Discussions | Death Penalty | Essays IntellectualLoafing.com Complete List of Pages
Useful Links | Index

Animals and the Natural Right to Life






This essay discusses the concept of a natural right to life. The idea that one’s right to live is inherent in one’s own existence. The debate centers on whether self-awareness or the ability to feel pain can be used as its basis. The intention is to try to discover which organisms do have a natural right to life.

As a starting point, therefore, all matter must be divided up into groups. Sentience is often used as a benchmark, but this is a mixed word as it implies not only the ability to feel but also some level of consciousness. As its use could create confusion I will stick to the more clear cut concepts of the ability to feel physical pain and self-awareness



The Division of the Material World


Inanimate Matter

Many belief systems incorporate an idea of a life force present in all matter. Appreciation and conservation of our environment is obviously very important but I believe that it is sufficient to say thatinanimate matter is in a class of its own and outside the scope of this essay.


Single Cell Organisms e.g. Bacteria and Viruses

This types of organisms are clearly alive and posses a ‘desire’ to live. i.e. they do what they can to stay alive. They ‘dislike’ toxins, by definition, and will try to avoid them. No one suggests, however, that they have any ability to feel pain as we know it.


Plants and Vegetable

he same statements can be made for plants and vegetables as made above for bacteria and viruses. They too are devoid of central nervous systems, nerve endings and brains and can be fairly safely said to feel no pain.



Again, no brain is present and thus insects are unlikely to be able to feel physical pain.


Low Forms of Animal Life e.g. snails

Snails do indeed have brains and can therefore have similar physical pain experiences to humans. It is very unlikely however, that they are self-aware.


Higher forms of Animal Life e.g. rats and dogs and dolphins

These animals can certainly feel pain and many people would credit them with the capacity to have emotions. Obviously, there is the ever-present danger of anthropomorphism (giving human emotions to animals) but it would be very hard to deny that some animals have bouts of activity and depression. However, very few scientists would credit these animals with self-awareness. Note:  they all fail the mirror test (see below).

It is also highly unlikely that these animals can empathize; the ability to imagine oneself to be another organism and so share their ideas or feelings.

Dogs, for example, are empathetically oblivious to pain and suffering in other, unrelated dogs. The sight, without the sound, of another dog in pain will illicit no response. Dogs probably experience pain in much the same way that we do, but because they cannot conceive of themselves, dogs cannot use their experience with pain to empathize with painful experiences in other creatures.

The language of these animals also implies very limited concepts of space and time. Very few animals can communicate ideas that are separated from their present time or situation or from reality. e.g. many animals have danger calls, but they can only be used in times of imminent danger and not to describe ones in the past. Bees are fairly unique in being able to communicate a distant location.


Chimpanzees and Orangutans

I place chimpanzees and orangutans in a different class, as they are the only two animals apart from humans that consistently pass the mirror test; a classic, thought disputed, test for self-awareness.

The mirror test involves placing a noticeable mark on the animal while anesthetized, usually on the forehead. When the animal wakes it is confronted with a mirror and its response is observed. Most animals react as if facing a fellow animal, but chimpanzees and orangutans who have had prior experience of mirrors will reach up and touch the marks, following this in some instances with looking at and smelling their fingers.

It is important to note that animal intelligence is not the reason that some animals fail the mirror test. Rhesus monkeys for example can understand the concept of mirrors when it comes to other things just not with themselves.

Many scientists take the above test as evidence that chimpanzees and orangutans are self-aware but others that they only have a self-concept. i.e. that chimps learn to associate their actions with those in the mirror and only think “That’s the same as me” rather than “That’s me” (Scientific American Can Animals Empathize?  Maybe Not -1998). So, despite passing the mirror test, the jury is still out on whether orangutans and chimpanzees are self-aware.


Their ability to empathize is also not certain. There is no denying that these animals are clever in the sense that they can solve problems and it is this cleverness that clouds the issue of empathy. It is very difficult to discover whether an animal is actually empathizing with another animal or person or just looking for external features, something which all primates do. For instance, does a chimpanzee actually appreciate that a human can see in the same way they can, and is therefore able to point correctly to a food location, or does it just associate a human’s eyes being visible (i.e not covered) with them pointing correctly?



Humans can feel pain and are certainly the most self-aware of all organisms. They have the ability to empathize and have their own personal conscious desires and ambitions.


The Definition and Practicality of the Natural Right to Life

Let us now consider the right to life or more exactly the right to continue living after one has started. Among most human cultures, the fact that one’s life has started is enough to give one the right to continue it (abortion discussions aside). In this case the right to life is based on the sole virtue of one’s own existence. It comes from within as opposed to being granted from outside. This type of right is commonly referred to as a ‘natural’ one. By way of example, I quote the United States constitution:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness…”

Here we see that liberty and the pursuit of happiness are also considered to come about by one’s very existence.


Practically, the fact that we have the right to life means that our lives cannot be arbitrarily taken away and anyone doing so is punishable. We can see that if our first group in the living world; single cell organisms, had a natural right to life the practical consequences would be mind-boggling. Almost any action that one can thing of involves the death of some single cell organisms. By cooking our food, for example, we intentionally kill millions of bacteria and viruses. One could claim that bacteria do have a natural right to life, but that sterilizing our food is not an arbitrary act and that the bacteria are dying for a higher moral cause. However, simple movements also kill bacteria, or even our own cells, so this does not resolve the issue.


As we move up the scale of life the existence of the right to life in other living organisms apart from ourselves becomes more possible, but it is still far from practical. Driving into town kills hundreds of insects; keeping one carnivorous dog requires the death of many other animals. Should we save two rats, animals with relatively high intelligence, instead of one human?


Of course, practicality is not the fundamental reasoning behind the natural right to life and just because a principle is difficult (or even impossible) to put into practice does not mean that it is incorrect. Humans will never create a perfectly fair judicial system, but this does not mean we shouldn’t try. Likewise, if single cell organisms did posses the natural right to life we would be obliged to accommodate them as far as possible.

What we really have to consider is the philosophical reasoning behind the natural right to life. Why are humans granted the right to life by their very existence and does the answer also apply to other living organisms? The two most common answers to the first question are self-awareness and the ability to feel physical pain. Let us consider then, how these two ideas relate to the natural right to life.


The Meaning of Life

Before we discuss self-awareness or the ability to feel pain, I think it is important to realize that we cannot discuss the natural right to life without considering the meaning of life. We must have some concept of life’s meaning in order to know who has an inherent right to it. For instance, if the meaning of life is just simply to exist then all living creatures, from humans to bacteria, have an equal right to life. If, however, the fundamental purpose of all life is to maximize the amount of barking in the world, humans would have an obligation to breed dogs extensively. Without having some idea of the purpose of life, we cannot decide how, and who, should live.

Without denying the existence of absolute truth, it is certain that people have their own, very different, answers to the meaning of life. Indeed it is a sad fact, that at least 90% of people are fundamentally wrong about the meaning of life (please note that I do not say, and do not know, who). It is certainly not possible for me to consider every viewpoint on the meaning of life and how it relates to the natural right to life, indeed, I do not intend to discuss any. Therefore, in order to continue the debate, I propose to discuss some of the reasons given for claiming that self-awareness or the ability to feel physical pain is a basis for the natural right to life. The link between your personal belief about the meaning of life and the reasons proposed for the natural right to life is a step that you will have to do for yourself.



Self-awareness is the conscious realization that you are alive and the ability to have personal conscious desires and ambitions. As discussed before self-awareness among animals is debatable in orangutans and chimpanzees but almost certainly not present in any other life form apart from humans. Does being self-aware give one a right to life?

The reasoning behind self-awareness as the basis for a natural right to life can be stated as follows: that the knowledge that I am alive gives me a natural right to it but that a failure to appreciate my possession of life means that I do not have a right to it and consequently that society has no moral duty, to me, to allow my life instead of another.


We can extend this explanation by focusing on two concepts of self-awarness: value and individuality. With a concept of value and your own individuality you can appreciate the value of your own existence and therefore morally claim a right to it. On the other hand, without the concepts of value and individuality it is impossible for you to value your own existence and if you do not value your existence, what moral right do you have to it? If you can see no value in something how can you complain if it is taken from you? What damages can you reasonably claim?


Let us take a real life situation. Imagine you where reduced to a persistent vegetative state, a state were you were still alive, your bodily functions still worked, but you were absolutely unaware of your own existence. What would the continuation of your life (if you could still conceive of having it) be worth to you? Obviously the psychological and financial cost to your family would be of supreme concern but what could the value of your life be worth to you? I believe many people would answer that it would be worth nothing at all. And what would be society’s moral obligation towards you? Again, to you personally, none at all. The world’s resources are finite and we are therefore morally bound to make the best use of them. How could someone in a permanent vegetative state ‘demand’ that precious resources be used to keep him or her alive, if they cannot even appreciate their own existence?

At this point I would like to bring up one of the classic questions/answers in the right to life debate. This is an extract from “ A Question of Ethics”:


Q) "Animals are not as intelligent or advanced as humans."

A) Again, please excuse my frankness here, but according to this logic, I should be allowed to wear, eat, and test on mentally handicapped people. Here's what PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals)has to say about it:

"If possessing superior intelligence does not entitle one human to abuse another human for his or her purposes, why should it entitle humans to abuse nonhumans?

There are animals who are unquestionably more intelligent, creative, aware, communicative, and able to use language than some humans, as in the case of a chimpanzee compared to a human infant or a person with a severe developmental disability. Should the more intelligent animals have rights and the less intelligent humans be denied rights?"


The first very important point to make is that the above extract discusses the intelligence distinction. This is clearly wrong due to the vast overlap in intelligence as it correctly stated. The basis for the natural right to life expounded above is based on self-awareness. This is an utterly different concept, but the issues of young children and mentally handicapped people still have to be dealt with.

In this viewpoint, the rights of very young children stem from two sources. One is that they will develop self-awareness in due course and secondly that in some respects they are the ‘property’ of their parents. The former source is not a feature of most, or possibly any, other beings. They will not develop self-awareness as they grow older wheras as an infant will. The second source, that of property, is certainly one applicable to animals and indeed animals are protected as their owner’s property. Of course the rights of the owner over an animal are far greater than that of a parents over a child, but this is because animals lack the first source of rights; self-awareness.


The second case, that of mentally handicapped people is less clear cut but still solvable. In fact, most mentally handicapped people are self-aware and intelligent; their rights are not debatable. The real issue for discussion is the permanent vegetative state. As mentioned before, in this state a person, although technically alive, has absolutely no self-awareness.  In this case, it is true that their personal rights, specifically the right to life, are severely curtailed. Those in a vegetative state become in a way the ‘property’ of their next of kin and physicians, with their consent (and sometimes without), are allowed to remove life sustaining treatment and for many people properly so. As Leslie Weatherhead said in The Christian Agnostic:

"I sincerely believe that those who come after us will wonder why on earth we kept a human being alive...when all dignity, beauty, and meaning of life had vanished; when any gain to anyone was clearly impossible."

Indeed, the removal of rights to those with a reduced sense of self-awareness is not new. For example, the clinically mad are denied the right to vote.


Self-awareness then, with this viewpoint, is the be all and end all in giving the natural right to life. The possession of self-awareness is the dividing line between those organisms that have a right to life by sole virtue of their own existence and those organisms that do not. This view means that beings such as dogs, cows, plants or bacteria can be killed without any breach of their inherent rights.


It is very important to realize that this view does not exclude the protection of the life of owned animals or endangered animals; neither does it mean that animals can be treated without compunction. Just because the natural right to life of an animal is denied does not mean it doesn’t have any rights at all. The question of whether an organism can be killed is totally different to the question of how it should be treated when alive.


One very interesting question that will not be covered here is whether self-awareness is an absolute or a relative concept. Is gaining self-awareness like crossing a finishing line or are their many levels? The answer has very serious implications for the treatment of possibly self-aware animals such as chimpanzees, self-aware robots (when they are made) and any self-aware alien species that we might come into contact with. If these aliens were ‘more’ self-aware than us how should they treat us?


The Ability to Feel Physical Pain

One fairly clear distinction in the living world is between those organisms that have the ability to feel pain, and those that don’t. Current scientific thinking dictates that animals ranging from toads through dolphins to human beings can feel pain but that insects, plants and bacteria cannot. Does the ability to feel physical pain give one a right to life?

The literature on the ethics of animal rights and vegetarianism is full of appeals to compassion and the proper treatment of animals. The practices of slaughterhouses are discussed as well as forced milking and fattening. It is very important to realize that these discussions do not have any relevance to the question of a right to life. They are all centered around the natural right to happiness. The arguments for the natural right to happiness or more exactly the right not to feel pain are very similar to those for the natural right to life based on self-awareness. If an organism can experience happiness (i.e. can know what it is to be happy) it has a right to it. Similarly, if an organism can experience life it has a right to it. All animals can experience pain, but it is debatable if any of them can experience life. i.e. can ‘know’ what it is to be alive.


Utilitarianism has also been used as an argument for the right to life of animals. Traditionally utilitarianism is concerned only with utility or consequences; it dictates that the morally correct act is the act that maximizes the greatest amount of happiness or pleasure for the greatest amount of people. Obviously in this case, it would have to be extended to include the happiness of animals. Utilitarianism focuses on sensation rather than reason and can therefore easily include animals in its moral system. In this philosophy killing animals would be morally wrong as it would prevent them from being happy, thereby lowering the total amount of happiness in the world.

However, there are now very thorny issues in deciding if an animal’s happiness can be equated with that of a human. Does it have the same deepness? Are its effects as long lasting? Even if we do not consider these problems, we can see that again it is the right to happiness and not the right to life that is being considered. Imagine a choice between eating plants and using those plants to allow life to an animal that you will later kill and eat. According to utilitarianism, we would be obliged to raise the animal in a happy way and then kill it, as even with it’s eventual death the sum total of happiness is increased. There are other issues involved, more plants would be needed for the same nutritional value for example, but they do not change the result. Utilitarianism does not safeguard the right to life of an individual animal, or even an individual human for that matter.


Albert Schweitzer in his Ethics for the Reverence of Life (1920) based his treatment of the living world on the “will to live”. If an organism has the will to live it has a right to. Schweitzer realized that a human could not live without harming other life but stated the Buddhist principle that one should never cause harm except when it is absolutely unnecessary. He also commented that when one did cause harm one should be sorry and feel guilty.

As stated before, almost every human action kills some form of life, be it a single cell organism or something more advanced. Schweitzer’s logic would impose on humans a ridiculous continual state of guilt. Even if we remove the obligation of guilt we must still realize that the life of a human kills billions and billions of other organisms that individually had life.

One of the ideas of vegetarianism is to minimize this killing, but with the death toll already in the billions if would seem ridiculous to say that we cannot kill a few more. In fact who is to say that by killing an animal we are not actually saving more life by virtue of the fact that the animal’s existence itself was killing bacteria and therefore life? But to go back a step, we do not, in reality, allow the arbitrary killing of all organisms, most noticeably humans. Why is this?


In humans it is because we grant ourselves a special status, which is normally based on the fact that our self-awareness allows us to value life. What could the special status of animals be based on? The only feature that could be inherent and natural in the animal, is it’s ability to feel pain, but this is the very question we are trying to answer. What is the reasoning behind granting animals the natural right to life solely on their ability to feel physical pain? Appreciation of all life is certainly a possible principle but to give animals a special status above bacteria requires an answer to the question.


Now, it is certainly true that we do in fact give animals a status above bacteria. Most of its basis stems from their right to happiness. All owners will kill the fleas on their pets to avoid discomfort to them (and themselves!). But how about the right to life? Most people would rather a pot of bacteria was killed instead of a pet dog. But is this because of the worth of the dog’s life to itself, or to its owner? Imagine if it was a random chicken instead of the pet dog. Most people would now kill the chicken to provide food. A reversal of preference like this shows that the individual believes that the worth of an animal’s life is not inherent in itself but on its use to humans. Again, we find no reasoning for an animal’s natural right to life.


It is possible to reason for the natural right to life from the basis of the ability to have aspirations and plans for the future. Do animals plan for the future? Current science cannot answer this question fully. Yes, a squirrel will hide nuts for the winter, but is this an automatic reaction to the changing weather or does it actually reason out its course of action based on pros and cons?


Even if it was proved that animals did plan ahead, I believe the question of value still needs to be answered. Does a squirrel really value what it is doing? Does it realize the value of planning to itself and its happiness? It could be said that planning is not possible without a concept of worth, which would require self-awareness or they may be seen as two separate ideas. Either way at some point the self-awareness question still needs to be asked and without it the natural right to life appears in jeopardy.


As a side issue, if animals had a natural right to life there would be serious consequences for the western world’s treatment of less technologically advanced tribes. In the society of mass farming and supermarkets it is certainly possible for humans to survive without killing animals for food, indeed it may be beneficial for them to do so. However, for some tribes this is not compatible with their way of life. For example, the Siriono of northeastern Bolivia are nomads. They move from place to place and survive by hunting game. They have no concept of food preservation or of planning for future needs. A people in the North of Canada, I apologize for not having the name, also rely very heavily on meat consumption. However, their appreciation of the living world is far higher that usually found in western society. They are very conscious of their effect on their environment and indeed their respect for the snow wolf, which provides their food and clothing, is so high that their custom dictates that they must bury the bones of the animal in the forest.

What is the reaction of a westerner, who believes that animals have a natural right to life, to these other peoples? It would be absolutely impossible to prevent these peoples from eating meat and leave them self-sufficient without completely changing their culture and in some cases moving them from their homeland. It is true that the western world tries to remove certain practices from other cultures, such as female circumcision and one could even include tyranny, but these are less drastic than trying to change the belief system of every individual and their entire way of life.

What moral duty do believers in the natural right to life of animals, have with regard to these peoples? Indeed what moral duty does any culture have to try and force others to its way of thinking? The answer to this question involves the concepts of moral absolutism, absolute truth and the question of how far tolerance should be given to meanings of life contradictory with your own. I will not discuss them here but they should be thought about.


As a final point in this section I would like to note that while some people claim that self-awareness is essential to posses the natural right to life, very few will do the same for the ability to feel physical pain. Even for most of those who claim that the ability to feel physical pain gives a natural right to life would not require it. For them, an organism that is self-aware, but without physical pain sensors would still have a natural right to life. Philosophically speaking, the former claim that self-awareness is necessary and sufficient to obtain the right to life and the latter that the ability to feel pain is sufficient but not necessary.



In this essay, the living world was first divided into groups based on their ability to feel physical pain and their self-awareness. The concept of the natural right to life was discussed and whether it could stem from either of these two benchmarks. I believe that the arguments discussed provide no general basis for the natural right to life except in the ability to appreciate it. i.e. that the natural right to life requires self-awareness.


At this point, I would like to remind readers of the above discussion on the meaning of life. For this conclusion to have any personal relevance you would have to believe that some small part of the meaning of life is to appreciate it. To state my example again, if you believ the meaning of life is to create the maximum amount of barking in the world, then dogs indeed have a natural right to life, based on the fact that they can bark.


Closing Comments

This essay has discussed the natural right to life of the living world. I have labored with the word ‘natural’ and the idea of personal worth; these are crucial ideas. Many organisms, whether they can feel or not, have the right to life, just not a natural one. e.g. pets and endangered species. This right to life does not come from the organism itself but from its use to humans or the fact that it is personal property.


The right to life is still but one right that organisms might have. The right not to feel pain is a second very important issue that has been mentioned only briefly here.

Also, the rights of animals are but one topic involved in the ethics of vegetarianism. The shortage of food and resources and indeed the concept of spiritual progress must be discussed. The issue of vegetarianism as a whole also encompasses health, the environment and the physiology of humans. I hope to publish essays on all these issues at a later date.


  The references for this essay can be found on the Useful Links page.  
  You can have this essay e-mailed to you.
  IntellectualLoafing.com BeInformed Page: Types of Vegetarianism and Other Diets  
  I would like to start a debate page on the right to life. Please make any comments you have below:  
Do you want to receive the IntellectualLoafing.com newsletter containing all the latest additions to the discussions?
  Then add your e-mail address here:
  To read The Ravens Paradox; click here
  To read The Death Penalty: A Balanced Debate; click here
  IntellectualLoafing.com hosts essays, debates, Q &A, a collection of logic, estimation and maths questions and links to the top information sites  
  Visit the Index Page  


} Discussions | Death Penalty | Essays Please send all comments to WebMaster@IntellectualLoafing.com
Useful Links | Index