Challenges to Animal Rights
by Ari Armstrong, November 20, 2003
During the evening of November 19, I appeared on Reggie Rivers' TV show on Channel 12, KBDI with three other panelists to discuss animal rights. Rivers said he decided to address the issue because a caller on a previous show raised the matter of the treatment of dogs at race tracks. (This was in the context of the Amendment 33 debate concerning gambling at race tracks.) Diana Hsieh, an Objectivist and a philosophy student at CU, Boulder, shared my perspective that animals don't have rights, though it's wrong for people to maliciously injure animals. David Crawford of Rocky Mountain Animal Defense (RMAD) and Jennifer Melton, a criminal defense attorney involved with Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), argued that animals do have rights and should have robust legal protections.
Jennifer Melton, David Crawford, Ari Armstrong, Diana Hsieh, and Reggie Rivers discuss animal rights November 19 on Rivers' show, Drawing the Line.
My primary motivation in publishing the Colorado Freedom Report and getting involved in politics is to advocate human rights and well-being. As I mentioned on Rivers' show, that so many people are so grossly mistreated is what should set our priorities. Why, then, did I agree to appear on the show, spend a fair amount of time reading about and contemplating the case for animal rights, and devote this article to the subject? I think the answer is two-fold. First, by discussing the possible rights of animals, we can get a clearer idea of what rights mean and what is the nature of human rights. Second, though the matter of animal rights often is dismissed by libertarians and particularly by Objectivist writers (such as Robert James Bidinotto and Edwin Locke), especially those who reject certain rights claims should take them seriously. After all, at various times in history, it has seemed perfectly "obvious" to many people that various sorts of people -- slaves, racial groups, women, and homosexuals -- do not have rights, even though today the notion of denying certain people rights strikes most of us horrifying, as well it should for good intellectual reasons. It is essential that we make very sure that, if we dismiss animal rights, we do so for sound reasons, and not merely through rationalization.
One argument I wish I'd made more clearly on the show is that the reason human beings have rights is that they are distinctly rational. This is an old argument, but I think a correct one. People have the ability to conceptualize, to reason in a robust way, to communicate with others in a sophisticated and conceptual way, to cooperate with each other in a broad economic market that involves a division of labor, to contemplate and advocate for rights, and to create a complicated system of written rules and laws to resolve conflicts. All of these things are a part of what it means to be rational, and all of these things are impossible to (other) animals.
Crawford and Melton noted that other animals communicate, and this is obviously true, but simple communication is not an indication of conceptual, rational thought. That said, libertarian writer L. Neil Smith, in his Probability Broach series of science-fiction novels, supposes that certain other animals such as apes and dolphins may indeed share rationality. (Smith doesn't recognize rights of non-rational animals.) But, as I pointed out, when a representative of another species writes a treatise explaining why his or her rights should be respected, I'll take that as good evidence of conceptual rationality. In general, whenever any being other than humans can demonstrate (self-motivated) conceptual rationality, that being can begin to make rights claims that we must take seriously. This goes for existing animals on Earth, possible future animals on earth, possible alien beings, and potential artificial life (such as contemplated by Star Trek, The Matrix movies, and many other science-fiction works).
Libertarians usually take the traditional view on animal rights. For example, Murray Rothbard writes in The Ethics of Liberty (written in 1980), "[T]he assertion of human rights is not properly a simple emotive one; individuals possess rights *not* because we 'feel' that they should, but because of a rational inquiry into the nature of man and the universe. In short, man has rights because they are *natural* rights. They are grounded in the nature of man: the individual man's capacity for conscious choice, the necessity for him to use his mind and energy to adopt goals and values, to find out about the world, to pursue his ends in order to survive and prosper, his capacity and need to communicate and interact with other human beings and to participate in the division of labor. In short, man is a rational and social animal. No other animals or beings possess this ability to reason, to make conscious choices, to transform their environment in order to prosper, or to collaborate consciously in society and the division of labor" (page 155 of the 2002 paperback edition). Rothbard goes on to point out that animals are incapable of recognizing or respecting rights, but that "hypothetical 'Martians'" who are rational would have rights. (Interestingly, Rothbard notes that, while rationality is necessary for rights, it is not sufficient. For example, a rational being that "could only exist by feeding on human blood" would be the "deadly enemy" of humans outside the system of rights. Thus, the capacity to cooperate and resolve disputes peacefully is another condition for rights.)
Earlier this year, Peter Singer, one of the founders of the animal rights movement, wrote an excellent overview of that movement and its arguments. He raises an obvious objection to the sort of analysis Rothbard and I have invoked. Crawford also raised this objection on the TV show. Specifically, some human beings are not rational. Very young humans and severely mentally disabled humans are incapable of conceptual thought. They can't trade cooperatively, assert their rights, or communicate. Indeed, Singer points out, some animals lead a more robust intellectual and emotional life than some people. Yet most of us want to extend rights to all people, even if not to any other animal.
Thus, Singer accuses the opponents of animal rights of "speciesism." However, Singer overplays this argument. That is, we do not recognize the rights of humans with diminished mental capacity merely because they are humans. I know of no skeptic of animal rights who would argue that other possible rational, cooperative beings (Rothbard's "Martians") don't have rights. Thus, those who say only humans have rights do so only because humans are the only known beings who are rationally cooperative, not because they are "speciesists."
True enough, if one were to argue that humans of severely diminished mental capacity have rights merely because we sympathize with humans, yet animals of greater intellectual and emotional capacity do not have rights, that would be "speciesism." But that's not the reason we recognize the rights of non-rational humans. (Obviously we don't think non-rational humans have a right to, say, get married or sign contracts. However, they have the right not to be tortured, for instance.) In the case of young humans, obviously almost all of them will soon acquire rationality. We recognize their rights because of their latent rationality. In the case of severely mentally disabled people, we recognize their rights because we don't want to get into the impossible business of trying to redraw that line. We all have well-grounded fears about the inevitable horrors that would arise from such an effort.
The Gray Areas of Rights
A new line of argument is important here. Any theory of rights necessarily involves some gray areas. Property rights, for example, are not static: they evolve over time and reasonable people may disagree about conflicting property claims in particular circumstances (which is one reason we need courts). That is not to say that all or even many rights claims are murky: a very wide number of rights claims are clear-cut. Killing a normal, non-aggressing adult human obviously violates rights; swatting a fly on one's window or poisoning a harmful bacterium obviously does not. The difficult cases involve animals of relatively great capacity (apes and dolphins) and people of diminished capacity (fetuses, children, and the severely mentally disabled).
Both Diana and I were eager to grant that people should not maliciously injure animals. We also accepted that people should take due care to prevent needless suffering of animals. For example, cows should not be dismembered while they're still conscious. This is the common ground. The debate over such issues concerns, not what constitutes moral behavior, but how we should encourage the ethical treatment of animals. I talked about a variety of ways that market forces and social pressure have accomplished better treatment for animals. In general, while I'm not greatly bothered by basic animal-abuse laws, I am fearful that such laws can lead to the abuse of humans, and I am comfortable using non-legislative means to accomplish some of the goals of the animal rights activists.
Most libertarians, then, are skeptical of legislative attempts to protect animals and view animals as property. However, I think even most libertarians will grant at least a minimal level of legal protection for some animals. Here's an example. Let's say you see your neighbor viciously torturing her pet on her front lawn, and it's obvious to you the torture is being conducted out of sheer malice. Let's say that you proceed to go onto your neighbor's lawn without her permission, grab the dog, and carry it off to safety. Now if you were a prosecutor, would you press charges against the trespasser? If you were a member of the jury, would you vote to convict the rescuer of the dog of trespass or theft? My suspicion is that almost all people, including almost all libertarians, would, in fact, vote to acquit if seated on a jury in such a case. If you are one of those people, then you grant at least some minimal legal protection to some animals.
However, the claim that animals should have some legal protections does not entail the claim that animals have rights. Of course, it is common to speak of "legal protections" as "rights," so we must distinguish between the "rights" of the law and natural rights. So we have to keep the context in mind and be aware of how people use the term "rights" in different ways. The claim that animals don't have rights doesn't necessarily entail the claim that animals should have no legal protections (which some may refer to as "rights"). At the same time, the claim that animals should have some legal protections (perhaps called "rights") does not entail the claim that animals have rights as that term relates to rational (cooperative) beings.
Difficult Cases for Animal Rights
So there are some difficult cases for those who claim animals don't have rights. However, there are even more problems for those who claim animals do have rights. The obvious question is, which animals, specifically, have rights, and what rights to they have? On its web page, ADLF features pictures of deer, apes, dolphins, and cuddly kittens. It does not feature pictures of rats, roaches, or flies. Why is that? If it's "speciesist" to think humans uniquely have rights, why is it not "speciesist" to fail to advocate the rights of rats, roaches, and flies with equal vigor? Singer points out that some claim mammals and birds have rights, but other animals do not. This strikes me as rather arbitrary. Can a fish not feel pain? Different sorts of animals have common ancestors. I suppose there are some reptiles with a more robust intellectual and emotional life than some mammals. We can turn the popular argument of the animal rights activists against them. Doesn't even a fly have more awareness than a severely mentally disabled rat? If you say a normal adult rat has rights, and that implies severely disabled rats also have rights, then that implies species with greater capacity than a severely disabled rat also have rights. It's hard to see precisely where this argument stops.
The ADLF's "Animal Bill of Rights" claims "animals, like all sentient beings, are entitled to basic legal rights in our society." This claim does not differentiate a fly from an ape. The Bill asserts "THE RIGHT of animals to be free from exploitation, cruelty, neglect and abuse." But what, exactly, constitutes "exploitation" of animals? Is consuming eggs "exploitation," even if the eggs come from "free range" chickens? What about milk? How do we decide? (It's not like we can ask the chickens or cows.) People often have their pets "put to sleep" if they're in severe physical pain, yet this would be considered murder if done to a human. Is it "exploitation" of animals? RMAD asked Boulder city council candidates, "Would you be likely to support a city ordinance specifying a maximum amount of time animals are to be tied or chained per day?" So, apparently keeping a dog tied up for too long constitutes "exploitation."
If we have an obligation to respect the rights of animals, then do we also have an obligation to protect some animals from animal predators? If not, why not? If the answer is that predators "need" to kill other animals for "sustenance," then couldn't we argue for a similar "need" for humans? Are we "exploiting" some animals if we enjoy a documentary about predatory animals?
I suspect that, by demographic coincidence, almost all animal rights advocates also support a woman's right to choose whether to abort a fetus. Yet it is obvious that at least older fetuses can experience pain and that they have some awareness. It seems clear that an eight-month-old fetus has a more robust intellectual and emotional life than an adult rat does. Therefore, all pro-choice animal rights activists are hypocrites. This suggests to me that the motives behind the animal rights movement are complex, and that they involve more than a concern for the welfare of animals.
Another Paradox for Animal Rights
Crawford made it clear that he thinks eating any animal is immoral. Indeed, Crawford's comments seemed to indicate that any human interaction with an animal that doesn't directly benefit the animal is "exploitation."
I wonder if Crawford lives in a house or in an apartment, or if he uses any products that were manufactured in a building. If so, then he has benefited by the killing of animals. Many Boulderites are concerned about protecting prairie dogs, but I wonder what they think used to live where they now reside. Was it land magically unoccupied by any other living being? The implicit attitude seems to be, "It's fine that my life was made possible by the killing of animals, but it's not fine if you similarly benefit." I think a rather strong argument can be made here: it is simply impossible for humans to live without, directly or indirectly, killing animals. There is precisely one way for a human to avoid killing animals, and that is to commit suicide (though the facilities of the cemetery or crematorium involved the killing of animals). I suppose this is the animal-rights version of original sin. Every human has killed and will continue to kill animals, either directly or indirectly, so the goal is to minimize this killing and harsh treatment of animals. That's our penance.
Now, there is a possible objection to this last argument. An animal rights activist might point out that modern Americans benefited from the past labors of slaves, and therefore human life depends upon the violation of human rights as well as animal rights. However, future human life does not depend on future violations of human rights. Until people venture out into space, future human life necessarily will involve the killing of more animals. Similarly, in the past, human life was not dependent on the violation of human rights (meaning history could have been otherwise), whereas human life was dependent on the killing of animals (human history could not have existed otherwise).
The Dependence of Animal Rights
I am not arguing that these internal problems with the animal rights perspective necessarily reduce that view to absurdity. However, it is apparent that even describing the view is wrought with difficulty, and defending it is even tougher. On the other hand, it's relatively easy to address the objections that Singer raises against the opposing view. The case for human rights is robust independently of any consideration of animals. The case for animal rights, however, largely depends on finding the difficult cases with human rights (specifically, cases involving humans with diminished mental capacity). Thus, the case for animal rights is derivative of the case for human rights. To the extent this is not the case, animal rights advocates must argue for rights on the basis of suffering, or self-awareness, or some other sort of innate quality of animals. Any such case is difficult to ground and filled with internal contradictions.
Put another way, the most convincing case for animal rights is an attempted reductio ad absurdum: "If people have rights, and if people with diminished mental capacity have rights, then it's absurd to say that animals with greater capacity than some humans don't have rights." This is the "derivative" case for animal rights. The derivative case denies that rationality is the foundation of rights, yet I've given a plausible explanation for why rationality is the foundation of rights, even though humans with diminished moral capacity are recognized as having rights. So the attempted reductio ad absurdum fails, and the advocates of animal rights are left with a very large mess of stray arguments.
The Animal Rights Straddle
Yet I also face a problem, though a less severe one. If I wish to deny that animals have rights, then how can I express sympathy for the plight of some animals and even entertain the possibility of limited legal protections for some animals? There is no denying that, for almost all humans, the human malicious torture of some animals is repulsive. Why is that?
Before I attempt an answer, I'd like to dismiss a bad argument often invoked by animal rights advocates (including the ones on the TV show). The claim is that, because the torture of animals is correlated with crime against people, we should ban the torture of animals. But that argument is bogus. Obviously, correlation does not prove causation. As Hsieh and Rivers pointed out, the same sort of pathology leads to both behaviors. An additional point is that trying to protect humans by protecting animals is a protracted and inefficient way of achieving the (stated) primary goal. It would be more useful to spend police and court resources to protect people directly. The more fundamental reason the appeal to the torture-crime correlation is illegitimate is that, as a general legal principle, prior restraint is wrong. While a relatively high percentage of people who commit certain heinous crimes may have previously tortured animals, a fairly small percent of people who tortured animals go on to commit crimes against people. Lots of things are correlated with crime. For instance, poor literacy is so correlated, yet we wouldn't seriously propose putting people in jail for not reading enough. If we're going to seriously propose legal sanctions against people who torture animals, it can't be because of the torture-crime correlation.
I'd like to make one more detour before returning to the positive reasons why we might want to protect animals. On the TV show, Melton invoked the torture-crime correlation, and Crawford argued that vegetarianism is good for people's health and environment. I pointed out these sorts of pragmatic arguments, with a view toward the welfare of humans, are a strange way to promote animal rights. If animals have rights, then the impact on humans of treating animals nicely is simply irrelevant. Yet this seems to be a primary strategy of the animal rights movement. Rather than argue that animals have rights, and these rights should be respected regardless of the impact on humans, animal rights advocates typically elicit support for their views by arguing their policies will help humans. In addition to the two cases mentioned, no argument against the medical testing of animals is unaccompanied by the claim that good alternatives exist to animal testing. But if animals have rights, we shouldn't experiment on them, whether or not this results in more human suffering.
Thus, it is apparent there is an Animal Rights Straddle. I first contemplated "straddles" when reading Jeffrey Friedman's essay, "The Libertarian Straddle," in the Summer 1998 edition of Critical Review (Vol. 12, No. 3). To generalize Friedman's analysis, a straddle is any argument that oscillates between moralistic and pragmatic concerns, in such a way that the weaknesses of one strain of argument are covered over by the other strain of argument. This creates a potentially endless (and endlessly fruitless) cycle. The claim that animals have rights is questioned, so the new claim that protecting animals is pragmatically good for humans is invoked. When the case is made that using animals helps humans, again the claim about the moral status of animals is invoked. Neither argument alone can make the case, nor can both arguments in combination make the case, yet there is a temptation to implicitly rely on one argument as a backup when invoking the other.
Predictably, Crawford answered that protecting the rights of animals also benefits the welfare of humans by happy coincidence, or "good karma," as he put it. Yet animal rights and human welfare are not perfectly correlated, and that fact is obvious to most people. At some point, one or the other must trump, and animal rights advocates must be able to coherently explain how to decide. Crawford's straddled argument, his "good karma," is nothing but convenient myth, a pleasant rationalization.
How do libertarians escape the straddle? Ultimately, I believe, rights must be grounded in consequentialism (though I have yet to write out precisely how, and I don't intend to do so here). While a robust system of rights for animals such as Crawford and Melton advocate can never be (fully) compatible with the well-being of humans, there is the possibility that some legal protections (a limited system of legal "rights," if you wish) is consistent with human welfare. I'd like to talk a bit about why that might be.
Sympathy for Animals
As I was discussing earlier, almost all people are repulsed when they see a human torturing an animal. One reason for this, I think, is that we have an innate sympathy for certain other beings. Whereas the mothers of some species often eat their young, human mothers almost universally care for their children. The exceptions prove the rule: we read with horror of mothers who murder their own children. Surely genes have something to do with this. Perhaps by extension we are more sympathetic toward creatures that are similar to us -- animals frequently are described as having human-like qualities.
I wonder if there are other evolutionary explanations for sympathy. We seem to be more naturally sympathetic toward bunnies and deer, and less sympathetic toward spiders and snakes. Perhaps that's because, historically, people often are bitten by spiders and snakes, whereas they tend to eat bunnies and deer. It might seem strange that we're sympathetic toward animals that we tend to eat, yet it's self-interested behavior to save a bunny from torture now in order to eat it later. I'm not sure this theory is correct: it might also be that we tend to eat mammals, which are coincidentally most similar to us.
We are socialized to express sympathy. That is, we get positive social feedback when we're sympathetic, and negative feedback when we're mean. Even if we are naturally frightened of, say, snakes, many of us have come to understand that snakes usually help us (say, by killing mice) and are therefore worthy of our sympathy. We might also be socialized to overcome our natural sympathy for certain animals and kill them gratefully. (Perhaps rituals thanking the gods or an animal's spirit for game are a way of sublimating natural sympathies.)
There is a more intellectual reason to feel sympathy for animals: we are quite fascinated with our own capacity for self-awareness, and so we are respectful of even pale reflections of that awareness. On the emotional level, we know what it's like to feel pain, and thinking about other creatures feeling pain makes us feel bad.
We can bring back the torture-crime correlation in a new light. People rightly imagine, when they hear of another person maliciously torturing an animal, that it's not a great leap from being mean to animals to being mean to people. In this context, we are not concerned about whether it's useful to punish those who torture animals in order to reduce crimes against people, but merely with the emotional impact of animal torture on other people.
All this is interesting speculation, and I'll leave further elaboration to the biologists and sociologists. The obvious point is that it upsets us very much to see or hear of certain types of animals being maliciously tortured or even negligently abused. For example, stories of cat mutilations made huge news in the Denver area some months ago, even though it turned out the "mutilations" were actually caused by predatory animals.
What is the relationship between our sympathies and morality? My position is that morality cannot be grounded on innate sympathies or drives, but what constitutes values can be influenced by such sympathies or drives. For example, we have an innate desire to have sex, and sex can be a source of value, and therefore it can be accommodated or encouraged by a theory of ethics. That is not to say, though, that any manifestation of sex is okay, or that the urge to have sex should not often be resisted.
Thus, it might be possible to argue that animals should have some protection simply because the abuse of some animals creates great emotional distress for humans. Notice that this approach does not rely on any innate quality of animals in order to establish protections. (On the other hand, human rights as I've described them do rely upon innate qualities of people, specifically the quality of rationality.) Instead, the approach is grounded on the interests of people, not animals. Such an approach offers a satisfactory answer to the question of why some animals should be protected (dogs) and others shouldn't (flies). Such an approach also allows us to come up with a common-sense answer as to why some sorts of treatment of animals are allowed and others aren't. For example, if rats have rights, then it is equally impermissible to trap a rat in one's basement as it is to burn a rat alive out of malice (an example Crawford raised). The approach I'm describing doesn't claim rats have rights: it claims instead that seeing rats needlessly burned alive out of malice causes humans distress. In short, killing a rat in one's basement with a trap for the purpose of protecting one's things is good riddance, whereas burning a rat alive is mean.
So just about everybody can agree that human actions like burning a rat, torturing a dog, poking the eye out of a kitten, negligently killing dolphins, dismembering cows while they're still alive, and raising chickens in tiny boxes without any fresh air or sunlight are, in a word, mean. Most people support, or at least don't have a serious problem tolerating, laws to prohibit such behavior. But, while the animal rights movement certainly supports ending all those sorts of behavior, it is also committed to attributing to animals rights as broadly construed. Therefore, according to most animal rights advocates, eating any sort of meat is wrong, using animals for any sort of entertainment is wrong, trapping a rat in one's basement is wrong, tying up one's dog for too long is wrong, using animals in research to benefit humans is wrong, killing a rat is somehow morally comparable to killing a person, and so on. Thus, practically everyone agrees with most of the short-term goals of the animal rights movement, and practically nobody agrees with the long-term goals of that movement.
Animal Rights as Reactionary
We now have a conceptual framework to explain a number of peculiar human behaviors. On the anti-animal rights side, perhaps there are a very few people who argue that no sort of treatment of animals qualifies as immoral -- burning a dog alive in one's backyard is the moral equivalent of burning a cardboard box in one's backyard. Or, to take a less extreme example, some people argue that laws against animal abuse are inherently wrong because animals don't have rights. I think the motivation for such unusual (and often absurd) arguments is the fear of the slippery slope to full animal rights, such that people might be sent to prison for trapping a rat in the basement.
On the animal rights side, we sometimes see outright loathing of the human race ("speciesism" in reverse, if you will). Both of these errors in thinking stem from the assumption that, in order to protect any animals at all, we must grant animals robust rights. Thus, the same false assumption gives us wildly implausible theories like burning a dog alive is okay or killing a rat under any circumstance is wrong. Put another way, animal rights advocates are reactionaries, and they inspire a secondary reaction that sometimes excuses animal mistreatment. The common-sense view rightly rejects the conclusions of reactionaries on both sides. Thankfully, the common-sense view in this case has good philosophical support.
The Immoral and the Illegal
That leaves us with one remaining issue. If we are warranted in wanted to protect some animals from excessive or maliciously inflicted pain, as I think we are, we can still disagree about the best ways to achieve that end. The most obvious answer in today's world is, "There oughta be a law." But I'm influenced by libertarian thought, so I'm skeptical of legislative approaches. So I need to answer two questions: what's wrong with possible legislation, and what's the alternative?
Consider the local proposal to legislate the maximum time a pet can be tied up during the day. How would such a law possibly be enforced? These sorts of laws promote neighbors spying on neighbors. "The Joneses have kept Rover tied up for 14 minutes too long today! Call the police!" How much privacy are we willing to sacrifice for animal rights? How many new police powers are we willing to grant? How many new criminal punishments are we willing to impose? How many new regulatory agencies are we willing to fund? The cause of animal welfare hardly justifies imposing a police state on people.
Intrusive laws also tie up police and court resources that could otherwise be used to protect humans. People are more important than animals, and people have rights, so it's legitimate to ask how many resources should be diverted away from helping people to helping animals. In today's world, injustice against people abounds.
Here's another example. ADLF asserts "THE RIGHT of companion animals to a healthy diet, protective shelter, and adequate medical care." Well, we want people to take good care of their pets. But are we really willing to legislatively determine "adequate medical care" for pets? Who's going to make these decisions? Who's going to enforce the law? What will be the criminal penalty for providing sub-"adequate" care, as determined by a bureaucratic or legislative body? Who's going to pay for all this, and how much? Are we going to fine people or haul them off to jail because Fido's doghouse isn't up to code? Are we going to hire doghouse inspectors?
Earlier I described a hypothetical case of jury nullification that would offer limited de facto legal protection for some animals. Those committed to jury nullification must grant that the practice might be used to protect animals in some cases. Whether we say that's a good or bad use of jury nullification is another issue. Regardless, there's quite a difference between the legal protection of jury nullification, and the legal protection of legislation. The jury could protect only those who took positive action to protect animals. Thus, jury rights do not entail intrusive laws or new state bureaucracies. Thus, one could reasonably hold that jury nullification should offer limited protection to animals, but that legislation should not offer such protection.
We can say more about rights in a legal context. A primary libertarian insight is that the moral is not the same thing as the legal. When the law is just, all moral acts are legal, and many immoral acts are legal, too. In general, libertarians believe that just law forbids only those immoral acts that involve aggressing against another person or his or her property, or committing fraud. Thus, the libertarian framework creates a large sphere of autonomy for the individual, limited only by the same rights of other people. As Ayn Rand summarizes, "Since Man has inalienable individual rights, this means that the same rights are held, individually, by every man, by all men, at all times. Therefore, the rights of one man cannot and must not violate the rights of another... The definition of this limit is not set arbitrarily by society -- but is implicit in the definition of your own right. Within the sphere of your own rights, your freedom *is* absolute" (Textbook of Americanism).
Eyal Mozes recently offered an especially succinct critique of the theory that human sympathy for animals justifies legislative protection of animals. He sent a post on the subject "Dismissing Animal Rights" to the e-mail list for objectivism.wetheliving.com on November 19, arguing:
The freedom to take actions that everyone else regards as moral and is comfortable with *is never in danger*. People had this freedom in their hunter-gatherer tribes before any concept of rights was thought of by anybody, they had that freedom in Afghanistan under the Taliban, and they have it in Cuba and North Korea. You don't need rights to protect people's freedom to take actions that everyone else is comfortable with.
Letting politicians and bureaucrats determine matters of morality, beyond the relatively simple morality of not harming other people or their property, is greatly troublesome. In almost all cases, we protect people's right to free speech, even when we believe that speech advocates immoral acts. (The only exceptions involve the direct advocacy of violence.) We protect people's right to practice religions we might consider strange or harmful.
It's easy to contemplate the paradigmatic case of animal torture and think, "Ban *that*." But legislation always is applied to less clear-cut situations. Once the line is crossed, and animals are offered legislative protection, there really is no way to draw a clear line ever again. It may not be a slope, but it certainly is slippery.
We cannot legislate our way to moral perfection, and the attempt guarantees the opposite. No appeal to the betterment of human character can justify legislative protection of animals. Once the premise is granted that the proper role of government is to improve moral character, there is simply no limit to state power. What's more, people with competing views of morality will forever battle to impose their will on everybody else.
If there is a sound argument that justifies legislative protection of animals, I have not figured out what it is. But, as I've said, I will tolerate limited, relatively non-intrusive laws against animal abuse, simply because it isn't worth the effort to oppose them, with so many other things going wrong in today's world. But far-reaching, intrusive laws invite legal chaos and the violation of the rights of human beings.
What, then, if not legislation? Obvious tools -- and obviously legitimate tools -- include social pressure and market forces, within reasonable limits. Singer notes the McDonald's restaurant chain adopted better standards for egg and meat production. If you think your neighbor ties up his dog for too long, you are welcome to complain to the neighbor, offer to buy the dog, or socially shun the neighbor. Consumer campaigns to encourage better conditions for animals can accomplish significant changes. The book Free Market Environmentalism and related works offer many examples of how property rights and market forces have encouraged the protection of animals.
One excellent example of free-market environmentalism is an organization Melton is involved with, the Southern Plains Land Trust. The organization proposes "A New Model: Prairie Restoration on Private Land... SPLT envisions an entirely new type of ecosystem restoration project, one that seeks to obtain reform on public lands alongside private land acquisition. This approach is the best hope for preserving a permanent, native prairie community." So bravo. Buying land to protect animals is exactly the sort of project that libertarians applaud. SPLT's members are "heartbroken over the continued poisoning, bulldozing and shooting of black-tailed prairie dogs." I suppose the group might even try to relocate threatened prairie dogs to the wild plains.
I am willing to make some personal changes to accomplish some of these goals. However, I'm not willing to spend much time on broad campaigns simply because I think many other people-related problems are much more pressing. But that is not a condemnation of those who choose to advocate animal welfare. Different people have different interests and skills. I might question the way some people set priorities, but they have a fundamental human right to set their own priorities, in accordance with their values.
Do people have rights? Yes. Do animals have rights? No. Should we offer some protection to animals from needless and maliciously inflicted suffering? Yes. The sooner animal welfare advocates adopt more tenable ethical views, the less they'll alienate the public, and the faster they'll solve the problems that probably motivated them to action.