Animal Rights in Essence: Non-Violence

A distillation of animal rights in terms of ahimsa, a principle that originates from Jainism.

Background for this Article

This document summarizes animal rights in terms of the Jain principle of Ahimsa, which Mohandas Gandhi championed and is more than 5,000 years old. This principle profoundly influenced Tom Regan, who participated with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in the civil rights movement. Regan called it "the harm principle." Ahimsa is also promoted, in some respects, by Gary Francione, well over a decade following Regan's Case for Animal Rights. Ahimsa, which is also referred to as "non-violence", has long been a component of my own philosophy. I have a number of Jain friends and authored the article on Jainism for the Encyclopedia of Animal Rights and Animal Welfare in 1998, and also a modified version in the second edition of 2010. Hopefully this leaflet will prove useful in educating people about animal rights. We need to give the Jains credit for ahimsa. Gandhi, a Hindu, borrowed it from the Jains, and the West did not significantly originate or even much develop such an important philosophical principle. The only original idea in this information sheet, perhaps, is the idea of a license to harm, which I introduced in my academic article, "Can the Treatment of Nonhuman Animals Be Compared to the Holocaust?" I also have allusions to my idea of feeling cognition in stressing that pain feels bad, and to a meta-ethical concern with reasoning in speaking of how an idea of bad corresponds with reality. However, ahimsa, the comparison to mentally disabled humans, and the alien landing scenario, are not uncommon ideas in animal ethics. The idea is to provide a common-sense defence of animal rights, and for most people, ahimsa is an unspoken part of their common-sense as to how oneself should be treated. That noted, harmful discrimination against humans, and especially nonhuman animals, is also dreadfully common. My original contributions to animal ethics are to be developed in my forthcoming animal ethics theory book.

Essentially, ahimsa is a principle which means non-violence. It is reflected in modern animal rights theories, although not always by name. Ahimsa is more than 5,000 years old, originating in Jainism, a religion of India. Virtually none of us wishes to suffer significant mental or physical harms. Reason, though, requires consistency. If someone harmed is not oneself, or is outside of one's favorite group(s), these facts do not give oneself a license to harm these others. A license to harm is contrary to ahimsa, or a duty not to harm. We also reject racism and sexism, or systematic harms done or allowed to people of colour and women. Racists or sexists gain no license to harm from victims possessing darker skin or female attributes. In 1970, Richard Ryder coined the term speciesism: systematically harming sentient beings not of one's species, or allegedly "missing" a supposed species-characteristic, e.g., rationality. The most popular philosophy against animal rights is: We may harm animals for perceived human benefit because they are mental inferiors.

However, speciesists derive no license to harm from their victims being nonhuman or mentally disadvantaged. We should not harm mentally disabled humans, albeit speciesist philosopher, R. G. Frey, is dangerously consistent in rejecting animal rights. He accepts both mentally challenged humans and nonhuman animals being used for harmful medical research. Now suppose, hypothetically, that much more beautiful, intelligent, and ethical alien beings visited our planet. Since they are nonhuman, would we have a license to harm them? Based on our being of a different species, or mentally inferior, should the aliens have a license to harm us? Ahimsa replies: No. We avoid harm to ourselves partly because pain feels bad, always and everywhere. The same feeling bad is true for all sentient beings, so our judgment of bad corresponds to reality. Reflecting reality is as important for reasoning as consistency. We only accept harm to humans based on defense or unavoidability. Neither excuse clears animal oppression. Yet speciesists "need" a license to harm animals, for severe harms are commonplace.

Indeed, rejecting serious harms to animals compels vegans to disavow how nonhumans are exploited in modern societies. Animals suffer terribly on trap-lines, sometimes chewing off limbs caught in steel-jaw leg hold traps. Or they insanely pace in circles while imprisoned on so-called "fur farms." Factory farming involves feeding 50 billion animals per year vile food that often includes excrement, and keeping them packed so tightly that they can barely move, in an atmosphere rife with pollution which human visitors scarcely tolerate. The animals' confines are only cleaned at slaughter time. Animals with serious diseases are denied all treatment. Transport and slaughter are studies in cruelty as well. Animals, against their rights, have the worst ailments inflicted on them in laboratories. That is not even scientific for studying human diseases. Sheep can consume gallons of arsenic without ill effect although this is a deadly poison for humans. The discoverers of penicillin are grateful they did not test on Guinea pigs, since that drug kills those nonhumans. Animals in circuses and aquaria languish in squalid enclosures and filth, trained by harsh methods. Hunters kill members of free-living families for fun, rather like psychopathic serial killers. Fish perish in an agony of suffocation in the air, or have hooks piercing lips that are as rich in nerves as our fingertips. Cats and dogs are bred in excreta and illness for pet stores, while millions of unwanted other sentient beings are killed each year due to "overpopulation."

All of this indefensible, unnecessary harm must STOP! Let us take responsibility for each and every arbitrary harm that we could inflict or allow. It is time to call off all hypocrisy and selfishness in tolerating harms to others that we would never permit to impinge upon ourselves. Most people do not make these crucial connections. They take a "license to harm" animals for granted. Let us think critically, reasoning about these matters, and cut away the invisible chains of oppression that bind speciesists to their nonhuman victims.

David Sztybel, Ph.D., is an animal ethics author of numerous published essays, and has lectured at University of Toronto, Queen's University, and Brock University. Please see: davidsztybel.info. This sheet is written at the level of normative ethics. Meta-ethical issues are treated elsewhere.

This document is also availble as a pdf download.

A comment about justification in the above article
Many readers may notice that this sheet says at the bottom that it is written at the level of normative ethics rather than meta-ethics. A normative ethics involves applying a moral principle, in this case being consistent about non-violence which one assumes as appropriate for oneself. We do assume these things in society. However, meta-ethics does not assume that any given ethical theory is right or wrong, and critically evaluates different normative conceptions, carefully analyzing key terms, with a view to investigating justifications. Skeptics may find that there is a lack of justification for any theories, whereas others, more positively, may conclude that some moral theories are justified whereas others are not, or even could not possibly be. Many animal ethicists really just assume a normative ethic and reject other normative ethics for being incompatible with one’s own. In other words, they are doing normative ethics, showing the implications of their normative ethic, when they need to be doing meta-ethics, or justifying their stance in impartial terms. For example, Regan intuitively assumes "the respect principle" which entails "the harm principle," and Francione intuits that we should not treat human beings as property. I am known to try to supply a rigorous justification at the meta-ethical level, which admittedly, most people never even think about. This sheet, however, is not concerned with meta-ethical justification. In my forthcoming book on animal rights ethics, I will show how non-violence can be rationally justified, and how competing ethical theories can be objected to successfully. An academic looking at this information sheet could say that I am begging the question, or assuming non-violence even as a norm for oneself, and that one should be consistent in treating others like oneself, both of which need to be justified. That is true, but only relevant if one is exploring at a meta-ethical level, which I do in other writing, not this short piece.