Concern is growing in American society for the welfare, protection and rights of animals. Protests have been mounted against killing animals for their fur, hunting animals for sport and experimenting on animals in the laboratory. A powerful rational argument can be made for respecting animals much more than we currently do.

Every year tens of millions of animals (including dogs, cats, rabbits and monkeys) die in often painful laboratory experiments. In many cases, they die not so that we can achieve some major medical breakthrough but so that we have one more type of lipstick or one more brand of aftershave. Contrary to the common belief that all or most animal testing is medical in nature, countless animals are tortured and killed daily so that we can place yet another inessential item on our already overstuffed shelves.We also slaughter billions of feeling, sensitive creatures (which we clinically label "livestock" and "poultry") to satisfy our seemingly insatiable appetite for the flesh of dead animals. Often, these animals have short, miserable lives characterized principally by confinement, stress and early death - all so that we can dine as we please.

Many attempts have been made to argue for such a great moral difference in the hope of getting us off the moral hook for what we do to and with animals. Some people contend that because we are human and animals aren't, we count morally while they don't. But in the absence of an explanation that specifies why belonging to our species gives us unique moral status, such a claim seems to be nothing more than arbitrary discrimination in favor of "us" and at the expense of "them." Its parallel with sexism and racism has induced certain thinkers to label such an attitude "speciesism."

Some have pointed to our greater intelligence as the key factor justifying exploitation of animals to satisfy often trivial desires. However, if the possession of higher-order mentality is required in order to deserve moral respect, severely retarded people could conceivably be fair game for exploitation or experimentation by their more intelligent fellow human beings.

Last, it has been contended that God gave us dominion over the entire natural creation, including the animals, and thus that we can treat them as we see fit. Of course, this divine permission is quite unverifiable. Moreover, does it make sense to assume that a supremely merciful God would give us the right to treat animals in a profoundly unmerciful way? Would such a God really go along with the torturing and killing of his sentient creatures just so that we can consume the latest luxury item, like a "new and improved" bleach? I think not.

Thus, the burgeoning animal rights movement confronts us with a stark and uncomfortable dilemma: either find a genuine justification of our current practices or abandon them as immoral. The fate of millions of feeling, defenseless and innocent creatures is hanging in the balance.