Human Rights and Animal Rights

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I’ve said plenty about my view of rights, as you’ll see if you follow the links to the posts listed at the bottom of this one. In summary, rights are

  • duties toward other persons, not innate essences (whether spiritual or evolutionary)
  • social constructs, derived from eons of social intercourse
  • roughly similar across many cultures (especially Western ones) because of the innate similarity of human beings and the continuity of acculturation.

To be clear, I’m referring to fundamental, negative rights about which there is broad social (if not legal) agreement. Negative rights include the right not to be

  • murdered or physically injured on purpose — as opposed to being punished for a crime; killed or harmed by a person who is defending others, himself, or his property; self-defense, or killed or injured in a war
  • psychologically taunted in a way that is meant to be harmful — as opposed to being challenged by “uncomfortable” ideas or put in a stressful situation that is meant to test one’s mettle or build one’s character
  • forced into servitude or its functional equivalent (e.g., imprisonment), except as punishment for a crime
  • victimized by theft or fraud
  • libeled or slandered.

Positive rights (e.g., the “right” to tax-funded subsidies of various kinds, the “right” to preferment in hiring and university admissions) are rights in name only because they lack the voluntary provenance of a negative right. Positive rights are fiat rights, imposed by executive, legislative, or judicial action. That there is considerable support for some positive rights doesn’t negate their non-voluntary nature. It’s true that in some close-knit groups there are voluntary positive rights, such as the right to charity. But such rights usually don’t extend to persons outside the close-knit group in the way that negative rights do.

Positive rights can’t be conferred without the imposition of involuntary costs (taxes, preferential treatment) on large portions of the populace. In other words, positive rights are privileges accorded some persons (at the expense of others). Negative rights, by contrast, are reciprocal and do not impose costs on anyone. (It’s true that in a large polity the defense of negative rights requires the maintenance of police, courts, and armed forces. But that seems to be a consequence of the size of the polity and not the nature of negative rights.)

I could refer to negative rights as “natural rights” because they arise naturally from the coexistence of human beings in socially and culturally bound groups. But I have long rejected the term “natural rights” because it carries the connotation that such rights are of mysterious origin, perhaps even a supernatural one. So I will call them customary rights.

What about animals? They don’t have rights — other than legally manufactured ones — because they’re not participants in the social and cultural milieu from which customary rights arise. Rights, as I’ve explained, represent a bargain (usually tacit) among human beings about the conditions of their coexistence. Animals — even those closest to human beings in their intellectual prowess — simply aren’t part of that bargain and (I believe) are incapable of being part of it.

To the extent that animals have rights, they are manufactured by human beings and then conferred on animals, much as the positive right to an income subsidy is conferred on those who receive it. This isn’t to say that some animal rights aren’t widely and voluntarily recognized. Freedom from torture is one such right. But the animals who are spared from torture aren’t parties to the social tradition from which the right arose.

This leads to the following questions: What fiat rights, if any, should animals have? Who should devise and enforce such rights? How should violators be treated?

I won’t address those questions here. I’ll simply note that aside from a few points on which empathic persons (that is, almost everyone) will agree (e.g., animals shouldn’t be tortured), there’s a wide range of views about the proper treatment of animals. For example, the most humane treatment is (generally) accorded those animals that are most like human beings (i.e., the other great apes) or which are most often kept as pets. The treatment accorded other animals depends on their perceived utility to human beings and their perceived degree of sentience. (Bugs are low on the totem-pole of rights.)

Only a relatively small number of extremists will insist on according animals something like the customary rights of human beings. Take the right not to be killed. Should that right apply even to a poisonous snake or a pesky and potentially pestilential insect? An extremist who answers yes is probably the kind of person who says that it’s always wrong to kill another human being, even in self-defense, but who also favors abortion on demand. The cause of “animal rights” is a mania — impervious to facts and logic — much like the cause of combating so-called anthropogenic global warming (see this post and the many readings and posts listed at the bottom).

In any event, animals don’t have customary rights that arise naturally among (most) groupings of human beings. Animals enjoy fiat rights, to the extent that they enjoy any rights at all. “Animal rights” zealots aren’t the kind of people who should have a say in the scope and application of those rights.

Related posts:
Negative Rights
Negative Rights, Social Norms, and the Constitution
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
“Natural Rights” and Consequentialism
Positivism, “Natural Rights,” and Libertarianism
What Are “Natural Rights”?
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
Positive Liberty vs. Liberty
The Golden Rule as Beneficial Learning
Rights: Source, Applicability, How Held
Merit Goods, Positive Rights, and Cosmic Justice
More about Merit Goods
Liberty and Society
The Eclipse of “Old America”
Genetic Kinship and Society
Liberty as a Social Construct: Moral Relativism?
The Futile Search for “Natural Rights”
More About Social Norms and Liberty
Social Justice vs. Liberty

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