Over at Secondhand Smoke, a little discussion is going onconcerning animal rights and human exceptionalism. One of my first posts on my own blog was about human exceptionalism. I wish to God those who deny human exceptionalism would explain how it is that we’re not exceptional. But that's beside the point.
The question I wish to focus on now is animal rights, beginning with the nature of rights as inherent in the one who has rights as opposed to conferred by an outside agent. If all rights are conferred, then none are natural and all are subject to the power of the one conferring. If animals have rights by conferral, then it can only be we humans who confer them, and then there is no argument: If we don’t give them rights, they don’t have any.
We might want to consider here the difference between civil and natural rights. We have the natural right to self-defense, for instance, which is prior to and above every civil law and constitution. Any law or government that denies this right is unjust. We have the civil right to vote, which is conferred. We can argue by natural rights the granting of civil rights, as happened for voting rights for non-whites and for women, as a matter of justice, a justice prior to and above the law that demands the law be changed. The restriction of voting to white males denies the intrinsic equality of natural rights of all human beings and is not based on any legitimate qualification such as age, and so is unjust. The equality of civil rights is based on a higher equality of natural rights.
Now either animals have natural rights or they don’t. But if they don’t maybe we should grant them some civil rights. But if we do, it’s because of who and what WE are: We would (in this line of reasoning) be more and more perfectly human—and therefore all the more exceptional, by the way—if we did grant rights to animals. Failure to do so makes us less human. I’m not taking sides on this issue, but the reason for animal rights would be it is something WE should do, and not because animals deserve it.
But animal rights advocates say that animals have rights that our actions toward them violate. This means they believe animals have natural rights. Our laws and practices are unjust because they deny the rights of sentient beings, it is said. If this line of argumentation is valid, then animals have natural rights that inhere in them by virtue of what they are, sentient beings.
I believe, though, that the idea that animals are subjects of rights, such that justice demands humans to respect, leads to logical inconsistencies—contradictions and absurdities—that suggest the idea to be false.
First of all, if it is true that rights inhere in animals, then those rights can be recognized only by beings with the cognitive ability to understand what a right is, what kind of things have them, and what their own duty is to those with rights. That is, their rights depend upon the existence of human beings in order for them to be of any practical value. Rights cannot inhere in a thing if the value of that right depends on the existence of some other thing. In other words, we have the right to self-defense, even when we are alone. But animals would have rights only in the presence of a thing that understands the meaning rights. In the wild, with no such being around, these rights are meaningless. If a thing naturally cannot understand itself or anything else as having rights, if it naturally cannot exercise its rights responsibly while respecting the rights of others, it would suggest that it does not have rights to begin with. When animals begin asking for their rights, then I would say it’s high time to recognize them.
But let's ignore that, and consider the right to live, the very basic right that demands that humans ought not eat, wear, or hunt other animals. We’ll use hunting to stand for all of the sorts of “injustice” humans tend to do to animals. A human in theory violates a deer's rights by hunting it. A wolf does, too, because if deer have a right not to be hunted and killed, then it is universal and extends to all things that might hunt it. Humans, for instance, have the universal right to self-defense, not just the right to defend oneself against attacks by tall people, or by people of a certain race, or by humans and not animals.
So deer have a right not to be hunted by wolves. On the other hand, a wolf also cannot know what a right is or the things that have rights. Plus, the wolf’s own right to live as a carnivorous predator endows it with the right to hunt deer and other things. It nonetheless violates its prey’s right to live by killing it, even if it does not understand its acts as such. If a deer has a right not to be hunted, then the wolf commits an injustice by hunting it. But it would be unjust to deprive the wolf of its right to hunt. Since rights cannot be opposed like that—no one can have the right to self defense if someone else has the right to kill anyone he pleases—either the deer or the wolf or both of them do not have the natural right to act according to its ways. It is impossible that all animals have rights.
But let’s ignore that. Humans, unlike the wolf and the deer, and despite not being exceptional, see that the deer has inherent rights, and have the power to respect and protect those rights. Humans could and ostensibly should safeguard the deer and uphold its rights by protecting it from the wolf, just as some humans would do with respect to their fellow humans by outlawing hunting. Otherwise, we let the deer’s rights be violated by the wolf. But if we stop the wolf, we would violate the wolf's right to hunt. Since the notion of animal rights puts us into an irreconcilable conundrum, it would seem that those rights do not exist. Otherwise, if it is not unjust to the deer to permit wolves to hunt them, why is it unjust to the deer for humans to hunt them?
But let’s ignore that. Let’s just stay out of the natural food chain and let it be. But if we do that, the wolf appears to have superior rights than humans, since it can kill a deer by right but a human cannot. Yet, all animals should have equal rights, and humans, if anything, should not have inferior rights. Therefore, the wolf does not have a right to hunt although it is in its nature to be predator, nor does the deer have the right not to be hunted since we have no duty or even the right to protect it from the wolf.
But let’s ignore that. The wolf and deer both have rights, but the wolf has greater rights than the deer, since its right to hunt deer trumps the deer's right not to be hunted. This is clear from the fact that the wolf commits no crime or injustice against the deer by hunting it. Therefore, if the deer and the human have rights at all, those rights are inferior to the wolf’s. The basis of superiority of the wolf’s rights over the deer’s is the distinction between predator and prey. But humans evolved (if you ascribe to that sort of thing) as omnivorous predators, just as chimps and baboons also hunt. Therefore, humans ought to have a predator’s rights like those of the wolf. The notion of equal rights would demand it. Therefore, deer cannot have a natural right not to be hunted since it would apply only to non-predators, which is absurd.
But let’s ignore that. If humans, as evolved moral beings, ought not to eat meat, how can this be based on the right of a prey animal not to be hunted? To be a predator is non-moral for the wolf; therefore, it cannot be argued that it is immoral for a human, and if it is, then it is by virtue of what a human is and not by virtue of some imagined right of prey animals not to be prey only for humans. “Hunting is unbecoming a civilized, moral being” is a very different argument than “Animals have a right not to be hunted by humans.” Therefore, animals do not have rights.
If that is so, then using animals is not intrinsically wrong as the argument from rights suggests. Therefore, using animals becomes wrong only under certain conditions. Therefore, if using animals is always wrong, it is only because those conditions happen to be always present. The only conditions that could possibly render using animals wrong are two: The universal availability of equally good alternatives, and the impossibility that using animals be humane. But those conditions are not universal. Indeed many non-animal alternatives, as good as some may be, are not equally good by any rational assessment that considers all the factors. (Eating, for instance, is not only about nutrition: Two equally nutritious meals may be unequal in myriad respects. Tofu. Beef. You decide.) It has been suggested that all use of animals is intrinsically inhumane. That cannot be true. If we care for our livestock well, they will have better (even if shorter) lives than left on their own. They will be better fed, protected from predators and diseases—safer, healthier, happier—while they live. I admit, the profit motive makes it tempting to treat animals badly, and that is wrong. But it’s the ill treatment only and not the ultimate use of the animals that is wrong.
But let’s ignore that. If animals have rights, then we have rights like they do. A bear is territorial. So are humans. If a bear comes into my territory, it violates my rights, just as I do if I enter its territory. Just as the bear has rights to defend its territory, often violently, and it has a right not to listen to reason and apologies, so do I have a right to defend my territory from the bear. Why should a bear have the right to free run of my property if I do not have the right to free run of its territory? Aren’t humans mere animals?
But let’s ignore that. Because of animal rights, humans have a duty to overcome their enjoyment of meat, appreciation of leather and fur, defense of themselves and their property and their families, their so-called right to clear land and grow crops and have them pollinated, their so-called right to have families and build homes. We rightly get upset when a human shoots a bear for coming into his yard and threatening his children. That family shouldn’t live in bear country and if they do then the children shouldn’t play outside. Nor can we keep the rabbits and deer and squirrels out of our vegetable gardens and farms, which we’ll depend all the more on if we don’t eat meat. Since our right to self-defense does not extend to predators preying on our very selves, how on earth can it extend to herbivores eating our mere plants? It cannot. We cannot even keep a dog to scare other animals away, unless the dog can thrive on soy burgers since we cannot provide it with meat. The funny thing is, the dog would not violate anything’s rights in itself, even if it killed a trespassing rabbit. But acting on a human’s behalf, it would. We would not be able to sic even a vegan dog on a deer or a bear if the dog was our weapon.
So, if the animal rights folks are right, that means, ultimately, that humans have to wipe themselves out. Here’s how it will happen. At first, our farms that grow our vegetables will have to be increased for two reasons. One is, more people will be eating only vegetables, so we’ll need bigger farms. The other is that since we cannot control animals that feast on our crops, we’ll need farms big enough to support them and us. But that will cause such animals to proliferate and to not seek food in the wild. We will not survive. Ultimately, we need to disappear. It’s the only way.
Either that, or animals don’t have rights.
But let’s ignore that.