Animal Rights: A History

James Rachels

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This page is part of the section: Animal Rights:A History

James Rachels was an American  moral philosopher who was born in Columbus Georgia in 1941 and died in Birmingham in 2003. He married Carol Williams in 1962, and they had two sons, David and Stuart. In 1967 he received his Ph.D from the university of of North Carolina. He taught at the University of Richmond, New York University, the University of Miami, Duke University, and the University of Alabama at Birmingham and published six books including Created from Animals: The Moral Implications of Darwinism, which sold 100,000 copies,

James Rachels

Over his career, Rachels also wrote 86 essays, edited 7 books and gave about 275 professional lectures, much of his work has been translated into several languages. James Rachels adopted the general ethic of utilitarianism according to which actions are assessed by their effects on both human and nonhuman happiness.

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James Rachels
James Rachels was an important influence in the animal rights movement; a proponent of ethical vegetarianism and animal rights he made an important contribution to the cause. Of particular influence is his book Created from Animals : The Moral Implications of Darwinism wherein he argues that a Darwinian world-view has widespread philosophical implications, including the way in which we treat nonhuman animals. Rachels contends that scientific knowledge, particularly pertaining to the evolution of species, challenges many of the assumptions of traditional morality, namely the notion that the human animal simply by the virtue of being human is entitled to some special moral treatment. Now due to our modern scientific understanding of the universe, the world about us and its origins we can no longer believe that the earth is the centre of creation, designed solely for our benefit, created by God in his image, or that nonhuman animals were created by God and placed under our dominion for our use or that we are endowed with special moral considerations applicable only to us. Thanks to the advancement of the science of biology and astronomy we now know that the earth does not have a special place in the universe and human beings are of no special importance and are products of evolution as are all other animals, and that we are akin to all creatures and consequently our moral stance concerning our treatment of nonhuman animals needs to be revised in light of present day knowledge.

Quotes from Created from Animals: The Moral Implications of Darwinism

How could anyone seriously believe that animals do not feel pain? After all, we have virtually the same evidence for animal pain that we have for human pain......So, on what grounds could anyone possible say animals are insensitive to pain?"

James Rachels states that when the true moral implications of evolution are understood, human life will no longer be regarded with the kind of superstitious awe which it is accorded in traditional thought, and the lives of non-humans will no longer be a matter of indifference. This means that human life will, in a sense, be devalued, while the value granted to non-human life will be increased. A revised view of such matters as suicide and euthanasia, as well as a revised view of how we should treat animals, will result.

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Created From Animals: The Moral implications of Darwinsim

Other writings By James Rachels

A Reply to VanDeVeer
by James Rachels
In TOM REGAN & PETER SINGER (eds.), Animal Rights and Human Obligations, Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1976, pp. 230-232

Suppose we believe that human beings have a right not to be tortured, and the question is raised whether other animals also have this right. How can this issue be investigated? One way is by asking whether there are any differences between humans and nonhumans that would justify us in thinking that humans have the right but that animals don't. If we cannot find any such differences, and if in fact humans and nonhumans are very much alike in the relevant respects—most obviously, in that both can suffer pain, and so both have the same basic interest in not being tortured—then we may conclude, provisionally at least, that nonhumans also have this right.

In the first part of his paper Donald VanDeVeer represents this argument as depending on the assumption that "a being's having an interest in something is a sufficient condition for concluding that it has a right to what is in its interest." But I don't think the argument requires any such assumption. That humans and nonhumans have the same sort of interest in not being tortured is simply an important fact that must be taken into account in assessing the similarities and differences between them. My argument only says that, if there are such important similarities, and there aren't any relevant differences, then human and non-human animals must be in the same boat.

I use the same strategy in arguing that animals have a right to liberty.

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Do Animals Have a Right to Liberty?
by James Rachels
In TOM REGAN & PETER SINGER (eds.), Animal Rights and Human Obligations, Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1976, pp. 205-223

Philosophers used to talk about "natural" rights, but now we don't hear so much about that subject. Instead, books and articles are written about "human" rights. The change in terminology is thought to be a great improvement; first, because talk about human rights does not bring with it the ontological worries that often attended discussions of natural rights, and second, because the new terminology focuses more precisely on what we are trying to understand: the rights that all human beings have in common. One of my motives in raising the question in my title is to cast doubt on the importance of human rights. I will maintain that human rights are not nearly so interesting or important as philosophers and politicians have thought.

As Richard Wasserstrom puts it, "If any right is a human right, ... it must be possessed by all human beings, as well as only by human beings."[1] What is usually emphasized is that such rights are possessed by all humans; thus the doctrine of human rights has been a formidable weapon against slavery, racism, sexism, and the like. But, as Wasserstrom correctly notes, if any right is a distinctively human right, it is also necessary that it be possessed only by humans.[2] It is this side of the doctrine that I want to emphasize. If it can be made plausible that members of other species also have the rights that are most important to humans—such as the right to liberty—then the whole subject of human rights will come to have much less interest than before; and it will be seen that the differences between humans and other animals are not nearly so important, from a moral point of view, as we have usually assumed.

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Why Darwinians Should Support Equal Treatment for Other Great Apes
by James Rachels
In PAOLA CAVALIERI & PETER SINGER (eds.), The Great Ape Project
New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 1993, pp. 152-157

A few years ago I set out to canvass the literature on Charles Darwin. I thought it would be a manageable task, but I soon realised what a naive idea this was. I do not know how many books have been written about him, but there seem to be thousands, and each year more appear.[1] Why are there so many? Part of the answer is, of course, that he was a tremendously important figure in the history of human thought. But as I read the books - or, at least, as many of them as I could - it gradually dawned on me that all this attention is also due to Darwin's personal qualities. He was an immensely likeable man, modest and humane, with a personality that continues to draw people to him even today.

Reflecting on his father's character, Darwin's son Francis wrote that The two subjects which moved my father perhaps more strongly than any others were cruelty to animals and slavery. His detestation of both was intense, and his indignation was overpowering in case of any levity or want of feeling on these matters.'[2] Darwin's strong feelings about slavery are expressed in many of his writings, most notably in the Journal of Researches, in which he recorded his adventures on the Beagle voyage. His comments there are among the most moving in abolitionist literature. But it was his feelings about animals that impressed his contemporaries most vividly. Numerous anecdotes show him remonstrating with cab-drivers who whipped their horses too smartly, solicitously caring for his own animals and forbidding the discussion of vivisection in his home.[3] At the height of his fame he wrote an article for a popular magazine condemning the infamous leg-hold trap in terms that would not seem out of place in an animal-rights magazine today.

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An article James Rachels: The Moral Implications of Evolution

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I am not an animal expert of any kind just your average person who loves animals, all animals, and feels deeply about the plight of many of our fellow creatures. Neither am I a writer, or any other expert. Therefore please keep in mind that the information included in this website has been researched to the best of my ability and any misinformation is quite by accident but of course possible.

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