February 29, 2004

The heresy of animal rights

By: Justin Logan

Raising the question of animal rights in conservative or libertarian circles can be an adventure. You’ll see red faces, angry brows, and you might be called a heretic. Often rejected out of hand as a pet issue of the “loony left,” libertarians have rarely given a long, serious look at whether animals have moral standing or rights. Tibor Machan has taken up the issue in his new book, Putting Humans First: Why We Are Nature’s Favorite (Rowman & Littlefield, 2004).

The book is most easily treated as two separate essays: a 46-page primer on free-market environmentalism sandwiched between two slices of Machan’s take on animal-rights extremism. Here, I’ll solely be addressing the animal-rights question.

Machan’s thesis is that humans do have rights, which derive from our peculiar capacities for reason and moral judgment, but since animals lack those faculties, they have no rights. With this (old) argument, Machan apparently feels that he’s adequately dealt with the subject. He hasn’t.

Machan only sees fit to take up the most extreme arguments in favor of animal rights, leaving modest claims unaddressed. The book presents the entire debate as though it is a choice between the Manhattan skyline and the African dung beetle. Indeed, Machan frequently resorts to the use of straw men to avoid the more temperate claims that have been made on behalf of animals. For instance, he seems to confuse any ascription of moral standing to animals with Jainism when he points out that “[a]s one drives to the theater, for instance, one may crush many small and even not-so-small nonhuman animals, causing pain and suffering.” That’s fine, but it doesn’t deal with the claim that, say, stabbing a cat in the eye with a coat hanger should be illegal. Machan persists in this tactic ad nauseam: he spends time taking on unnamed claimants of equal rights for meadows, plants, bacteria, and many other absurd cases. Machan ably skewers those who would claim equal rights for meadows, but unfortunately that leaves nearly the whole debate of animal rights an open question.

Machan also seems not to have read many of the important works of others on the subject, notably the conservative Matthew Scully’s award-winning 2002 plea for animals, Dominion. While there certainly exists a libertarian-conservative split on the issue, it would be good to know that Machan had read Scully’s book. It is also notable that although Machan cites the late Robert Nozick’s text Anarchy, State, and Utopia, he seems to have missed its treatment of animal rights entirely.

Machan stumbles when attempting to address a claim made first by Tom Regan in The Case for Animal Rights and developed further by Scully. Machan’s predecessors have long dismissed claims on behalf of animals by asserting that mankind’s special place in nature and our elevated mental capacity affords us a monopoly on rights. The same logic, however, is used by both Regan and Scully to assert that along with our special moral standing comes special obligation: the obligation to rise above the savagery of the animal kingdom and treat animals not as moral agents, but as, in Regan’s words, “moral patients.” Scully makes the following argument:

It is logically true that creatures without duties cannot be said to exercise rights in precisely the same sense that we do. On the other hand, it doesn’t follow that because they have no rights we bear the animals no obligations. Any rights they have are the mirror image of those human duties.

Machan attempts to address this idea in just one paragraph, stating:

A great painting by Rembrandt, a man long dead, could in this sense be a moral patient; that is, we ought to be careful with it. But not because the painting has any rights but rather because of its great value for us as a work of art and also because of the wider respect for culture that informs our actions generally as civilized human beings.

It’s a bit prickly to ascribe moral standing to an inanimate painting, but Machan starts to get into more serious trouble on the following page where he allows that:

To claim…that it is irrelevant whether one tortures an animal, abuses it, or even lets it starve under normal circumstances would seem to contradict too much of our lives to let it go. So clearly there is need for a moral analysis of this realm of human conduct.

Machan is still on relatively solid ground here, allowing for a moral analysis but no laws, since he holds that animals have no rights. Regan and Scully (both willing to use legal structures to enforce morality) would dissent at this point, but Machan is still holding a philosophically consistent position. Until he admits a few pages later that “[e]xactly where this leaves us with the matter of whether laws should exist to ban cruelty to animals I am not sure.”

Now he’s really stepped in it. He has equated a dog with a painting by Rembrandt, and then stated he isn’t sure whether dogs should be granted legal protection. Ought Rembrandts be granted legal protection? If someone wants to purchase a Rembrandt for the purpose of slowly shredding it, would Machan support using force to prevent her from doing so? If so, that doesn’t seem particularly libertarian. Likewise, for a libertarian to promote legal protection, the protected must, in some way, hold rights.

Machan seems reluctant to take off his libertarian hat and put on his moral philosopher hat. What Machan could do at this point is acknowledge animals’ moral standing, while pointing out all of the problematic questions their (rights-based) legal standing would pose. If monkeys had legal rights, could we destroy rainforests, inadvertently killing many of them and depriving the survivors any place to live? Could we ever imprison, torture, kill, and then eat a rights-holder? Machan seems too leery of these questions to allow for an honest assessment of the moral matter.

Many libertarians appreciate animals’ moral standing, but dismiss arguments for granting them legal standing. In fact, that’s one of the crucial tasks of libertarianism: sorting out moral claims from rights-based claims, allowing for disagreement (and no government intervention) on the former while holding fast (and demanding legal protections) on the latter. Libertarianism doesn’t deal with the question of whether there is a God, how one can lead a moral life (beyond respecting the rights of others), or whether it’s wrong to torture animals.

All of this leads to the issues raised by Nozick, but ignored by Machan. Machan claims that human rights come from our capacities for reason and moral agency, and since animals don’t have these capacities, no rights for them. Nozick, though, created the following thought experiment: imagine three levels of existence. Status 3 beings may be harmed for the sake of other beings at the same level or a higher level. Status 2 beings may be harmed for the sake of beings at a higher level, but not for other status 2 beings. Status 1 beings may not be harmed for any other organism’s sake. Put animals at status 3, humans at status 2, and some other, superior entity at status 1. All of a sudden, we might develop an ability to cast off our prior perceptions of rights as an all or nothing proposition. Certainly we would want some legal protections (perhaps not “rights,” if the word makes one uncomfortable), at least to the degree that we were similar to the beings at status 1!

Nozick posits a world in which Kantianism governs humans, with utilitarian concern for animals prevailing. If using DDT in Africa will save human lives at the expense of a bird or other animal, human rights (and interests) prevail. If Americans are raising gerbils for the purpose of gaining sexual pleasure by watching them be stomped to death by women in high heels, we hold that to a different standard. Machan doesn’t address these ideas at all.

Allowing for this dichotomy is certainly fraught with peril. What about the determination of utility? Who will decide how important crush videos are to human fulfillment? What about environmental degradation and the indirect effects on animals? If we maintain that the use of animals itself is not immoral, don’t we at least have a moral obligation to choose products (even meats) that are produced with a concern for the humane treatment of animals?

The existence of these questions ought not dissuade one from accepting the premise: if physical suffering is morally relevant, then animals do have moral standing, and humans do have obligations to treat them in a different way than animals treat each other. We should rightly approach resulting matters of public policy with the utmost caution. In the last page of the book, Machan admits that he “consider[s] those who [wish to wantonly hurt other animals] to be morally flawed.” That is helpful; it’s just a shame it didn’t come about a hundred pages earlier. Regardless, Machan deserves gratitude for opening the debate in libertarian circles. Let the arguments begin.

Justin Logan is a freelance writer living in Bethesda, MD. His Web site iswww.justinlogan.com.