, which is ruled by masculine, patriarchal values and has been with us for a long time. Our strife to value animals on the same level as humans, however, is part of a partnership society, the sort of society (with very old roots!) we can see manifesting around us. It is inspired primarily by feminine, more inclusive and egalitarian values: like cooperation, empathy and trust. Our longing to extend our conception of rights beyond the human world to include animals is very much an expression of those feminine values.

To cut a long story short: I think there are enough reasons for legal scholars to take animal rights seriously and to put them high on their agendas.


If you want to know more about the ideas and the life of Jane Goodall: recently she has been interviewed in the (Dutch) television programme College Tour.



Was interesting to read. I believe the world would be a better place with just animals. Tell us more about it when next we meet!

Janneke Vink

What a wonderful blogpost, Wim! Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this subject.

Indeed, the roots of our speciesist biases can be easily explained by our (religiously or philosophically inspired) past efforts of emphasizing the human uniqueness. Of course this was not always bad-intended, but the consequences were nonetheless big (speciesism), and we have to deal with these consequences up to this day.

A beautiful anthology on the perception of animals amongst humans through time is Een Beestachtige Geschiedenis van de Filosofie by Erno Eskens. I would recommend it to everyone who’s interested in this subject.

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