To understand this, we need to clearly define what rights are, and how they apply. A right can be defined as
a principle defining and sanctioning an individual’s freedom of action in a social context. The principle of rights contains within it the recognition of all valid rights possessed by any rational agent, thus there is never any conflict between the valid rights of different people–there can be no ‘right’ to violate the rights of another.
Ayn Rand, “Man’s Rights”, Virtue of Selfishness
The question then arises, how do we justify the existence and nature of rights ? This is especially crucial because our debate turns around the criteria for their possession. To understand the scope of a concept, we need to understand its justification.
Two main arguments have been proposed by Objectivists to derive rights. The first one is a direct derivation from ethics. We can state it in this way :
1. Life is the ethical standard of value. We must seek to survive and flourish.
2. The role of social institutions is to further valid ethical aims.
3. The fundamental role of social institutions is to protect individual lives against force.
The fact that human beings enter in this reasoning is because they possess values (which implies volition), and are a part of society (which implies trade, in a loose sense). A non-volitional being does not hold any conscious values to be protected, and a being that is not part of society is not under the provision of social institutions.
The second argument comes from Leonard Peikoff in O:PAR and can be simply expressed as such :
1. The primacy of reason is valid.
2. The exercise of reason requires a lack of coercion.
3. A rational society must ban coercion.
Here, rights are not the pivotal point but rather coercion. The criteria for being part of this line of reasoning is to be able to exercise reason, and trade (which is implied by the notion of coercion). An irrational being has no reason to protect, and a non-trading being is not part of society.
A rational faculty cannot exist without volition. Therefore we may conclude this examination by pointing out that both lines of reasoning demand volition and trade as necessary prerequisites. Since animals have neither of these capacities, the notion of “animal rights” must be considered contradictory.
It is interesting to note that our arguments center around rationality and society. The notion of “animal rights” could only exist in a modern society, where individuals can lose touch with the requirements of human life. It seems many statist arguments are fueled by an “ivory tower” mentality : for instance, when they rant against industrialization for being “alienating”, when their only alternative is to return to harsh, year-long farm work.
Likewise, advocates of “animal rights” fail to grasp the worldwide food problems, and that giving non-existing rights to animals would not only mean catastrophe for most of the world’s population, but also raise the price of food products for the poor in Western countries. They think they are taking the high ground when, in fact, they are promoting anti-man, anti-prosperity evils.
The deduction that “animal rights” cannot exist is relatively simple, but there are a great deal of objections raised against it, even from some libertarians. As such, I think it is important to review them.
The most radical, and absurd, objections come from Peter Singer and other environmentalist “thinkers”. Their main argument is to posit that humans and animals are equals, to point out at different actions performed against animals, and show how they would be considered evil when done to humans.
Being able to reason better than another being doesn’t mean that our pains and pleasures count more than those of others — whether those “others” are human or non-human. After all, some humans — infants and those with severe intellectual disabilities — don’t reason as well as some non-human animals, but we would, rightly be shocked by anyone who proposed that we inflict slow, painful deaths on these intellectually inferior humans to test the safety of household products. Nor, of course, would we tolerate confining them in small cages and then slaughtering them in order to eat them. The fact that we are prepared to do these things to non-human animals is a sign of “speciesism,” a prejudice that survives because it is convenient for the dominant group — in this case, not whites or males, but all humans.
Peter Singer, “Some are more equal”, The Guardian (May 19, 2003)
This argument seems powerful because it appeals to our emotions. It is a powerful image. We think about a baby being put in a cage and brutally slaughtered like a cow. Furthermore, it appeals to prejudice, which we are conditioned by society to react strongly against. No wonder this type of argument has fueled violence and even terrorism : it is very good for that purpose.
As a rational argument, however, it is not very good. Lower animals, as far as we know, do not reason at all. Some may be able to, but we do not have any evidence yet for that proposition. Therefore the statement that “some humans — infants and those with severe intellectual disabilities — don’t reason as well as some non-human animals” is invalid.
Also, the astute reader may note that Singer’s argument refutes itself in a major way. We do not give rights on the basis of species. His example of infants and humans with severe intellectual disabilities disprove this. Indeed, even in our non-libertarian societies, we admit that infants and the intellectually-disabled do not have all their rights. That is why caretakers are responsible for them to a certain extent. We justly say that an infant has some of his rights, because it is illegal to kill or harm an infant. But the caretaker, usually the parents, has a large part of responsibility in keeping the infant away from harm.
To understand this, we need to remember that rights are negative in nature, which means : a right sanctions a freedom of the individual, not a way to give something to the individual. You have the right to your life, but you do not have the right to take another person’s life. The rights of one person end where the rights of another begin. As such, to claim a right is to claim a freedom, but not a privilege. If we granted all possible rights to an infant, this would be an incredibly cruel absurdity. It would mean that the caretaker of that infant would no longer be held responsible for anything that happened, as long as none of the infant’s rights are broken. Parents could kick them out and let them die on the streets, without fear of legal retribution of any kind.
As I said, this is an incredibly cruel and absurd position, which cannot hold water. As such, the accusation of speciesism by Singer is insane, at best. It is true that our treatment of animals may seem brutal, like slaughterhouses, but it is no different than our treatment of any other resource. All of them are geared towards reaping maximal benefit on the short and long term, which demands a good management of the resource.
As such, the arguments on cruelty do not apply to all uses of animals, but rather must be taken on a case-by-case basis. Gratuitously inflicting pain on an animal can be qualified as cruelty, but slaughterhouses have a specific goal of providing foodstuffs. As such, it can be compared to a medical operation that inflicts pain on the individual, but for a greater good, good health. The same thing is true of animal resources.
The notion of “animal rights” is not only unsupported, but would also be catastrophic if it was implemented.
The first problem is that, if animals have rights, then predation is a crime. A right implies protection from its violation by other social agents. If a great number of animals are social agents, then acts of predation of one on another is a crime. Yet this is an absurdity.
An “animal rights” proponent can only object that he means only to protect animals from humans. But this objection is spurious and in fact devastating for the “animal rights” position. It clearly demonstrates that the objector does not seriously uphold in animal rights, but rather in responsibility of humans towards animals, as we would have towards a baby or the mentally ill. If he holds this position, then he has conceded the debate. He is not lobbying for rights but for a moral blank check towards beings that have no connection to society.
Furthermore, he is promoting “speciesism” in differentiating between animal action and human action, the same flaw that we are supposed to be exhibiting. Therefore his position is as disgusting as Singer claims that the anti-“animal rights” position is disgusting.
The second problem is that, if animals have rights, then everyone’s survival is threatened. This is a consequence of the objection that predation is a crime. Granting animals rights is tantamount to a death sentence on a great number of species, which necessarily endangers the whole of ecosystems. The fall of ecosystems is a direct danger to the human species as well.
I think it important to note that I am not claiming that animals have no value, or that maintaining ecosystems has no value. In fact, the notion that there are no animal rights does not imply any behavior at all. It is a claim about the justification of our behavior towards animals, not about the content of that behavior. As such, there is no conflict between the lack of animal rights, and moral responsibility towards animals. To claim that animals do not have rights, does not mean we beat our pets. Animals do not have rights at this very moment, and yet cruelty towards animals is not widespread. We do not damage our property simply because it has no rights. To claim so is patently absurd.
Thus arises the artificial conflict between human rights and nature that I noted at the beginning. In reality, there is no reason why animals cannot be treated compassionately without conceding the absurdity of “animal rights”. It is an absolutely unuseful concept that only leads to muddle the issue of rights in favour of statist blank checks.