Friday, September 09, 2005

Column on Ideas Having Consequences

Ideas Do Have Consequences

Tibor R. Machan

Many moons ago Richard Weaver wrote the book, Ideas Have Consequences,
but some very prominent economists, one with a Nobel Prize to his credits,
disputed this notion (with, paradoxically, their own contrary ideas that
they hoped would also have some consequences).

They argued that it is not ideas but desires alone that produce actions
and policies. The point wasn?t always address against Weaver but someone
with greater star status, namely, John Maynard Keynes, the famous British
political economists who had said that it was usually the ideas of some
departed thinkers that lead to public policies.

To indicate just how wrong the skeptics were, let me report on how the
listing of a firm, Huntingdon Life Sciences, the medical research company,
announced the other day that it had delayed its listing on the New York
Stock Exchange in light of the probability of protests from animal rights
activists. (See the story in The Financial Times, 09/08/05.) This same
company had been driven out of the UK for the same reasons. Furthermore,
as The Financial Times reported, ?a farm that bred guinea pigs used in
medical research, was subjected to a long campaign involving vandalism,
firebombings and death threats. It recently announced it would close.?

I have spent a few good years dealing with the question of whether
animals have rights and concluded that the idea was a big mistake?my book
Putting Humans First (Rowman & Littlefield, 2004) was my latest salvo but
I began writing on this in 1991, for the journal Public Affairs Quarterly.

Animal rights defenders, who do not always support the violence some of
the activists perpetrate, tend to believe either that animals have the
same rights humans do?to life, liberty, pursuit their happiness, etc.?or
that they deserve to be liberated because their satisfaction should count
as a goal for public policy just as is the satisfaction of human beings.
The former argue mainly on the basis that at least the higher animals have
minds like ours, while the latter believe animals of all kinds have
interests and these need to be promoted as ours are. (The former group is
led by philosopher Tom Regan from North Carolina State University, while
the latter by Peter Singer of Princeton University. Both are very well
published and widely hailed academics, although the activists, many
motivated more by sentiment than by reasons, may not even pay a lot of
attention to their arguments.)

If animals did have rights like we do, well then not respecting and
giving protection to these rights would be a scandal. That?s just how the
denial of women?s rights or the rights of members of various minority
human groups is properly understood. Just as right to lifers in the
abortion debate believe fetuses have human rights and some of them are
then motivated to firebomb abortion clinics, animal rights activists are
also motivated to violence because they are convinced that the
animals?especially great apes or others with fairly complex
mentalities?ought never to be used against their will.

But if all of this is wrong, the results of the thinking and activism can
be drastic?major medical research projects may be banned and patients
across the globe may go without medication and treatment. The question is
vital for all concerned.

In my view animals have no rights, couldn?t really, since rights are
based on the general human capacity for moral agency?for being able to
choose between right and wrong conduct. Even animal rights champions admit
that this is a unique human capacity, since they never preach to animals
about how they ought to treat other animals or humans, realizing this
would be pointless. Respect and protection of their rights secure for
human beings in their communities the condition for moral agency?their
freedom and independence. That?s what rights-based legal systems have been
all about since the writing of the Declaration of Independence, based on
the work of many thinkers throughout history (mainly John Locke).

Oddly, extremely few people have chimed in on this debate, publicly, on
the side of human beings and their rights to use the world around them to
improve their own lot, first and foremost. That wouldn?t imply at all that
animals should be treated badly, only that people are more important,
which they are even by the logic of the animal rights/liberation champions.

This brings to mind that famous saying by Edmund Burke??All that is
necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.? And it is
evil, certainly, to allow a violent and wrongheaded group of people to
bring about private and public policies that promote the banning of vital
medical and other scientific work in support of human well being.

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