I’ve recently explained what morality is and where rights come from. When discussing what human rights mean, we must define exactly what we’re talking about, and justify our definition. When doing so, another interesting topic arises, which is that of animal rights. I have always held the belief that animals have rights, of a sort. For example, the right “not to suffer”. I was wrong, because animals have no rights at all.
First of all, consider individual rights. A human being is a creature that makes decisions based on reason. Unlike an animal which is automatically equipped with the knowledge to select its values, human beings must discover, through a process of reason, what is good for our lives and what is bad. We discover rational values with our ultimate value, life, as the standard. This code of values to guide our decisions is Objective Morality. Therefore, man, to function as a man, must be a moral being. If he is anything less he is living like a beast, not a human. But in order to make moral decisions he must be free to do so. A man who is coerced to do good or evil, at the point of a gun, is not being allowed to act like a rational being, in other words, like a human being. Where force is present, morality becomes impossible. A man needs his morality to guide his actions whether he is alone or in a crowd. However, when a man is in a social setting, he and the others around him need the freedom to act in order to function as rational beings. What guarantees a person the freedom to act without force in pursuit of his goals? Rights. Therefore, Rights are a moral principle that exist in a social setting to guarantee freedom of action for rational beings.
“There is only one fundamental right (all the others are its consequences or corollaries): a man’s right to his own life. Life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action; the right to life means the right to engage in self-sustaining and self-generated action—which means: the freedom to take all the actions required by the nature of a rational being for the support, the furtherance, the fulfilment and the enjoyment of his own life.” – The Virtue of Selfishness
Because Rights are moral principles they apply only to moral beings. The purpose of government, in fact the only morally legitimate role of government, is to protect the individual rights of its citizens. To violate the rights of another innocent individual is to be a criminal. Now, because animals do not act based on morality, to give them legally-enforceable rights to guarantee their freedom of action is an egregious contradiction in terms.
Rights apply only to action; to the right to act. For example, no one has the “right to love” – one has the right to seek a mate and win the heart of a member of the opposite sex, but no one has a free entitlement to love. One has the right to sustain one’s life by any means necessary, assuming one doesn’t violate the rights of others; in order to live one needs a job. One is free to act to seek a job; one has NO right to a job. The right to support your own life does not incur an obligation on other people to support your life. Rights only impose a negative obligation on other people, that is: you may not violate MY rights, and I may not violate YOURS.
There is no such thing as the Right “to not suffer”. To quote Leitmotif:
“So, say we grant these animals the right to “protection from torture.” Are we now going to arrest all other animals who break this law by inflicting “torture” on these protected group of animals whom we have just granted these rights? Or does this law only apply to humans, to restrict human activity so that animals can “enjoy” greater freedom and “rights”?”
Suffering is the end result of a course of action, just as happiness is. But, a course of action is dictated by one’s morality. So using suffering or happiness as the standard is to flip the nature of morality on its head. This is the problem with utilitarianism (suffering) and hedonism (happiness). Just because something causes happiness does not make it right, and just because something causes suffering does not make it wrong.
To use an example (I can’t remember the source so any readers are welcome to elucidate): suppose we encounter a sapient alien with all the rational faculty of a human being, but without the capacity to experience any pain or harm. Would this creature still have rights? Of course it would, so the capacity to feel pain (or any level of it) is an invalid standard from which to derive morality, and therefore Rights.
Granting Rights to animals, that would be enforced by government, is to limit the activity of humans, in other words, to prevent the total freedom of mankind in doing whatever he sees necessary to further his life or allow him to flourish. But, remember that rights exist only to protect the action of moral beings. Granting rights to animals is necessarily to sacrifice the rights of humans, which is not only totally irrational, it is grossly immoral. It is immoral, because it treats humans like criminals.
This does not mean that it is “okay” for humans to torture animals. A human being who takes delight in torturing animals is immoral, and such people should be condemned. But there is a difference between the moral and the legal. Fox-hunting, bull-fighting, cock-fighting etc may be deemed immoral, but they are certainly not illegal.
(I’ve not gone into excessive detail here so that any minor issues can be settled in any discussion that follows…)
Edited to add the following, which I posted on a discussion forum on this topic. This is in response to the arguments from an environmentalist pro-animals rights position that tried to resort to evolutionary science to justify morality and animal rights:
“Misanthropic Scott is still ignoring everything I’ve said on this subject for the last few days. I have no problem with science explaining human behavioural trends from an evolutionary point of view. The problem, and this is the last time I’m going to say this, is that it is explaining the wrong thing.
Evolution selects for the success of procreation, whether right or wrong. It has side-effects, whether right or wrong. The affinity of humans to think magically and superstitiously is undeniable, and yet a side-effect of our pattern-recognition faculty in our brains. The very thing that has allowed us to evolve as pattern-seeking creatures and drive our intelligence, has an unfortunate side-effect: magical thinking. Now, no one would call magical thinking “moral”, it is a part of our behaviour that can be explained evolutionarily.
Now, animals that do not attack each other; animals that form social contracts; animals that remember acts of generosity; animals that sacrifice themselves for the “collective good” etc; are NOT, and I repeat NOT acting morally. They are NOT acting immorally. They are acting as a result of evolutionary pressure to behaviour in a way that their genes have selected for. Richard Dawkins has shown that “selfish” genes can produce affects that are apparently “altruistic”, because it indirectly furthers the propagation of particular genes; natural selection will favour any system this is evolutionary stable (ESS).
Now, human behaviour that some people call “moral” can be explained in evolutionary terms. However, this is a faulty use of the term “moral”, and here we are talking past each other. The Objectivist ethics holds that morality is a system to be DISCOVERED, it is a philosophy for living on this earth; for each man and for every man; it is a code of values to guide actions. Morality is a topic that belongs in philosophy, but in seeking to explain what morality is and its source, one must check one’s philosophical premises. If one’s premise is that morality is altruistic/collectivist behaviour, one will seek to explain it scientifically, and how evolution selected for this behaviour. But if one rejects the notion that morality is altruistic, and that MORALITY is the rational decision making and action of thinking beings, any attempt to explain it evolutionarily is irrelevant, because, as I keep explaining, one is trying to explain the wrong thing.
It comes down to the fundamentals of one’s philosophy; the basis of morality for example. Now, the morality of altruism etc is rife in society today, and that is why Humanists and atheists, even the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens etc, accept it. We have the likes of Kant to thank for altruistic “duty” ethics, and altruism is at the core of religion ethics; it is curious that atheists don’t even realise this themselves. Altruism/collectivist ethics are subjective, and any subjective ethics reduce to nihilism, in which case morality becomes impossible. Only an objective morality can make morality possible. That is why we must reject any system of ethics that is not objective and not derived from reality. But we must make sure we’re talking about the right thing.
This talk of brain studies and human behaviour is largely irrelevant; morality is not acting in a way that evolution has selected for. Humans largely have the capacity to control their behaviour; this is because we can think rationally, something no other creature can do. ONLY a rational being can act morally, so only a human being can be a moral being. Therefore, Rights (legal protection against the use of force) can ONLY apply to moral beings, because it is only moral beings that need freedom for force in order to act as the TYPE OF BEINGS THEY ARE.
I encourage any further discussion to be centred philosophically on the concept of morality and rights, and leave the beauty of evolutionary science (of which I’m a fan) out of the discussion. One must start with one’s premise of morality. Using evolution to explain morality begs the question; it assumes that you know what morality already is: I’ve explained what Objectivist morality is, what is YOUR alternative?; that is the proper focus for discussion here. Any other comments about evolution that ignore what I’ve written here will just be ignored by me.”