Joachim Nieuwland studied veterinary medicine at Utrecht University, where he earned his Master’s in 2010. In 2012 he received a Thomas More Scholarship to pursue a Master’s degree in philosophy at Tilburg University. After graduating cum laude in 2014 he began his PhD at Leiden University. Joachim has been teaching philosophy and ethics at the Veterinary Faculty at Utrecht University since 2012. He also works as a post-doc researcher at the Centre for Sustainable Animal Stewardship, a collaboration with Animal Sciences at Wageningen University & Research.

The right to health for humans and animals

If we want to prevent future pandemics we need a ‘multispecies’ vision on health according to Joachim Nieuwland. As part of achieving such a broad vision, he argues, we also need a moral approach to health. Dogs, cows, pigs, and both human and non-human apes all have a moral right to health. This follows from a positive interpretation of that right: not only is the right to health inalienable, Joachim posits, but rather a prerequisite for both humans and other animals to engage in meaningful activities.

The increasing risk of zoonoses like Ebola or Q-fever – diseases that can ‘jump’ from non-human animals to humans – was an important motivation for my PhD research. So it was almost surreal to defend my PhD on ‘interspecies’ health policies in May 2020 while the corona pandemic was raging.

Central to my dissertation is One Health, a concept that was first presented in 2004, at a conference hosted by The Wildlife Conservation Society and that has come up increasingly in various public health policies since.

In a narrow sense One Health is concerned with the threats to public health coming from animals. But a broader, more multispecies-oriented vision is also possible. One in which the interdependence between humans, animals and ecological processes forms the starting point for health policy. I base my dissertation on this holistic approach of One Health. In my view this broader perspective is necessary. Not only to confront the increasing risk of pandemics and antibiotic resistance but also because it would do more justice to the complex reality. One Healthconnects public health to broader issues: do we, in our policies, pay enough consideration to our ecological context and the countless interactions that we humans have with other animals? This broader perspective comes with a host of philosophical considerations: who do we have in mind when we speak of public health? Does this concern only humans or animals as well? And are humans entitled to claim such a privileged position when it comes to a just health policy?



Moral rights may have an individualizing effect, in which case they’re overly focused on self-interest: I have the right to this and that, and nobody can infringe on it. I think it would be better to interpret moral rights as a tool to acknowledge the needs and interests of others. They remind us that the basic interests of others are in fact not that different from our own. In that sense, rights can help us to be less focused on our self-interest, but rather act more selfless. What’s more, we would hardly need rights if we could realize the moral ideal of acting pretty much selflessly.

I’m looking at the prevalent ideas on the moral right to health in the same way. You can view this right as an acknowledgement of health interests, both your own and those of others. Health is important for various reasons: it often overlaps with an absence of suffering and allows you to engage in worthwhile activities.

“Studying great apes challenges us to think about our own animalism.”

These interests are also relevant to other sentient beings. In that case the question is: why should we withhold animals the right to health? Can we do this because animals don’t possess the same ability to reflect as humans do? This ability is tremendously important. Think for instance about the freedom of choice of human patients when it comes to medical procedures such as chemotherapy or vaccination.

However, the fact that animals don’t seem to be able to reflect on such a decision, does not in the least dismiss the value health has for their life. Like for humans, health enables a lot that is of value. Think about dogs, frolicking on the beach, a cow feeding her calf, or a pig rooting in the rich soil. To enable all of this it is necessary to safeguard their health.

When we regard rights as a tool to acknowledge, protect and promote the interests of other people as much as possible, we have to take the interests of animals seriously as well.


Caring cows

Great apes hold a special place in my dissertation. Because of their resemblance to humans they are extremely interesting. For instance, many people take this closeness as a reason to assign apes a separate status, to make more efforts to morally protect them in comparison to other species. Starting-point for my analysis is The Great Ape Project,an international organization of primatologists, anthropologists and ethicists who have been advocating for a ‘declaration of the rights of great apes’ since 1993. For the most part they formulate these rights negatively: you are not allowed to kill, torture, or capture a great ape. In addition to their effort, I have formulated the rights of great apes as something positive. This has far reaching consequences, not only for great apes. Despite remarkable abilities to use tools for instance, or to fool humans, the health interests of great apes do not appear to be significantly different from those of other sentient beings. If we acknowledge a moral right to health for great apes based on their interests, that right would also belong to frolicking dogs, caring cows, or rooting pigs. And what’s more, studying great apes challenges us to take a critical look at our self-image, to think about our own animalism. The interests that are relevant when we formulate a right to health pretty much apply to all sentient beings, from pigs and dogs to smart apes and humans

Towards an Interspecies Health Policy. Great Apes and the Right to Health, Leiden, May 2020.

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