Question: I disagree very strongly with the response D. Moskovitz gave in relation to the animal rights question, and I would like a chance to respond to him. He claims that animals do not have rights because they cannot reason like humans can. If this is the case, then anything or anyone that cannot reason should have no rights. This would include unborn babies, children who do not have enough knowledge yet to be reasonable, the mentally handicapped, and elderly people with mentally debilitating diseases.
By this standard, many things such as child abandonment, abortion, and any harm that could happen to these people should not be controlled by the law, even though it may be exceedingly cruel, because, since these people cannot reason, they have no rights. Secondly, Moskovitz claims that people survive by producing for themselves, which is true to an extent. But that form of survival requires taking what has not been given to us. It is not justification for a man to shoot deer who eat his crops merely because he cannot have a conversation with them. Animals, whether you believe in evolution or in creation, were here long before people were, and if for no other reason they should be given the proper amount of respect. Humans are nothing more than parasites who take everything they can from the earth before moving on to the next available place. We were created simply to cause the sixth mass extinction so that the earth can rebuild herself, and I, for one, will not contribute to the suffering of any living thing, be it a man or a dog.
Answer: Ayn Rand defined a right as a "moral principle defining and sanctioning a man's freedom of action in a social context" (The Virtue of Selfishness, "Man's Rights", p. 110). Rights are a fundamentally human concept because they are derived from the nature of man—specifically his ability to reason. In order that the right to life be respected and enforced, it is important that the individuals in such a system be rational. Clearly, animals cannot live by such a system. They are incapable of respecting this right of humans, even if humans were to accord them rights.
It is true therefore that anyone or anything that is incapable of reason is not entitled to rights. This does include unborn babies (see the Q&A on abortion for a further discussion of this). Unborn babies are potentially rational beings, but since they are not actualized, they are not entitled to the right to life.
Children, however, are entitled to some rights, although their rights are not identical to those of adults; they are entitled to remain free from physical harm. The legitimacy of their rights arises from the fact that childhood is a temporary, essential, and natural state of human development, and the child will grow up into a person capable of rational thought. (For more on children's rights, see the Children's Rights Q&A.)
As for mentally impaired people: If the problem is temporary, can be rectified, or occurs in old age alone, then they are still entitled to the right to life. If, however, a person is born with severe retardation that will never allow him to function as a rational and productive individual, then he is not entitled to rights like other individuals are.
In most cases, people would still not physically harm an animal or mentally impaired person, but this does not change the fact that they are not entitled to rights. As the author pointed out, Objectivism condemns cruelty. Like many things, it cannot be prohibited by law without violating the principle of maximizing individual freedom, but it is far from morally commendable.
The second part of your comment deals more with the nature of human existence. Humans are not born with the ability to exist automatically; we are not born with automatic knowledge of how to survive. In order to do so, we must use our reasoning abilities and acquire what we need from our surroundings. There is nothing immoral in doing this—our survival requires that we shape the materials around us to serve our purpose. The materials around us are not living beings who have a "right" to remain untouched. And they do not have any intrinsic worth as they are; they are made useful by the human mind.
It is justified for a man to shoot a deer who destroys his crops—not because he cannot hold a conversation with it, but because the deer has violated his property rights. He could choose instead to put up a fence preventing deer from trespassing, but he is not compelled to do so. Animals evolved before man did, but that is not reason enough to grant them rights. Geological age is not a factor: by your reasoning, animals should not eat plants because plants evolved before they did.
Humans are hardly "parasites," any more than any living being above the microscopic base of the food chain is a parasite. This is a particularly unfair charge to levy at humans, since virtually all of our goods are the result of our creation through invention and production.