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Animal Liberation: Group Discussion Guide

If you are just starting your Secular Student Alliance affiliate group, you might be in need of some fresh ideas to kick off the semester. Even if you are an established group, it can be difficult to come up with new topics every week for the duration of the academic calendar. These meeting topic activity packets should provide you with some materials and discussion questions that you can use to spur dialogue and conversation at your meetings.

Animal Liberation

Animal Liberation refers to the action of freeing nonhuman animals from exploitation by humans. Legally, “Animal Rights” tends to mean the rights of nonhuman animals not to be exploited for human purposes and that the interests of non-human animals should be given the same consideration as the similar interests of human beings. An animal rights discussion is framed in the legal perspective, but this guide includes philosophical and nonreligious perspectives of animal liberation as well.

The most common ways nonhuman animals are used by humans today are for food, clothing, entertainment, and for cosmetic or medical testing.

There are three senses of “animal rights”. These definitions are from Animal Rights: A Very Short Introduction by David DeGrazia.

The moral-status sense: Animals have at least some moral status. Animals do not exist solely for human use, so they should be treated well for their own sake.

The equal-consideration sense: We must give equal moral weight to humans’ and nonhuman animals’ comparable interests. For example, animal suffering matters as much as human suffering. Utilitarianism is a form of equal consideration theory, meaning the right action or policy is that which maximizes the balance of benefits over harms.

The utility-trumping sense: Like humans, other animals have vital interests that we must not override (with few if any exceptions) even in an effort to maximize utility for society. For example, animals have a right to liberty, meaning we should not harmfully confine them even if doing so would predictably bring about many benefits and few costs.

Nonhuman animals are not entirely unprotected by law. The Animal Welfare Act of 1966 requires that minimum standards of care and treatment be provided for certain animals bred for commercial sale, used in research, transported commercially, or exhibited to the public. Note the use of “welfare” as opposed to “rights”. Welfare seeks to improve treatment of animals but still views them as property, while animal rights advocates would believe the animals should not be bred, sold, etc. in the first place. The Act fails to address the conditions of animals used for food and other farm related uses in that it excludes all "birds, rats, mice, horses not used for research purposes, and other farm animals, such as, but not limited to livestock or poultry, used or intended for use as food or fiber."

Another point of discussion is how atheism plays into animal rights theory. Religion focuses on humans, and when nonhuman animals are brought up, it's usually as human property. Religion is often viewed as a hierarchical system of oppression. Is religion antithetical to animal liberation due to its oppressive and human-centric nature? A good resource for learning about the relation between animal liberation, atheism, and religion is Animal Liberation and Atheism by Kim Socha. Here’s a book review.

Click for a Thought Experiment (From Animal Rights: A Very Short Introduction by David DeGrazia)

Reasonable people know that brutally kicking dogs for fun is wrong. Why is it wrong? Suppose Ben and Greg have different reasons for agreeing with this judgement. Ben things dog-kicking is wrong because it damages some pet-owners’ property - suggesting that the pet-owner’s interests are the relevant factor. Of course, many dogs are no one’s property. Ben might reply that kicking dogs for fun is wrong, in any case, because it is cruel - and that cruelty is a vice we should not cultivate, through cruel acts, because having this vice makes one more likely, in the long run, to mistreat humans. In short, abusing animals makes one the sort of person who is more likely to abuse humans. Here again human interests are Ben’s ultimate basis for opposing cruelty to animals. On this view, animas’ interests have no independent moral significance, meaning animals have no moral status.

Judging that animals do have moral status, Greg takes a different view. He believes it is wrong to kick dogs for fun because doing so harms them for no good reason. (In a different scenario, a good reason might be the fact that harming a dog is the only way to prevent her from savaging a child). From Greg’s standpoint, the dog’s welfare counts in its own right; it has moral importance, independently of how human interests might be furthered by promoting the dog’s welfare. Thus, even if you could convince him that abusing the dog would have no negative impact on humans, Greg would still consider the action wrong. The dog, he thinks, has moral status.

Which do you identify with?

Teaser Questions [to advertise your discussion]

    1. Are nonhuman animals the property of humans?
    2. Do all animals deserve the respect we afford to those of our own species?
    3. Is it acceptable to breed pets when millions die in shelters?
    4. Does a surge in advocacy for animal rights indicate that humans have reached a new level of compassion rooted in an inter-species based morality rather than merely a respect for our fellow man?

    Discussion Questions

      1. Are nonhuman animals the property of humans?
      2. Is it your responsibility to choose to adopt a vegan lifestyle if you believe strongly in the rights of animals?
      3. How does the prevalent role factory farming plays in agriculture affect your decisions as a consumer? As a reference, Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations dominate the U.S. meat, egg, and dairy supply.
      4. Do you identify with any of the three senses of Animal Rights listed above (moral-status, equal-consideration, and utility-trumping)?
      5. If a dog threatens a human infant, even if it requires causing more pain to the dog to stop it, than the dog would have caused to the infant, then we generally favor the child. Would it be monstrous to spare the dog?

      Videos & Movies

      Books & Articles

      Animal Liberation PowerPoint Primer

      We've put together a PowerPoint presentation which you can show at your discussion meeting. Click here to download

      One of the best resources to find out what works and what doesn't is you - our student leaders! If you've employed a strategy that worked well, let us know about it so other groups can also use that idea. If you've learned a lesson of caution about something we suggest, point out the pitfalls! Email us at organizer@secularstudents.org with your stories and experiences!

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