Animal rights, also known as animal liberation, is the idea that the most basic interests of non-human animals have to be afforded the same moral and legal consideration as the similar interests of human beings, and that to do otherwise is a prejudice known as speciesism.
This painting of the trial of Bill Burns hangs in the headquarters of the RSPCA in London.
Most writers trace the beginning of the modern concept of animal rights to 19th-century England, and the 1822 Cruel Treatment of Cattle Act, introduced by Richard Martin MP. Anti-cruelty legislation had been passed before this: for example in 1635 in Ireland, in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1641, and in England during the rule of Oliver Cromwell, though it was overturned when Charles II became king in 1660. But prosecutions in England had been pursued from the perspective of animals qua property, so that damage to a non-human animal constituted damage to the human owner. The 1822 Act changed this. Martin himself brought the first prosecution when he had Bill Burns, a fruit seller, convicted for beating a donkey, and brought the donkey to court to demonstrate the injuries.
From 1824, starting with the English SPCA, animal protection and anti-vivisection groups sprang up across Europe, Scandinavia, Australia and North America, and between then and the end of the century, several treatises were published that explicitly developed the idea of animal rights. In the 1960s, a group of intellectuals centered around the University of Oxford – now known as the Oxford Group – began discussing ideas that became the foundation of the modern movement. In parallel to the academic work, direct action groups began to form, starting with the English Hunt Saboteurs Association, founded by a journalist in 1963. In 1964, Ruth Harrison published Animal Machines, a critique of factory farming. A year later, Brigid Brophy wrote an influential article, "The Rights of Animals," for The Sunday Times, and in 1970, inspired by Brophy, the Oxford clinical psychologist Richard D. Ryder coined the term "speciesism."
In 1971, three Oxford philosophers – Roslind and Stanley Godlovitch, and John Harris – edited a collection of essays, Animals, Men and Morals: An Inquiry into the Maltreatment of Non-humans. This, in turn, inspired the Australian philosopher, Peter Singer, to become involved, and in 1975 he published the now-canonical work, Animal Liberation, drawing an explicit comparison between the liberation of women and animals. In 1983, American philosopher, Tom Regan, who had also come into contact with the Oxford Group, published The Case for Animal Rights, laying the groundwork for a rights-based theory.
Animal rights advocates today approach the issue from different philosophical positions, some abolitionist and some gradualist, but generally share the view that animals should be viewed as non-human persons, and should not be used as food, clothing, research subjects, or entertainment.