A Primer on Rights & Animals
by Tibor R. Machan
When one has rights, it means others may not intrude and do violence to one, even if the intrusion might do good or benefit the victim. Rights are not about not being hurt or harmed. They are about a person's freedom of choice. And some exercise their freedom of choice to do harm to themselves. Still, others may not use coercive force to "help" out. Rights, in short, are about sovereignty, self-government.
Yes, there are some damaged persons who can barely, rarely or even never exercise choice -- they lack free will. (We all do now and then, say when asleep!) But a general principle such as the right to liberty extends to all of us, even those who don't fit the typical case of a healthy human being. It extends, for example, to children, even infants, who are but at the very beginning of being able to make choices. That's because principles of human association are not like principles of geometry, but rather more like biology -- some exceptions or borderline cases are to be expected.
Animals have no rights because in general they lack moral agency, the capacity to choose between right and wrong conduct. Of course, now and then some animals behave as if they were morally aware -- that's to be expected, especially, of domestic pets that have acquired many attributes from human beings in their thousands of years of association with them. Nonetheless, although dogs may appear to experience guilt, say when they pee on the rug, that's not guilt, which is why punishing them is nonsense. Rather one may try to train them by apply some discouragements or negative reinforcement. To stand around and morally blame the dog is preposterous -- animal abuse, if you will. They cannot help what they do, not like people. (Just chiding human beings for anything, including their thinking about animals, clearly suggests this.)
Of course, trying to ascribe rights to non-human animals is a great temptation, not unlike the attempt to ascribe to people what are called "positive rights" -- entitlements to treatment that would benefit them but would really amount to enslaving those who would have to provide the entitlements. Eagerly wanted benefits are often proposed as rights, but they are not. The way to check is to see if respecting such rights would require people to provide services and goods to their fellows. If they do, there cannot be a right to such services and goods. They would impose involuntary servitude! Ascribing rights to animals rests on similar eagerness, the desire to help them. But such help must be provided by those who want to care for the animals and not conscripted or expropriated from others who have made not commitment to them.
There is, of course, a good deal more to the story of how people ought to treat animals. It is not about rights, however, but about decency and empathy. These are not political concepts, like rights are. They have to do with human moral character that would not lead someone to inflict wanton harm or damage on animals. However, just as in the wilds animals are driven, by their instincts, to make use of one another for various purposes involving their survival and flourishing, so in human life the choice to make use of animals can be perfectly appropriate. It is not the same, though, because human beings do have the responsibility to act decently and so how they use other animals is subject to moral evaluation. Even inanimate objects, like beautiful artifacts (e.g., paintings), may be treated well or badly, not because they have rights but because they are valuable, precious.
As I have argued in my book, Putting Humans First: Why We Are Nature's Favorite (2004), trying to politicize our relationship to other animals is very risky for both the animals and ourselves. It shifts responsibility away from us individually and leads to our desensitization toward animals. Instead of once again relying on politics and law to solve problems, the ethical treatment of animals ought to be promoted as a matter of human decency, not of justice.