(rights) The Danger of Animal Rights

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The Danger of Animal Rights

by Diana Mertz Hsieh

Date: 6 Dec 94 Forum: Washington University in St-Louis, Argumentation class Copyright: Diana Mertz Hsieh

The question of whether animal rights should be integrated into the legal code of the United States depends upon a whole series of antecedent questions like: What are rights? What is the purpose of rights? What is meant by "animal rights"? What are the criteria for possessing rights? and What would some consequences be of implementing animal rights? These are complex questions which must be answered in order to ascertain whether animal rights exist and should be protected. Since this controversy is often emotionally charged, we must be careful to remain objective, rejecting appeals to pity and simplistic "moral intuitions."

Rights are not, as the Declaration of Independence states, self-evident. Rather rights are complex principles which indicate the necessary restraints on human action in society so that individuals can survive and flourish. The traditional rights of life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness enable an individual to sustain her own life by protecting her against the aggression and unwanted interference of others, thus freeing her to pursue her own values. Now although I could argue that the government's primary responsibility is to protect these rights, for this discussion it is only necessary to indicate that the government should never violate rights. No government should use its power to arbitrarily dispose of the lives and property of its citizens.

Animal rights activists often argue that animals are entitled to the same sort of legal protection to which humans are entitled. This argument is justified by claiming either that animals have rights or that humans have moral obligations to animals that should be legally enforced. If animals have rights, they should be protected by the government. But if no such rights exist, then enacting laws which force humans to treat animals in a certain fashion would violate the legitimate rights of humans. In other words, the human rights of freedom of action and of property would be systematically undermined if animals were granted unwarranted protection by law. Because, as I will show, all claims that animals have rights are illegitimate, attempts to legally protect animals from harm, no matter how well-intentioned, will inevitably result in the violation of human rights.

In the preceding explanation of rights, I indicated that the purpose of rights is to provide the necessary conditions for the survival and flourishing of individuals. Implicit in this formulation is the idea that the recognition and protection of the legitimate rights of others is a necessary part of everyone's well-being. For example, in On Liberty John Stuart Mill argues extensively for freedom of speech, stating that if a true idea is suppressed people "are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth" and if the suppressed opinion is wrong, "they lose. . . the clearer perception and livelier impression of the truth." (21) The principle is the same for other rights: it is better to let people see their own mistakes than prevent them from making mistakes at all by violating their rights. By the same token, if animals do have rights, recognizing and protecting them will be in the interest of both humans and animals.

But granting and attempting to protect animal rights would be disastrous to humans, as well as to the detriment of many animals. Humans derive enormous benefit from medical testing on animals; in fact human life has been extended by 28 years by the very tests that animal rights activists are so quick to denounce as "useless torture." (Hughes 35) A National Review article reported that "animal research has led to vaccines against diphtheria, polio, measles, mumps, whopping cough, effective treatment of diabetes, and control of infection through antibiotics." (56-7) Although computer simulations and cell cultures can be used instead of animals in some medical research, human lives would be sacrificed by relying too extensively upon such methods because they are more simplistic than actual living systems and can omit crucial variables. The human consumption of meat is also attacked by animal rights activists as an unnecessary and unnatural part of human life. But human life is not just mere survival; happiness, comfort, and the enjoyment of life all make life worth living, and thinking strictly in terms of survival unnecessarily restricts human potential. By analogy, just because a woman can physically survive locked in her house, periodically beaten by her husband, doesn't mean that she ought to pursue such a life or that others should force her into it.

Similarly, granting rights to animals would be harmful to animals themselves because of the specific rights proposed, namely right to be free from unnecessary suffering. But because pain is a natural part of life, the only way to truly escape pain is through death. Of course, the death of animals is not the desired goal of most animal rights activists (although it is the goal of some), but it is the logical consequence of upholding the right to freedom from unnecessary suffering.

The argument for animal rights as freedom from unnecessary suffering relies upon the assertion that the capacity to suffer is the standard by which we should determine which creatures have rights and which do not. As Jeremy Bentham is often quoted as saying, "the question is not, Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?" (Hearne 60) This view of the origin of rights stands in sharp contrast with the classical position that only animals with the capability to reason -- in other words, only humans -- have rights. Since we have already seen some of the problems with the view that rights stem from the ability to suffer, let's take a closer look at the classical position.

Determining the necessary attributes of rights-bearing creature is a difficult task, so let me illustrate, with an example, the principles involved. A man, much to his dismay, is being devoured by a ferocious tiger. The man, in an attempt to stop the tiger, yells, "Stop you criminal! Rights violator! Initiator of force!" Clearly this is not only an ineffective strategy, but also an incorrect use of terminology. Why can't we rightfully accuse the tiger of violating rights? In short, because he cannot reason and lacks free will. And for these very same reasons, we cannot say that the tiger has rights himself, because rights are a set of reciprocal relationships, or in other words, only the animals that have rights are expected to respect the rights of others.

Although animal rights activists would downplay the importance of the human capacity to reason, to use abstractions and logic, is the human consciousness, not any physical attribute, that enable our survival. Skyscrapers, breathtaking works of art, and even the books crusading for animal rights are only made possible by the use of reason. Granting rights to beings who cannot reason, who are incapable of understanding what rights are or why they should be respected would destroy the reciprocity of rights. Animals would be permitted to systematically violate the rights of humans, because animals could not do better, while humans would be bound by law to respect the rights of animals. This double standard would destroy the necessary coherence in a system of rights. By the same token, an animal who does not have free will, whose instincts determine its course of action would not be capable of choosing to respect rights, could not be said to have rights.

No animals, with the exception of humans, have a rational faculty and free will; only humans are capable of understanding what rights are, weighing possible courses of action, and choosing one course of action over another. Edwin Locke, who did extensive investigation into the studies which claimed to show that chimps can reason and abstract found that these studies showed no such thing, but rather showed that the chimps were making perceptual associations. For example, no chimp ever learned to count, not even in the experiments that ran 500,000 trials, because counting necessitates abstracting away the particular entities in a group and selectively focussing on a particular quantity. Obviously, an animal that cannot understand what the number "thirty-five" means will never be able to understand what rights are or why they should not be violated. And if the closest relatives of humans, the primates, cannot be said to meet the criteria for rights, an argument for the rights of lower animals is virtually impossible.

I wish to briefly address the charge of "speciesism," which animal rights activists repeatedly level against those who oppose their radical agenda. Peter Singer, who launched the animal rights movement with his book Animal Liberation, defined speciesism as "prejudice or attitude of bias toward the interests of members of one's own species and against those of members of other species." By labeling concern for human interest above the interests of animals as an "-ism" and linking it to racism and sexism, animal rights activists hope to convince people that concern for one's own life and happiness or even for the lives of other humans is evil. This is altruism run amuck, where selfless concern for other humans is not longer a great enough sacrifice; now even regarding the life of a human as more important than the life of an ant is a moral crime.

The force of the accusation of "speciesism" rests upon a fallacious analogy between speciesism and sexism or racism. Sexism and racism attempt use inessential traits, like sex, skin color, and ethnic origin, as indicators of intellectual inferiority. In contrast, speciesism is the recognition that there are real differences in mental and physical ability within the animal kingdom which ought to affect our treatment of other animals. For example, recognizing the important distinctions between housecats and lions and treating each species accordingly is, at the very least, simple prudence, for refusing to recognize these differences could result in severe injury. It is a fact that humans have a more advanced consciousness than any other known species which gives them an incredible advantage in the natural world. It is a fact that to advocate the interests of another species at the expense of one's own interests will eventually bring death. And these are precisely the facts that those who decry "speciesism" wish others to ignore.

In sum, animal rights should not be integrated into our current system of rights for the simple reason that animals don't have rights. Of course, rejecting the legitimacy of animal rights is not tantamount to condoning animal cruelty, nor does it prevent anyone from peaceably advocating for more humane treatment for animals. Public awareness and debate, economic pressure, and boycotting are effective means of diminishing the mistreatment of animals which do not violate the rights of humans. If the arguments presented in favor of better treatment of animals are strong enough, concerned citizens will be able to secure change without government interference.

Works Cited

Hearne, Vicki. "What's Wrong with Animal Rights." Harpers Sept. 1991: 59-64.

Hughes, Jane. "Reigning cats and dogs." National Review 23 July 1990: 35+.

Locke, Edwin. "The Truth About Animal Cognition." The Jefferson School, 1989.

Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty. New York: Oxford University Press. 1991.

Singer, Peter. Animal Liberation.

-- eve (eve_rebekah@yahoo.com), July 08, 2000


Eve, you seem to be a constant source of interesting articles and thoughts. I enjoy your input very much even though I lean to a more combative participation. However, Im concerned for your good standing over at the Queasy Board.

It would appear that the 450 Lbs. blob of human waste, AKA Dennis Olsen, is on your case for your participation here on this forum. Dont be intimidated. This disgusting mountain of pig fat only shoots folks that arrive on his doorstep.

-- Ra (tion@l.1), July 08, 2000.

I congratulate the author of this fine piece for making plain and explicit what underlies most people's gut reaction to the animal rights movement. The problem with animal rights activists, as near as I can tell, is that they have taken a reasonable and humane principle and escalated it to the point of fallacy. And they cannot detect that they have crossed over the border from the land of humane concern for the treatment of animals into the land of absurdity. This article does a good job of defining that border, upon reasonable principles.

-- Brian McLaughlin (brianm@ims.com), July 08, 2000.


Thanks for your kind words (to me, anyway) and concerns.

I'm not intimidated by anyone. And I enjoy the people, ideas, and yes -- even the chats and goofy stuff here too much to ever condider even dreaming of leaving this place.

-- eve (eve_rebekah@yahoo.com), July 08, 2000.

I can see the points raised by the animal rights' activists, and I cheered as much as my kids when Willy got back to sea in "Free Willy". I'll even go so far as to suggest that my interest in the human genome project has revealed to me that I probably share more common DNA with the fire ant in my backyard than my oldest brother.

HOWEVER,I'm a human FIRST, and realize the potential for "lower" animals to benefit humans both protein-wise and medically. I'm VERY hypocritical on this one, and I know it. I wouldn't be able to raise a pig, slaughter it, and eat it. I have no problem with buying pork chops that somebody ELSE raised and slaughtered. I wouldn't be able to keep MY horse caged in a small space so that I could "harvest" the urine for hormonal treatment of humans, but I have no problem filling prescriptions that probably originated by someone ELSE doing this. I wouldn't be able to slaughter MY cow to get a pair of leather shoes, but I wouldn't want to wear shoes that didn't "breathe" either.

Ra: Thanks for pointing out Dennis' latest post. He's appealing to Eve's morals now. [grin]

-- Anita (Anita_S3@hotmail.com), July 08, 2000.

eve could never be intimidated by a brainless, no-dick, lard ass like the Olsen zombie. BTW...eve are you married?

-- cpr (buytexas@swbell.net), July 08, 2000.

Let me guess... Hawk?

-- Friebdly Ghost (heain'tc@sper.com), July 08, 2000.

HINT: Use SPELL CHECK on your name you white sheeted FRIEBDLY moron! I wasn't talking to you.

-- cpr (buytexas@swbell.net), July 08, 2000.

Yep, I was right. It's Netty's old lover.

-- Friendly Ghost (heain'tc@sper.com), July 08, 2000.

Pass the A-1 sauce please.

-- Carlos (riffraff1@cybertime.net), July 08, 2000.

Whoops...just to correct and clarify a previous post...I said I wouldn't "condider" leaving. Well, not only would I not "condider" leaving -- I wouldn't "consider" leaving either.

Really -- you guys are practically like family to me now -- even the very few who bug me.

And cpr...no, I'm not presently married; and I've really no plans to. But, I'm flattered by your question, and about the future -- well, ya never know. Anyway, long, painful story on my marriage. Maybe one long night, after a few glasses of wine, I'll just throw caution to the winds, and spill my guts out on a thread...and it could come anywhere -- maybe smack in the middle of an economics thread. My response would be, "Economics, schmeconomics. Let me tell ya about my ex..."

-- eve (eve_rebekah@yahoo.com), July 08, 2000.

If "God" didn't mean for us to eat animals, why did hesheit make them so tasty?

PETA -- People Eating Tasty Animals

I didn't fight my way to the top of the food chain just to become a vegetarian/vegan.

-- A (A@AisA.com), July 08, 2000.

In my religion, we devoutly believe in animal rites. One young goat each day for our Diety.

-- (nemesis@awol.com), July 08, 2000.

Eve, I'll be looking for it.

-- cpr (buytexas@swbell.net), July 08, 2000.

One of my favorite quotes about animals:

"In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth."

Henry Beston - Naturalist

-- LunaC (Can'tLiveWithoutEm@critter.com), July 09, 2000.

LunaC, I agree with you. It is a beautiful quote. I agree with the philosophy embodied in the quote. Not just animals, but all of Earth is worthy of awe, admiration and respect. But, rights are another concept than awe admiration or respect. Rights are reciprocal. When bacteria respect my "right" to live without illness, I will stop trying to kill them. Whether we like it or not, nature allows, even demands, that species exploit one another.

-- Brian McLaughlin (brianm@ims.com), July 09, 2000.

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