Question: Do animals have rights? What is the Objectivist position on animal cruelty? What is the Objectivist position on vegetarianism?
Answer: Many believe that animals have the right to be free from harm by people. In particular, they believe that animals should not be harmed in food production, clothing production, or medical research. This belief is the product of a misunderstanding of the nature of rights. Philosophers like Peter Singer argue that rights are derived from the capacity to experience pain, and since animals can experience pain just as people can, animals also have the right to be free from harm. However, rights are derived from the capacity to reason, and thus people have rights and animals do not.
Both people and animals seek values such as food and shelter to sustain their lives. However, they do so by different means. Animals pursue values in their environment automatically. For example, an animal scavenges and finds food around it. People, on the other hand, use their faculties of reason to produce values volitionally. For example, a person can choose to study how plants grow and choose to plant and grow his own food. Moreover, people trade values with each other. For example, if one person grows vegetables and another person weaves clothing, the former can give the latter vegetables in exchange for clothing to their mutual benefit.
People survive by producing for themselves without interference from others and by trading freely with other people. However, if others (either people or animals) use physical force against a person to stop him from producing and trading, his ability to use his reason to survive is impaired. Rights protect this ability. “A right,” according to Ayn Rand , “is a moral principle defining and sanctioning a person's freedom of action in a social context” (“Man's Rights,” Virtue of Selfishness [New York: Penguin, 1964], 130). The rights to life, liberty, and property leave each person free to pursue his own self-interest through production and trade. Moreover, it is in a person's self-interest to respect the rights of other people so that they can freely use their own faculties of reason to produce values for which he can trade.
Rights are derived from the capacity to reason, and thus people have rights and animals do not.
The value a person receives from other people depends on their freedom from physical force. However, the value a person receives from animals depends on their lack of freedom from physical force. While a person receives food, clothing, and medical knowledge from other people by allowing other people to freely produce these things and trade them, a person receives food, clothing, and medical knowledge (through research) from animals only through force. Moreover, disputes with animals cannot be resolved with discussion or the threat of legal sanction, as they can be with other people. So to prevent animals such as lions, rats, and cockroaches from attacking a person or invading a his property, one’s only option is to initiate force against them. This is why a person should refrain from initiating physical force against other people but not against animals, and this is why people have rights and animals don't.
The issues of gratuitous cruelty to animals and of vegetarianism are not fundamental philosophical issues. Nonetheless, Objectivist principles can be extended to provide a framework in which individuals can consider these issues themselves. Legally, since people have rights and animals don't, no form of force initiated against animals should be outlawed, even if it is gratuitously cruel or if it is used to produce food that is not necessary for a person's survival. Morally, however, gratuitous cruelty should be condemned because it reinforces the immoral habit of destroying others’ lives rather than promoting one's own life. Moreover, such cruelty can be the product only of gross irrationality, for it is natural for a person to empathize with another living being to the extent that the two resemble each other. While such cruelty is emotionally offensive to many people and rightly so, this is not grounds for government intervention because the sole purpose of the government is to protect rights, and animals don't have rights.
Legally, vegetarianism should not be enforced by the government for the same reason. Morally, however, vegetarianism is a complex issue. The standard by which a person should decide whether to eat meat is the survival and flourishing of his own life. The first factor to weigh in evaluating whether the eating of meat supports life is, obviously, its physiological effects. Centuries ago, given the state of food processing technology, a person had to eat meat to get adequate nutrition. With modern advances in food processing technology, however, a person can be just as healthy (or even healthier) by eating no meat. Secondary factors to weigh in evaluating whether or not to eat meat are taste and empathy. Pleasurable sensations fuel a person's mind just as healthy foods fuel a person's body, and are thus necessary for a person's survival. It may be pleasurable to taste a choice cut of filet mignon,but it may be unpleasurable to think of the suffering a cow went through to produce that choice cut. How to balance the costs and benefits of health, taste, and empathy is not a philosophical issue, and thus Objectivism has nothing to say about it beyond the fact that people are not morally obligated, in principle, not to eat meat; rather, it is up to each person to balance the costs and benefits of eating meat according to the standard of his own life.