The Myth of Animal Rights

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Since 1991
I have been arguing about animal rights and liberation. It came
about because I wrote a paper, "Do Animals Have Rights?"
after learning that a colleague, Tom Regan, had had a book prominently
published by University of California Press, The Case for Animals
Rights. I had been writing on natural rights theory since I did
my doctoral dissertation, and I thought I needed to get straight
about this animal rights issue.

My point was,
in essence, that rights are just not the sort of things animals
other than people could have. Could animals have guilt, be blamed,
feel regret and remorse, or apologize or anything on that order?
No, and why so, that was the gist of my thesis: they are not moral
agents like us, not even the great apes.

If a non-human
animal, however evolved, kills, maims or injures another animal
of its own kind, we may lament this all we like, but to hold the
perpetrator responsible just will not work. Animals are mostly instinctually
driven to behave as they do, even if that may involve some slight
measure of intelligence and self-awareness. What it does not involve
is self-direction by means of free will, self-reflection and self-monitoring,
all of what would enable them to initiate their conduct and to be
morally responsible agents.

Why do folks
like Regan think animals have rights, nonetheless? Because they
ascribe rights not on the basis of moral agency but because of a
certain level of intelligence.

In nature there
aren't very sharp divisions – a child doesn't become an adult at some
precise point in time. Especially when it comes to biological entities,
we leave off the precision of geometry and algebra. Instead there
are areas of more or less grayness, as it were. And that's true
about intelligence, too.

Yet this is
no justification at all for abandoning the task of sensibly classifying
things. And all in all it is human beings who have moral capacities,
nothing else we know of, not even animals with some measure of intelligence
– which, at any rate, tend to exhibit this intelligence mostly
under prodding from human beings who capture them and start manipulating
them to extend their smarts.

Yes, matters
are more complicated than it was once thought, say by Rene Descartes,
the great French philosopher who believed non-human animals were

Recently I
penned a book about this topic, Putting Humans First, expanding
my earlier paper and developing the idea further to show that environmental
ethics, too, is misguided by not recognizing that human beings are
at the highest rung of nature and that conduct and public policy
need to be forged with that in mind. No, this doesn't mean anything
goes – torturing cats is still vicious, disregarding the pain of laboratory
or household animals, or cattle or chicken, is wrong. But it doesn't
follow that human goals and purposes do not justify our using animals.

Some have begun
to take notice of my thesis since very few have gone on record about
this – in part perhaps because PETA and other animal activists
are not a friendly bunch and most would just as soon stay out of
their way. The most telling point against me goes as follows: "But
there are people like very young kids, those in a coma, those with
minimal mental powers, who also cannot be blamed, held responsible,
etc., yet they have rights. Doesn't that show that other than human
beings can have rights?"

response doesn't recognize that classifications and ascriptions
of capacities rely on the good sense of making certain generalizations.
One way to show this is to recall that broken chairs, while they
aren't any good to sit on, are still chairs, not monkeys or palm
trees. Classifications are not something rigid but something reasonable.
While there are some people who either for a little or longer while
– say when they're asleep or in a coma – lack moral agency,
in general people possess that capacity, whereas non-people don't.
So it makes sense to understand them having rights so their capacity
is respected and may be protected. This just doesn't work for other

One last point.
Some fault my approach for not proving with logical certainty that
animals have no rights. But that is a mistaken demand – to prove a
negative, like asking the defense to prove the innocence of the
accused. It's animal rights proponents who haven't made the case
for rights of animals, and I merely did some leg work to point that

15, 2004

Machan [send
him mail
] holds
the Freedom Communications Professorship of Free Enterprise and
Business Ethics at the Argyros School of Business & Economics, Chapman
University, CA. A Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
University, he is author of 20+ books, most recently, Putting
Humans First: Why We Are Nature's Favorite

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