Animal Rights: Where to Draw the Line


Humans make remarkably sweeping decisions about our relationships with animals based on minimal knowledge about animals’ intellectual, emotional, and social lives. We seem to have very little problem commodifying sentient non-humans in order to enjoy the most remote and completely unnecessary luxuries.

We do so, moreover, without asking whether or not this act might be a violation of the rights that enlightened humans hold sacred. Ivory, fur, feathers, and fins–not to mention food and clothing–are the grammar and syntax of our material lives. It’s easy to take this lexicon of materialism at face value–there is, after all, little overt motivation to ask troubling questions about the status quo. But what if the status quo perpetuates profound injustice? And what if, by our every day consumer choices, we’re directly complicit?

These questions and thoughts came to mind as I read Steven M. Wise’s Drawing the Line: Science and the Case for Animal Rights. Wise bravely confronts the legal question of which animal species deserve legal rights as persons. Critics will say that his conclusions are ultimately arbitrary, which is technically true. But the nature of the question–where to draw the line on a continuum of life–by its nature demands an arbitrary response.  There’s no way to be absolute about such a question.

Wise’s accomplishment is to make the line less arbitrarily drawn. The myriad and complex questions surrounding animals and rights were hardly all clarified at the end of this fascinating book. But I do know that if humans are going to grant the basic rights of personhood to humans who are mentally debilitated, we must grant them to a wide range of animals, including African Greys, Dolphins, bonobos, chimpanzees, dogs, and orangutans. And that’s something to ponder.


About James McWilliams
I'm a historian and writer based in Austin, Texas. This blog is dedicated to exploring the ethics of eating animals and animal-based products.

4 Responses to Animal Rights: Where to Draw the Line

  1. CQ says:

    I look forward to reading Wise’s latest offering; I have his “Rattling the Cage.”

    When I advocate for an end to the slaughter of American horses (a federal bill would make it illegal to ship them to other countries to be killed), I’m aware that most of my compatriots distinguish between horses (as companions, not food) and cows (as food, not companions). I disagree with them, but usually don’t speak up on public forums, so as not to give the ranchers a reason to accuse that horse slaughter abolition movement of being a bunch of closet vegans (they’re most definitely not).

    In the same way, I can see myself actively pursuing personhood rights for the species Wise mentions, at least as a starting point, even if quietly I acknowledge that each animal of every species is not human property but a person entitled to legal rights.

    Making these statements is, to me, different from if I were to join welfarists in demanding bigger cages — or no cages (the elimination of egg-laying hen battery cages and pregnant sow gestation crates). The bigger-or-no-cages demands feel like backsliding. Whereas demanding rights for the “highest” animal species and the right for horses not to be turned into food both feel like steps of progress.

    Why is that? Maybe it’s because slightly more mobility for animals is merely a return to a form of animal control that we’ve experienced in previous centuries and that would be impossible to implement on a massive scale today (as you’ve described in previous posts, James). Whereas we’ve never in this country had horses free from the threat of commercial slaughter. And we’ve certainly never had a single nonhuman species be granted legal personhood.

    Sometimes what it gets down to is whether an idea makes me feel good or bad, right or wrong. So, without diminishing any species, without contrasting horses and cows or elephants and tigers, I have to say, at this point in my understanding, that I “arbitrarily” support Wise’s “arbitrary” drawing of the line.

    At the same time, my current concept of justice for all envisions no line dividing one animal species or individual animal from another when it comes to the moral and legal right to be free of subjugation to Homo sapiens.

    (Or Homo complexus, as David Cantor believes our species should be scientifically named.)

  2. The issue of where to draw the line in the continuum of life might distinguish The Beet-Eating Heeb from some other vegan advocates.

    As both a religious and strategic matter, it doesn’t make sense to reject the unique status of human beings.

    It doesn’t make sense strategically, because most Americans believe that human beings are fundamentally different from and superior to animals.

    But when we use our superior position to exploit, abuse and massacre animals, we are corrupting ourselves morally.

  3. Natalie says:

    Thank you for writing about Steven M. Wise’s work. In 2007, Steve formed the Nonhuman Rights Project, which is preparing to litigate the first groundbreaking legal cases intended to knock down the wall that separates humans from nonhumans, thereby gaining legal “personhood” for nonhuman animals, beginning with some of the most intelligent animals on earth, like chimpanzees, elephants and dolphins. You can check out our website at

  4. Provoked says:

    I think it was Tom Regan who suggested drawing the line in pencil. Seems like a great bit of advice as our knowledge is ever expanding – And hopefully so is our generosity in including others in our moral circle.

    I think I’m like a lot of people in that I don’t know where this “line” reaches it’s limit – But with all the creatures you mentioned and hundreds more I know where it begins. And lucky us! That’s the easiest part to make a proper start. 😉

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