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This topic deals with interesting philosophical issues that aren’t often considered in high school debate. The question of whether animals have rights has far-reaching implications for the way we lead our lives and for the way our society is structured. Is it permissible to eat animals or to keep them in zoos? Recent science has told us that we share a large proportion of our DNA with animals. 96% percent of our DNA is the same as chimpanzees’.

The basic question of the resolution is whether animals have moral status. Arguments that deal with the consequentialist impacts of recognizing animal rights don’t work well on this topic because the resolution is about whether animals count morally rather than whether we should take a particular action towards animals. If we stop factory farming in order to prevent environmental harms, for instance, that might not be recognition of animal rights because we aren’t claiming that animals deserve to be treated in certain ways. Rather, the rationale for our action is that it would prevent harms to humans. Certainly, positions that say that recognizing animal rights would prevent egregious harms to animals don’t work because they beg the question of the resolution—those harms would only be morally relevant if animals have moral status in the first place.


Justice: usually defined as giving each his or her due.

Animal rights: defines rights as “that which is due to anyone by just claim, legal guarantees, moral principles, etc.” Although the word “animal” technically includes humans, “animal rights” is a term of art that refers to non-human animals, as opposed to those who have “human rights.” So, the resolution asks whether non-human animals are due anything on the basis of moral principles. In other words, it asks whether there is a moral claim that animals have on beings that recognize such claims. The negative will want to force the affirmative to defend more, however. Negatives could interpret the word “rights” more strictly and argue that to have rights is to have a moral status of a specific kind. Under this interpretation, to have a right means to have an absolute entitlement to be treated as a being with inherent worth, not merely to be morally considerable. Depending on the definition of rights, a utilitarian or virtue ethics affirmative might not go far enough to prove animals have rights. Negatives could also argue that people use the term “animal rights” to refer to a specific set of rights such as the right not to be killed for sport, fur, or even food, and maybe the right not to be kept in captivity for entertainment.

One important question that frameworks should address is the scope of the affirmative burden with regard to animal rights. Does the affirmative need to defend that all animals have rights, that most animals have rights, or that just one other species should have rights? There is a big difference between a chimpanzee and a sponge, although both are animals. You could justify an affirmative burden of “most animals” by arguing that when we use the phrase “animal rights,” we refer to animals that are more closely related to us than organisms like sponges. Also, this might be fairer ground for the affirmative to defend. It could be difficult to draw the line. Although it sounds bizarre, maybe you should outline certain phyla that the affirmative defends.

Recognition: defined by as “the acknowledgment of something as valid or as entitled to consideration.” The resolution doesn’t ask whether animal rights override human rights or are on the same level as human rights. Rather, the question is whether animals have a moral status, or in other words, whether they can make moral claims on others. The content and strength of those claims might not be relevant because we can recognize rights without treating them as more valuable than other rights. For instance, every time we resolve a rights conflict, we recognize that we are violating some rights in favor of others. The affirmative could also argue that if she had to defend that animals had a moral status equal to or greater than humans’ status, that would be too hard to defend since almost no one advocates it, and thus would not be a fair distribution of ground.

Case structure

Since the resolution asserts that justice requires the recognition of animal rights, the value is justice. As explained above, the topic is about whether animals count morally rather than about evaluating an action. More specifically, it asks whether they deserve to be recognized as rights-holders. So, standards will be different on this topic. Rather than “treating people as ends in themselves,” “minimizing suffering,” or some other ethical theory, the standard – whether it is a criterion or a burden – should explain what qualifies someone to make moral claims on another. The arguments in the contentions, then, would say that animals are qualified to make moral claims because they have the capacity outlined in the standard.


One possible affirmative could argue that absent a morally relevant distinction between animals and humans, we should default to recognizing animal rights. Then, the negative burden would be to demonstrate a morally relevant distinction and the affirmative contention arguments would be pre-emptive answers to any distinctions the negative could try to set up. This case would not require the affirmative to outline what qualifies one to make moral claims, because the negative would have the job of proving a distinction. That makes the affirmative’s job easier in some senses, but any good negative case will probably meet the burden, so without excellent answers to a wide range of possible negatives, an affirmative debater who runs this strategy would be in trouble.

Other affirmatives will take a stance on what sort of capacity qualifies someone to make moral claims and then argue that animals have such a capacity. Some possible capacities might be the ability to suffer, to live in social groups, to have consciousness, to experience emotion, or to have an individual welfare.

Another type of affirmative will argue that in order to be virtuous, we must recognize animal rights. The framework will set up virtue ethics, and the contention will argue that the attitudes underlying maltreatment of animals are cruel and base and therefore incompatible with a virtuous life. This case seems to be structured a little differently from the others, since its standard is an ethical theory rather than a capacity for moral status. If you want to think of it in terms of the case structure outlined above, then the framework will say that a being is qualified to make a moral claim if recognizing that claim makes a person more virtuous. However, it’s not clear that virtue ethics really fits into this structure because its rationale for treating animals in a certain way is that such treatment is virtuous, not that animals deserve it through some capacity they have. This is a version of the problem with the word “rights” mentioned above.

If you want to run a more critical case, you could consider eco-feminist literature that argues that the domination of animals reinforces logic that supports sexism. It is possible to recognize differences among people and species and simultaneously recognize that all have moral status.

These are just a few ideas for affirmative positions, but they are by no means exhaustive. You should take advantage of both the amount of literature on animal rights and debaters’ lack of familiarity with the moral conflict in this topic compared to that of most resolutions.


A common negative will argue that rationality is the basis of moral status and animals aren’t rational. This argument draws from the work of Immanuel Kant, who argued that reason must be the basis for morality. Animals arguably don’t have the same ability to reflect on their desires and formulate reasons for action as humans. Other negatives could find other capacities besides rationality that philosophers identify as necessary for moral status and then argue that animals lack those capacities.

Another route the negative can take is to argue that justice shouldn’t recognize anyone’s rights. You could run skepticism or critique the notion of rights.

Negatives will also want to make the argument mentioned above, that even if animals are morally considerable, they don’t have rights. This could involve just an overview to affirmative cases or something more ambitious, such as arguing for virtue ethics and then showing that the theory leaves no room for animal rights.

Finally, the negative could argue that justice or morality is a concept that was created through human evolution because it benefited the species for people to be obligated to promote mutual benefit. Thus, we only have moral obligations within our species because the purpose of morality is to further species survival.


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