What is meant by the term rights?
Many people in the world live under governments where they have virtually no legal rights. Nevertheless, we generally believe that these people still have basic "human rights", even though these rights are routinely denied to them. In this sense, when we refer to a person's "rights", we are not referring to their legal rights. Instead, we are referring to the moral obligations which every government and individual has towards this person, regardless of whether or not these obligations are being fulfilled.
It is in this same sense that people discuss animal rights. In addition to this, the term "animal rights" has come to signify the view that our moral obligation to animals goes far beyond that which is acknowledged by traditional humane societies. Traditional humane societies condemn the forms of cruelty which are already considered to be socially unacceptable, such as setting a cat on fire. Supporters of animal rights go beyond this by also condemning practices which currently remain legal - such as testing cosmetics on animals, killing animals for their fur, and slaughtering animals for food.
Follow up questions:
How can animals have rights?
Where do rights come from?
Why should we behave better towards animals than they do towards each other?
Why do we have a moral obligation to animals who do not understand moral concepts?
What do we gain by respecting the rights of other animals if they do not respect our rights?
Do you want to make eating meat illegal?
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