A recent Rivera Live television talk program hosted several animal rights advocates who were given considerable air time defending their position in both analytical and emotion terms. Only a couple of skeptics offered some doubts about the idea that was the focus of the program.
I watched and listened closely and found that the program offered hardly any measure of balance during the discussion. There was a law professor, for example, who raised some questions but gave no clear cut argument against the idea that animals have rights akin to human beings, the position widely shared about those who got nearly all the air time on the program.
One legal specialist defending the notion of animal rights made the flat out claim that animals must be considered to have the right to freedom just as individual human beings. He gave his own example of offering shelter to six dogs as the model that ought to be emulated throughout the world. He even characterized his practice as giving asylum to the dogs, as one might give asylum to a political refuge from a totalitarian society.
I filed the spectacle away, having dealt with the issue both in Op Ed essays and scholarly pieces I have written and even had reprinted in ethics text books on the topic. But I wasn't permitted to leave it at that since the next day, watching a National Geographic Explorer program on CMBC, my attention was returned to the topic. On this program a polar bear's hunt for baby seals was depicted in extensive detail. First we saw how the bear managed to capture and kill a baby seal. Next we saw a mature polar bear fighting off a young one as they both had their eyes on the carcass of a dead seal. Suddenly my ears perked up: the narrator made a comment that brought to mind the animal rights program the night before. He said, "The older males are known to kill younger ones when fighting over carcasses." No, they do not share even a bit of the scavenged pickings but either chase the young bears away or out and out kill them as they attempt to preserve for themselves everything they found. Of course, human beings have been known to battle it out over scares resources throughout history, but in most regions of the world it is a crime to kill a young person even in defense of one's property, let alone over wild prey. Killing youngsters, while it does occur, is deemed to be a crime in nearly all – especially civilized – societies. Where it isn't, the bulk of world opinion considers the region barbaric and brutal.
Given this, how can we seriously entertain the idea that animals have rights like human beings do? If this were true, all the inter-species brutality in the animal world would have to be construed as out and out criminal. But, quite sensibly, it isn't. Why so? The reason is that animals operate as their instincts dictate, and in many cases instincts dictate that animals kill their own kind. Fish often eat their young, as do lions when they are impelled to do so by their genetic disposition, presumably to rid their pride of bastard offspring.
Why, on the other hand, do human beings get prosecuted if they engage in similar conduct? Why is it brutal, barbaric – and should be criminal – to kill children for fun, profit or even survival? The reason is that human beings are fundamentally different from their animal kin in the wild. They have the capacity to make choices, they possess free will and have the responsibility to act ethically and respect the rights of other human beings. Why? So these others can carry out their morality responsibilities on their own initiative. Human beings, in short, are free and morally responsible. And it is this fact that gives rise to their having basic rights that others ought to respect and they may protect with force and law. These rights carve out a kind of fence – or sphere of personal authority – around persons, something they all require in order to carry on in a dignified manner when in one another's company.
There are many ways human beings can be guilty of mistreating animals. Perhaps even the law should make some provisions to ensure that wanton torture and mistreatment of animals are minimized. But this is not because animals have rights, which they cannot have given their nature as instinctually driven beasts instead of moral agents. Talking, therefore, about animal rights is a confusion and misguides our thinking about our proper relationship with the rest of the animal world.
Tibor Machan is Distinguished Fellow and Professor, Leatherby Center for Entrepreneurship & Business Ethics, Argyros School of Business & Economics, Chapman University, and Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.