Jim Henley has kicked off a fair old discussion buzz on the blogs in asking the question: do animals have rights? My short answer right away is they do not as the term rights only makes sense applied to humans because humans, being actually or potentially rational creatures, need freedom to exercise that rational faculty, which is not automatic, and hence doctrines of rights have evolved. Humans, by their nature, need liberty to survive and flourish because of how our minds work. Dogs and bunny rabbits do not.
Well, that is what I have thought for a long time. But the fuzzy bits that you get with these sort of broad claims have started to bother me. A dog, for example, does not have a ‘volitional consciousness’ in the same way that a human being does, but the dog can respond to signals and its environment; it may not be able to form complex plans, but it can change its behaviour ever so slightly. So a dog needs an element of freedom to survive, too. So if rights are necessary for the furtherance of life, then perhaps they also apply to some other sentient creatures besides we humans. I still think the answer is no, since rights also entail the capacity to respect the rights of others: a vicious dog is not bothered about such things, let alone a white shark or even – may Perry forgive me – a hippo.
And then of course, if we start to cut off the application of rights for any creature that does not fully fit the Aristotelian concept of a ‘rational animal’, where does that leave the mentally handicapped, or very young babies that have not yet formed a rational capacity? I think the in the former case, we regard the handicapped as having lost or never acquired something that humans normally would have, but our sheer sense of solidarity and compassion for the frail means we treat the handicapped with respect and care and rightly so. But of course we do not allow severely handicapped people to perform potentially dangerous jobs and in practice, such people tend to be placed under pretty serious constraints about what they can do. The same goes for very young children, or aged people suffering from mental deterioration to do with age.
But I must admit that our attitudes towards animals are strange at times. I do not shoot or hunt animals for ‘sport’ – if it was sport, they would be able to shoot back – and I despise factory farming, think people who are cruel to animals deserve to have their gonads removed, and think that cruelty to other species diminishes us as human beings. But the problem is, I really, really feel in the mood for a big cheeseburger.
Tibor Machan, the libertarian philosopher – and thoroughly nice chap – gives the standard classical liberal argument for why animal rights do not exist. I strongly urge commenters to take a look at the links on Jim Henley’s post I have linked to above.