Do Animals Need Rights?

Posted: 4 Mar 2014 Last revised: 4 Nov 2015

See all articles by William A. Edmundson

William A. Edmundson

Georgia State University College of Law

Date Written: May 5, 2014


The idea of animal rights makes many people skittish. Even many advocates of better treatment of animals sense that the language of rights is misplaced and unhelpful in the forum of debate about the ethical treatment of animals. Rights theory is the intellectual home of these misgivings. This paper has two parts. In the first, I speak through a composite figure I call the animal-rights skeptic. The skeptic weaves views taken from the “will” (or “choice”) theory of the conceptual nature of rights together with substantive normative argument that emphasizes reciprocity and autonomy as the justificatory basis for assigning rights. The skeptic concludes that the interests of animals in avoiding mistreatment can be fully served without assigning them rights, and that therefore nothing is denied to them by recognizing that they are not capable of rights holding. In short, animals do not need rights. The second part of the paper counters the skeptic, and points to important functions that rights alone can perform for animals. Rights have a generative nature, making them more valuable that the duties correlative to them at a given time; rights express respect for rights holders in a way that no set of protective indirect duties can duplicate; and rights are more readily proxy-able, giving standing for animals’ advocates. Animals, I conclude, do need rights.

Keywords: animal rights, rights, animal ethics, rights theory

Suggested Citation

Edmundson, William A., Do Animals Need Rights? (May 5, 2014). Journal of Political Philosophy (2014; advance view doi:10.1111/jopp.12042). Available at SSRN: or

William A. Edmundson (Contact Author)

Georgia State University College of Law ( email )

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Atlanta, GA 30302-4037
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