Animal rights is a philosophy that recognises that animals deserve consideration of what's in their best interests, regardless of whether they're cute, big or small, useful to humans, or an endangered species.
It's also a social movement that challenges society's traditional view that non-human animals exist solely for human ends by acknowledging that animals are not ours to use – for food, clothing, entertainment, or experimentation.
In his book Animal Liberation, the philosopher Peter Singer states that the basic principle of equality requires not equal treatment but equal consideration. This is an important distinction, since people often ask whether animal rights advocates want animals to have the same rights as humans – such as the right to vote or drive a car. The answer, of course, is no, because those aren't rights that would benefit animals. But advocates would argue that animals have the right, as all living beings do, to lead their lives free from suffering and exploitation because they have an interest in doing so.
Why should animals have rights? Philosopher Jeremy Bentham perhaps put it best when he argued that "the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?" And since we now know that all living beings – including cats, dogs, pigs, cows, chickens, chimpanzees, dolphins, elephants, tigers, and even tiny mice – have the ability to suffer in the same way that humans do, animal rights advocates believe that animals have a right to live free from pain and exploitation.
We can't stop all suffering, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't stop any.
The renowned humanitarian Albert Schweitzer, who accomplished so much for both humans and animals in his lifetime, would take time to stoop and move a worm from the hot pavement to the cool earth. Aware of the problems and responsibilities an expanded ethic brings, he suggested that we live daily from judgement to judgement, making kind choices as much as we can.
We can't stop all suffering, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't stop any. In today's world of virtually unlimited choices, there are usually kinder, gentler ways for most of us to feed, clothe, educate, and entertain ourselves than by using animals.
We look back with shame at a time when we enslaved other humans and viewed some as property, less deserving of protection and consideration. Not too long ago, for example, married women were the property of men, and many Africans were considered the property of white Europeans. In the same way, future generations will undoubtedly look back on our treatment of non-human animals with deep shame, as many of us already do.
You don't have to be a philosopher to know that hurting animals is wrong. At its core, animal rights is about the golden rule: treating others the way we want to be treated, whether they're members of our own species or not.
Find more information about animal rights on www.peta.org.uk.