The Swiss federal constitution recognises the inherent dignity of every living being. Animals are recognised to also have specific intrinsic value. With the constitutional principle of the dignity of animals, the concept of human dignity is also applied to non-human creatures. If an animal is harmed without there first having been a weighing-up of competing interests, the animal’s dignity is deemed to have been disregarded. The Swiss Animal Welfare Act does not honour this principle. Indeed, while a pig may have 0.9 square metres of space in Switzerland instead of the 0.75 square metres afforded in the EU, the basic principle remains the same: The welfare needs of the animal and the conscience of the population are satisfied to the extent that this makes sense from an economic perspective.
We are convinced that a reasonable interpretation of animal dignity requires that the interests of all sentient animals be taken into account to an equal degree. This belief has a long tradition. In 1789, the British philosopher Jeremy Bentham stated that sentience should be the determining factor when considering a living being from a moral standpoint. According to Bentham, criteria such as intelligence or the ability to speak are irrelevant for the moral status of a being. Not all humans are able to count, or to philosophise about morality, but all are capable of experiencing happiness and suffering. For this reason, we firmly believe that they should be treated equally, irrespective of their skills and abilities.
This principle of equal consideration of interests should be extended to non-human animals. It is ethically problematic to ignore the interests of a living being simply on the basis of its species. This does not mean that all animals should be treated equally – interests that do not exist do not need to be considered. For example, a chimpanzee has no interest in taking part in a public referendum. There is therefore no reason to stand up for their political rights. However, where comparable interests exist, these should be taken into consideration equally. At the very least, this means that the physical and mental integrity of all sentient animals must be protected.
For Sentience, it is clear that animal dignity, which is guaranteed in the Swiss constitution, is given too little consideration today. This is why we launched the Primate Initiative in Basel, which aimed to anchor the fundamental right to life and integrity for non-human primates in the constitution. It would have set a global precedent. On 13 February 2022, around one-quarter of Basel’s population voted in favour of the initiative. It was not enough for a “yes” vote, however the Federal Court’s decision to allow a vote on basic rights for non-human animals and the media debate around the initiative ensured that the categorical position of human supremacy in weighing up interests was called into question, not only in Switzerland but far beyond our borders.