The Swiss federal constitution recognises the inherent dignity of every living being. Animals are recognised as having intrinsic value. With this principle, the concept of human dignity is also applied to non-human creatures. In theory, if an animal is harmed without weighing up the competing interests, their dignity is deemed to have been disregarded. The Swiss Animal Welfare Act does not honour this principle. A pig may have 0.9 square metres of space in Switzerland instead of the minimum of 0.75 square metres required by EU law, but the bottom line remains the same: Profit comes first.
We believe that a reasonable interpretation of animal dignity means that the interests of all sentient animals are taken into account. 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 believe that people should be treated equally. Non-human animals are also able to have a subjective experience of life.
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 to humans – 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, as guaranteed in the Swiss constitution, is not lived up to in practice. This is why we launched the Primate Initiative in Basel. It 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 a 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 animals, and the media debate around the initiative, created momentum on the subject of animal dignity. It paved the way for future campaigns focussing on the interests of those animals who cannot advocate for themselves.