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Animal Rights

Animal Rights

3 Mins
January 23, 2011

Question: Don't animals have rights too?

Answer: Rights only apply to rational beings whose needs are best fulfilled by production and trade.

“A right is a moral principle defining and sanctioning a man's freedom of action in a social context,” wrote Ayn Rand in her essay “Man's Rights.” People do not “have” rights in the sense of having a body part. Rather, rights are principles that apply to people, and that people should apply to others in society. A being incapable of grasping such an abstract set of principles and incapable of understanding the consequences of his actions vis-à-vis those principles, could not deal with others in terms of rights, and could not conform his behavior so as not to violate the rights of others. A being that could not live by production must live in conflict with the needs of all others, and thus rights would not serve it well. Reason is the source of both these characteristics, and only one kind of animal is rational.

The right to life is (currently) exclusively human, because rights principles only apply to and can only be applied by humans, of all the species we know of. If some other being (a space alien, perhaps, or a genetically modified earth-animal) developed sufficient rationality to grasp and apply principles, and to live by production and trade, then rights would apply to it as well.

A common equivocation here is based on the difference between life as an ultimate value and life as a right. All living things pursue life as their ultimate value, and it is their own lives in each case. Life is the ultimate value for humans, too, as living beings, and  the Objectivist ethics is based on this recognition . But a moral claim to a right is much more than the recognition of one's ultimate value. It is a political principle about the proper use of force in society. It is based not only on life as the ultimate value, but on the mode of life of which one is capable and the needs that must be fulfilled to sustain one's life. Ultimately, the right to life is the right to take all the actions that life requires, free from physical force. But such a right is only possible to a being that is capable of taking all those actions without initiating force against others and without being subject to force itself. This not true of any other species with which we are currently familiar.

Advocates of animal rights tend to both misunderstand what a right is and maintain a double standard as to how rights apply. For instance, imagine if a coyote were said to have rights. We wouldn’t expect the coyote to change its behavior toward man in virtue of having those rights, would we?  But man is expected to do something different for coyotes because of those rights. That is a double standard. The inalienable rights of the individual are supposed to be universal and uniform at root; the double standard contradicts that basic principle. Furthermore, man is not supposed allow the coyote to live independently on terms of mutual respect, but rather is supposed to exercise a paternalistic guardianship over the coyote. This, too, is contrary to the basic idea of individual rights.

So, in short, animal rights misunderstands the very nature of rights and perverts their meaning.


The Problem of Animal Rights

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Political Philosophy
Environment and Energy