Libertarians and animal rights

Jim Henley asked for a libertarian justification for animal cruelty laws here. Other libs have chimed in here and here.

As it happens, I was recently reading an article by Stephen R. L. Clark called “Animals, Ecosystems, and the Liberal Ethic” (The Monist, Vol. 70:1, Jan. 1987) where he tries to articulate a rationale for protecting animals (and ecosystems) that arises out of liberal/libertarian ethic.

We’ve already seen that Clark is something of an anarcho-conservative, and here he takes the tack of showing that a concern for libertarian style rights is by no means incompatible with concern for animal rights.

What Clark suggests is, in essence, that we can’t assume that the differences between humans and animals are so great that the former always have a full complement of rights while the latter have none:

First, it is implausible to claim that the only evil done in imprisoning, tormenting and killing even a rational agent is that we thereby interfere with her moral choices: much of the evil is simply that we do what she does not want done. That evil is also done if our victim is non-rational, not morally autonomous. What difference does it really make whether or not she has or could have a principled objection to our behaviour? If she has no will in the matter I do not violate her will, but I clearly violate her wishes.

Secondly, what ground have we got to make so radical a distinction between wishes and the will, between the desires and projects of a nonhuman or sub-normal human and the principled will of a rational agent? Why should it be supposed that I make my claims upon the world as a carefully moral being, in some way that a non-rational being could not manage? “A cat who is being hurt will struggle, scratch and try to bite. Why is not this a claiming of its rights?” (Sprigge 1984 p. 442). Why isn’t a blackbird claiming his rights when he proclaims his territorial possession? What is lacking in too much discussion of these questions is any serious attention to what ‘animals’ are like, and what evidence there is for the vast difference in nature that humanists like [H.J.] McCloskey must conceive. It is quite inadequate to appeal to current English linguistic usage, as if that settled the question. If it is wrong (not merely imprudent) to batter human infants this may be partly because it seems likely to interfere with their future projects, but it is chiefly wrong because they do not like it, nor would they like its further consequences if they knew of them. The same wrong is done in battering baboons: who could imagine that baboons don’t mind?

It follows, if the abstract argument for natural human rights must be extended to allow similar rights to other agents (even if not strictly ‘moral’ agents), that our property rights in non-human animals must often be suspect. A right that licenses the violation of a right is no right at all, and ‘self-owning’ is a category more widely extended than we had thought. A being ‘owns itself if its behaviour is the product of its own desires and beliefs, if it can locate itself within the physical and social world, and alter its behaviour to take account of other creature’s lives and policies (see Clark 1981). This, I take it, is [Tom] Regan’s concept of what it is to be ‘the subject of a life’, not merely living (1983 p. 243). Such self-owners are, in the relevant sense, equals, and a just, liberal society cannot allow them to be owned by others, even if it allows them to be employed on terms not strictly of their own making.

The libertarian argument is that “self-owners” have the right not to be arbitrarily subjected to the will of another. Clark’s contention is that “self-owner” covers a wider range of creatures than just human beings. This is essentially a version of the so-called argument from marginal cases: it’s very difficult to specify a set of criteria for whatever morally important category you like (self-owner, person, rational agent, etc.) that includes all and only human beings. Either it will be drawn so narrowly as to exclude some classes of humans, or it will be drawn so widely that at least some non-human animals count.

What’s noteworthy is that a lot of libertarians seem to want to maintain the traditional status of human beings as sole rights-bearers without the metaphysics to back it up. An Aristotelian worldview that insisted on big bright distinctions between natural kinds might be able to provide support for this view, as might some religious views. But a world of evolutionary development where living things exist along a continuum without sharp breaks seems to sit more comfortably with the idea of a continuum of moral rights.

Clark’s distinction between animals being “owned” and being “employed on terms not strictly of their own making” injects some fuzziness into thinking about what might actually be entailed by all this. Is there a sense in which animals could be said to “consent” to at least some of the relationships that have evolved between them and human beings? Could domestication be understood as somehow analogous to the entering into of a partnership? Wherever we draw that line, though, some forms of wanton cruelty would seem to be easily ruled out. Also, I might add, would things like factory farming: an arrangement which is extremely difficult to see any animal “consenting” to in however attenuated a sense we can come up with.

14 thoughts on “Libertarians and animal rights

  1. Camassia

    Regarding the metaphysics, I was struck by a commenter in Megan McArdle’s thread who said that people don’t “create” rights, they either exist or they don’t. I don’t know if that’s a widespread view among libertarians, but it seems to be saying that your rights are objectively a part of you as much as your nose or your leg, only invisible. Sounds a lot like a soul, doesn’t it?

  2. Camassia

    By the way, I definitely have seen some relationships between people and their pets that were consenting partnerships. Sometimes a stray animal will be so determined to hang around somebody, in fact, that it really seems to be the human who “consents.” It gets a bit murkier with an animal that was born and raised by people and so does not know any different, but then again, you could say the same of children.

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  4. In my experience there are about as many different versions of libertarianism as there are libertarians, but I do think some kind of “natural rights” view is fairly common (the other major type is a broadly consequentialist/utilitarian version). What’s odd, I think, is saying both 1. that only human beings are rights-bearers and 2. that human beings are simply one product of a blind evolutionary process, sharing many of their essential characteristics with other animals.

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  6. James

    Only human beings can have rights because rights are specific to reasoning beings who form concepts and therefore must be allowed by their fellow men to action them in reality without interference.

    “Regarding the metaphysics, I was struck by a commenter in Megan McArdle’s thread who said that people don’t “create” rights, they either exist or they don’t. I don’t know if that’s a widespread view among libertarians, but it seems to be saying that your rights are objectively a part of you as much as your nose or your leg, only invisible. Sounds a lot like a soul, doesn’t it?”

    No its simply a fact of objective reality and mans set nature as man.We have rights by virtue of being born as human beings…the are inseperable from our nature as man.

    See here for the best explanation of mans rights..

    http://www.aynrand.org/site/PageServer?pagename=arc_ayn_rand_man_rights

    http://freedomkeys.com/rights.htm

  7. Why in the world would forming concepts be the key to having rights? Why doesn’t an animal have just as much right to go its way without interference?

  8. James

    “Why in the world would forming concepts be the key to having rights? Why doesn’t an animal have just as much right to go its way without interference?”

    An animal does have the “right” to act as its nature demands,obviously its naturally “right” for a fish to swim,a tree to grow and a cat to eat a mouse (which is the simplist example of why the idea of animal rights is a nonsense…the cat cannot concieve that the mouse has a “right” not to be eaten)…. only human beings posess this ability because we think to survive and prosper….we intergrate infomation and form concepts…no other species does this as far as we know.

    It is our ability to do so that leads to the realisation that men have natural inalienable rights…and that violating them is wrong….

    The best explanation I can offer is here..

    http://www.aynrand.org/site/PageServer?pagename=objectivism_animal_rights

    Quote…

    “Rights are ethical principles applicable only to beings capable of reason and choice. There is only one fundamental right: a man’s right to his own life. To live successfully, man must use his rational faculty–which is exercised by choice. The choice to think can be negated only by the use of physical force. To survive and prosper, men must be free from the initiation of force by other men–free to use their own minds to guide their choices and actions. Rights protect men against the use of force by other men.

    None of this is relevant to animals. Animals do not survive by rational thought (nor by sign languages allegedly taught to them by psychologists). They survive through sensory-perceptual association and the pleasure-pain mechanism. They cannot reason. They cannot learn a code of ethics. A lion is not immoral for eating a zebra (or even for attacking a man). Predation is their natural and only means of survival; they do not have the capacity to learn any other.

    Only man has the power, guided by a code of morality, to deal with other members of his own species by voluntary means: rational persuasion. To claim that man’s use of animals is immoral is to claim that we have no right to our own lives and that we must sacrifice our welfare for the sake of creatures who cannot think or grasp the concept of morality. It is to elevate amoral animals to a moral level higher than ourselves–a flagrant contradiction. Of course, it is proper not to cause animals gratuitous suffering. But this is not the same as inventing a bill of rights for them–at our expense.”

    This piece is also good

    http://www.objectivistcenter.org/cth–1228-Animal_Rights_And_Science.aspx

  9. All I can say is that whoever wrote that obviously isn’t up to speed on modern biology and ethology. The idea that animal behavior is simply a matter of “sensory-perceptual association and the pleasure-pain mechanism” is laughable.

    But, beyond that,it’s confused in supposing that being a moral agent is a necessary condition for having moral rights. Infants, children, and mentally impaired adults have moral rights even though they aren’t moral agents in the full sense.

    I personally am not all that wedded to the language of “rights” one way or the other, but if you’re going to use it, there’s no compelling reason to limit it to fully moral/rational agents as that piece attempts to do. It’s just a flagrant non sequitur.

  10. James

    I suggest you read this piece again…you seem to have missed the simple and non contradictory explanation for the doubts you are raising…

    http://www.objectivistcenter.org/cth–1228-Animal_Rights_And_Science.aspx

    “But, beyond that,it’s confused in supposing that being a moral agent is a necessary condition for having moral rights. Infants, children, and mentally impaired adults have moral rights even though they aren’t moral agents in the full sense.”

    Answered in the piece……

  11. I’m sorry, but there are two basic errors in the linked piece:

    1. That there is a sharp dichotomy, rather than shades of degree, between “instinct” and “rational thought.” It’s well established that many animals learn how to do things from their environment, respond to changes in that environment, are capable of planning for the future, have a sense of self, etc. Ayn Rand appears to be working from an armchair philosophical psychology that doesn’t accurately describe the world we live in.

    2. The idea that rights are reciprocal in the sense that we only have to respect others’ rights if they first respect ours. Or as the piece puts it “And rights cannot exist unless recognized and respected equally by both sides.” This reduces morality to some kind of gentlemen’s agreement. But why think morality works like this? Granted, if someone violates what we take to be my “rights,” I may be entitled to some kind of retaliation or at least self-defense, but it doesn’t follow that only moral agents deserve the protections of morality. If I torture an animal I do wrong to the animal regardless of whether it’s capable of recognizing my right.

    Further, the piece actually draws the gruesome conclusion that permanently mentally impaired humans are not owed the rights that other adult humans have. So would it be ok to use them for food? Perform medical experiments on them? Etc.?

  12. Answered in the piece……stupidly.

    Fix’t.

    James, are you genuinely not seeing the cultism and question-begging involved in both the original piece and your endorsement of it?

  13. Jennifer Lamm

    I am an animal rights activist in that I feel that slaughter is a disgusting matter in which we slay millions of defensless creatures… I’ve never voted in an election since Ronald Reagan Ran for president…… I am pushing for a re do of the BLM… and praying for America’s wild mustangs… and their annhilation under President Obama is unforgivable, plus his reopening of slaughter plants…. I know I will nOT vote for him.. I came here to find your stand on animal rights….. thank you for the clarification……

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