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Human rights v animal rights: seamless expressions of empathy?

By Stephen Keim and Jordan Sosnowski - posted Monday, 31 December 2012

All campaigners, whether they be advocating on behalf of animals or humans, must struggle against the above psychological truth. In the 2010 Blackburn Lecture, Julian Burnside invoked the idea that people care more about animals than their fellow humans. Mr Burnside was comparing the upsurge of public outrage in response to the treatment of animals exported to the Middle East to the apparent lack of public concern about the treatment of asylum seekers who make it to Australian shores.

The difference in public response may be more apparent than real. More than 500 million animals live and die each year in factory farms in Australia, without noticeable outbursts of concern by the Australian public.

Throughout the history of human learning, there have been people who have been able to combine working to advance human rights with the promotion of kindness and tolerance towards animals.


The two causes are not mutually exclusive. We should not be surprised by this. They each flow from the ability to care about the interests of others.

There should not be arbitrary bounds to the empathy we feel for others.


Pythagoras is best known for his contribution to mathematics and western philosophy. However, he also practised a Buddhist-like notion of kindness towards animals and was a strict vegetarian.

His greatest mathematical discovery was the infamous theorem concerning right-angled triangles. Pythagoras was at home in geometry which commences with things that are self-evident and leads, by way of deductive reasoning, to conclusions that are not only not self-evident but not at all obvious.

Pythagoras' methodology is reflected in the famous words of the 1776 Declaration of Independence of the American colonies, one of the foundation human rights instruments: "We hold these truths to be self-evident".

Pythagoras also founded a religion based on the transmigration of souls, making him one of the first Western thinkers to advance the idea of reincarnation. His ideas promoted equality between men and women – a view that was very progressive for his time. His emphasis on equality led him to practise an early form of communism.


The same font of ideas, however, also led to a strong belief in taking steps to advance animal welfare. Pythagoras did not eat the flesh of animals. Nor did he allow his followers to kill animals in sacrifice. His concern for the welfare of humans and animals was inter-connected. Pythagoras: '[A]s long as men massacre animals, they will kill each other. Indeed, he who sows the seeds of murder and pain cannot reap joy and love'.

Pythagoras was influential in widening the moral compass of future great thinkers to include animals among the beings worthy of human empathy.

Mary Wollstonecraft and the Romantics

Mary Wollstonecraft was one of the earliest feminists and is famous for championing the women's rights movement. However, her views, in an interesting cascade, led to others close to her advancing the cause of animal rights.

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This article was first published in Justinian.

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About the Authors

Stephen Keim has been a legal practitioner for 30 years, the last 23 of which have been as a barrister. He became a Senior Counsel for the State of Queensland in 2004. Stephen is book reviews editor for the Queensland Bar Association emagazine Hearsay. Stephen is President of Australian Lawyers for Human Rights and is also Chair of QPIX, a non-profit film production company that develops the skills of emerging film makers for their place in industry.

Jordan Sosnowski is an Associate Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics. She graduated from Monash University with a Master of Laws, Juris Doctor and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Queensland, majoring in Philosophy and English Literature. Jordan is the recipient of a Summer Research Grant from Michigan State University and is currently working in the field of legal research for the Animal Legal & Historical Web Center.

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Stephen Keim
All articles by Jordan Sosnowski

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