BAWP Book Review
Animal Rights – What Everyone Needs to Know
Paul Waldau
Paul Waldau’s ‘Animal Rights – What Everyone Needs to Know’ is a comprehensive
exposition of the animal rights movement, its competing philosophical underpinnings,
its history, its issues, its key figures, and its possible future.
Waldau crafts literature, real life examples and facts to present the issues of animal
rights. One example is the story of the US Attorney who is defending factory workers
who discarded live chickens into trash cans at a commercial production facility. One
aspect of the attorney's argument was that the chickens were property and thus
described them as 'manure,' implicating that they consequently lacked rights. Such a
narrative not only engages the reader, but lends compelling weight to his point or line
of attack.
The style of the book is one of question and answer. Any counter -arguments the
reader may have are thus addressed in turn in a focussed and sequential manner.
Waldau’s overall ‘voice’ though is best described as eloquent- yet not obtrusively so.
He describes the book’s intention as an attempt 'at getting all of us to talk fairly, fully
and respectfully about the basic issue of our relationships with the life out beyond the
species line'. He encourages the reader to connect to the 'meaning of life' and become
'fully human'. To this end, Waldau posits a healthy and compassionate relationship
with animals, one which respects and understands their consciousness and needs.
He dedicates the first two chapters to defining key terms such as ‘animals’ and ‘rights.
First, their historical and contemporary definition is canvassed together with the
scientific and social debates which have surrounded them over the centuries. The
distinction between moral and legal rights is examined. For Waldau, moral rights are
'the larger and moral fundamental issue'.
The book then moves to the different definitions of 'animal'. It is said that the
exclusion of human beings from the definition of ‘animal’ reveals our agenda. The
scientific and non- scientific categorisations of animals are explored, including wild,
companion, invertebrates, research, entertainment, and production together with their
importance to human life. In his examination of these categories, he recites
challenging facts and quotes : for example, the daily slaughter figure for chickens in
the US is 27 million chickens, or a quote from Upton Sinclair's novel The Jungle:
‘It was all so very businesslike … porkmaking by machinery, porkmaking by
applied mathematics.'
Human dominion is sourced in no less than ownership and property.
Waldau moves from there to explore the differing 'biological realities' of different
species and how they experience the world through their own unique sensory,
physical, mental and emotional faculties. Throughout, the emphasis is the
interconnectedness of humans and nonhuman animals. He notes the deleterious
consequences of animal production industries, such as environmental damage, human
injuries at slaughterhouses, and the aggregation of their business into fewer and fewer
players. Here animal rights is seen to be relevant to the general issues of the world .
In succeeding chapters Waldau explores the history of the animal protection
movement. He explores the philosophical arguments underpinning animal rights :
Peter Singer and utilitarianism, Tom Regan, and Jeremy Bentham to mention a few,
and the philospher’s reliance upon contrasting moral, legal, positive, and natural
rights. In drawing the discussion to a close, he concludes in any event that so much of
what we understand about nonhuman animals is based on intuitive feeling rather than
'Our confidence that we do perceive them well enough to assess the
complexities in their lives such as communication, intelligence, suffering and
other features that tell us who and what they are …'
The assumptions of human superiority are challenged with a listing of abilities which
nonhuman animals uniquely possess. These include an inability to see infra-red or
ultra-violet light, or develpoed echo location abilities. Waldau believes that 'humility'
is thus called for in our relationship with animals. He finishes with an allegation as to
the human-centric nature of the world:
'We have been so self interested that we have failed to use our imagination to
explore their realities as they live and play in the more-than-human world we
share with them ...'
The middle chapters are short and dedicated to exploring how animal rights have been
advanced across many disciplines. These disciplines include the law, education, the
arts, science and politics.
The final chapters, dedicated to key activists and the future of the movement, allow
Waldau to display his personal and ideological hopes for its future. Key figures are
chosen from a range of disciplines, eras and countries. These include Henry Saly in
the 1800s, Ruth Harrison and her novel on factory farming in the 1960s, philosophers
Peter Singer and Tom Regan, Carol Adams and Feminism, and Joyce Tischler and
Steven Wise in relation to the law. Waldau contends that the way forward for the
animal rights movement is thus a multi-disciplinary one.
Waldau’s book is a well-researched and thoughtful summary of key issues in the
animal rights debate. There is a concise summary of the history, philosophy and key
figures of the animal rights arena. Even those well immersed in the animal rights
movement will find in this book fresh insights and engaging analysis.
Anastasia Smietanka