One story that made the news recently is that of two police dogs who died after being trapped in a car for six hours in the heat of the day. Link.
Across the internet, animal lovers everywhere have condemned the man and called on him to face heavy punishment. Some have even offered prayers and chain postings in memory of the two dead animals.
The topic of animal welfare has been raised and most arguments in support of stiffer punishment for animal mistreatment rest on the presumption that animals have rights. In this article I want to comment on cruelty to animals, whether animals do have rights and the implications of this, and why it matters. I’ll also tell you what I care about and why.
Cruelty and/or mistreatment
Cruelty is the needless and wanton infliction of suffering on a sentient creature. (Contrary to some popular misconception and aided by science fiction, sentient doesn’t necessarily mean intelligent, it means capable of experiencing sensations.) So by this definition, cruelty is always irrational. Being irrational is antithetical to human well-being (that of one oneself and others), and is therefore evil. Cruelty is therefore always evil.
There’s a line of thought that goes: a man who likes to hurt animals will also like to hurt people. I’m not a psychological expert but I wouldn’t disagree with this. I think a person who gets any kind of pleasure from cruelty has poor ethics at best and mental health problems at worst.
Mistreatment of animals is by no means as clear cut: what defines mistreatment? Certainly all handlers agree that animals should be trained and kept in line. Is hitting a dog mistreatment? How hard is acceptable? Leaving it out in the rain? Leaving it out at night? I don’t have the answers to this and I don’t think it’s important to scrutinise it in depth here. But what must be said is: an owner is responsible for their pet and how they treat it. If a pet hurts someone or damages property, the owner of the pet is made to pay compensation, rightly so. Buy why? Well it’s obvious but needs explicitly stating because some people out there (who don’t so much love animals as hate humans) will gloss over this vital truth: animals are not capable of rational action, which means they cannot make moral choices. Therefore, they are not morally responsible for their actions. A human owner is however.
If you disagree with what I’m about to say, the first thing you must do is offer your own definition of Rights and justify it. Remember that emotions don’t stand up in court, and the issue of Rights and legal action is precisely what we’re talking about.
The philosopher with the most (and only) rational and objective description and justification of Rights was Ayn Rand. Her attention to detail and philosophical genius don’t need restating here. She defined Rights as moral principles defining freedom of action. But why does a being need Rights? Simply put, to act freely. But what good is the freedom to act unless one is capable of freely choosing in the face of alternatives? None. Human beings must consider the choices available to them and make free moral decisions. Being a moral being, which we are, is meaningless though unless we are also free to act. After all, what good is the freedom to choose if we aren’t free to act? Prisoners aren’t free, like hostages aren’t, or mug victims. So our nature as free moral agents necessitates Rights. But then the obvious conclusion to this fact is that creatures which aren’t moral agents, which don’t have the ability to think rationally and choose in the face of alternatives, cannot have Rights. Remember: rights are not entitlements; they aren’t blessings or favours which are granted to certain people from others, from society, from the State, or from God. They are principles inherent in our nature. So by definition, animals cannot have Rights.
That doesn’t sound right to me
That is something I hear a lot. It’s something I had to come to grips with too. It does fly in the face of a lot of what we’re brought up to believe and get told. But there is a false assumption implicit in the deniers of the fact that animals don’t have Rights: they perhaps think “if animals don’t have Rights, it’s ok to abuse them”. But that is not the case! The false premise lurking here is that Rights are somehow based on the ability to feel pain. But as I’ll explain next, that doesn’t make sense:
As we saw above, Rights are moral principles to guarantee freedom of action for moral agents like humans. It is the Right to Life, which all of us have, that gives rise to all our other rights: the right to pursue happiness, the right to liberty, the right to not have force used against us. To say that a person has the Right to live but not have the right to not be killed for food, is an obvious contradiction which no one in their right mind would claim. We don’t kill people for food (culinary arguments aside), not because they have a “Right to not be eaten for food” but because they have a Right to life! The “Right to not be eaten for food” makes no sense! And who would claim that a person has the Right to avoid suffering, but not have the Right to live? If this were true, it would be legal to murder someone, but not torture them! Bear this in mind when we talk about animal rights: animals are killed for food by the millions every day. Some small sects aside (like vegans), even those who believe in animal rights still accept that it’s ok to eat them for food. But there is a massive contradiction here: if animals have the right to live, they should not be killed at all! I wouldn’t accuse well-meaning people of being hypocrites, as I think a lot of us do and have made this mistake in innocence, but I think a lot of people could do with stopping and checking their own premises. As a good writer said to me: “if you believe in animal rights but eat meat, stop right there – go away and rethink your position.”
“But surely animals have Rights to protect them from cruelty?” some say. That sounds fair, it sounds nice, but it is false. Rights aren’t based on the ability to suffer, but on the necessity for freedom which only a moral agent needs.
Why does it matter?
It matters because the real issue here isn’t whether animals have Rights or not, it’s what Rights actually are. The issue of individual Rights is possibly the most important issue in human history because all crimes committed by one person against another involve the violation of Rights, that’s why it’s important to be very particular about the concept. ‘But why is this about human rights and not animal rights?’, you might ask. It’s about human Rights because Rights are the principles that say to every one of us “you may act as freely as you want, but you must not violate the Rights of others.” Which means you and I are totally free to live our lives as we choose. Your Right to live doesn’t clash with my Right to live: as long as we don’t infringe on the Rights of others, there is no contradiction between our lives, or Rights, ever! In fact, when understood this way it is clear that Rights simply cannot conflict. To illustrate this, let’s say that you have the Right to your earnings after a day’s work. I come along and claim that I am hungry and need your money. I claim that I therefore have a Right to your earnings. Here we have a conflict, but it’s easily resolved. If you have the Right to life, you must have the freedom to pursue that life. One of the ways of doing this is through work and earning money – in other words: property. Your right to property is a result of your Right to life. So since the property is rightfully yours, it cannot be rightfully mine. Your right to life, and property, and earnings is the only claim that matters. I can therefore have no “right” to any of them.
Humans versus animals?
Now, because humans make moral choices, we can choose to not violate the Rights of others, and most of the time we do this quite well. I choose not to violate your Rights and you choose not to violate mine. But, animals can never make this kind of choice. An animal does what it does either by training or by instinct, but never after rational and moral consideration. If animals were to have Rights, they would necessarily clash with human Rights, since we would be forced to respect their rights but they could never respect ours. There would be no resolution to the contradiction: humans would necessarily have to surrender their Rights to unthinking amoral animals. Imagine the full implications of this: no meat for food – at all. No wood for homes or fuel if animals need the trees. No cultivating fields to grow vegetables in case it displaces or kills animals. A world where animals have Rights is a world where humans can’t.
So where does the Law come into this?
If we accept that the job of the Law is to protect Rights (and how could it be anything else?) then it becomes clear that only humans should be protected by the Law. One of the ways it does this is to arbitrate in legal matters. Consider how silly it would be if we put cats on trial for killing mice, lions on trial for killing gazelles, dogs on trial for mauling babies. Consider the travesty of proper justice if we appointed lawyers for gerbils or took testimony from rabbits. ‘You’re being silly now. No one goes that far!’ some might say. Yes, these are ridiculous examples, but I’m not the one saying that animals should be protected by the legal system. If we “gave” animals Rights, they would have all the benefits of a legal system they can’t comprehend, and none of the consequences.
So it’s ok to abuse animals?
No no no. But before we condemn the actions of genuinely evil people, let’s take a step back. What do we mean by “ok”? Do we mean “legally accountable” or “morally reprehensible”? Before you jump to answer, think about this because there is a difference. In days gone by, homosexuality was punishable by death. It still is in some parts of the world. Sex outside marriage and blasphemy were (and are) also considered criminal acts and worthy of capital punishment, based on some rather warped moral opinions. Am I equating cruelty to animals with being gay or blasphemous? Of course not. The point I’m making is that the law isn’t there to police morality, but to protect Rights. There are many people out there who’d love the chance to use the Law to police their version of morality on you. The last thing we want is a government that polices morality. We’ve seen it before, we’re seeing it now, and it never looks pretty.
So animals aren’t protected at all?
Actually, they are. There is a very important exception to how animals should be protected under law, and that is as the property of humans. If a person harms or kills a pet they should absolutely be punished.
Do I care about animals?
They say it’s bad form to answer a question with a question, but I’ll do both. I’d say “which animals?” Do I care about animals? Well, do you care about humans?
You see, I look at the millions of human beings, beings of our own kind, around the world dying from starvation or disease – I look at scientists, thinkers, creators, businessmen – exploited and robbed of their property – I look at the successful and innovative penalised for the crime of being successful and innovative – I look at how our governments keep infringing on human Rights, granting more and more power to the state and less and less freedom to individuals – I look at how fiat currency and government-caused inflation and recession has caused economic collapse and riots across the continent and how it might well come here soon – and I think there are more important issues than two dogs dying in a car.
I care about my animals. I can’t pretend to care about yours, and if you really care about some random animal you have no connection with, why not that one and not the millions which are butchered for food every day?
How do we fight animal cruelty?
The same way we fight any legal but morally wrong action: by social ostracism. We condemn the person and refuse to deal with them. We can encourage others to do the same. The person might lose their job, their reputation, their relationships, and most likely won’t be able to buy another pet from someone else.
What we shouldn’t do is think of the law as our personal exactor of vengeance. The fact that the Law must ruthlessly protect human rights makes it all the more important for it to only protect human rights – because no other Rights exist.
I think it’s time for a wakeup call, people. Fellow humans are having their Rights violated every day, in the simplest to the grossest of manners. This is the sort of thing we should be shining a spotlight on and spreading chain e-mails about. Our tempers should burn when we hear the plight of an innocent man robbed or doctors put on trial by despicable governments for trying to tell the truth, or yet another business being double-taxed and charged for being “too big”, or teenage girls being groomed for sexual abuse or drug dealers and their empires, pathetic little teenagers and their gangs spreading mayhem and violence around towns… These are crimes committed by humans against their own kind. The least we can do, out of respect for ourselves and our fellow beings and our respect for justice and individual rights, is to consider where our priorities lie and what we want to be campaigning for.