Saturday, September 08, 2007

Revisiting Animal “Rights”

[Summary of talk given at the University of Heidelberg, 7/13/07]

Tibor R. Machan

In the concern about how human beings treat animals, whether as pets, as prospective nourishment, or for medical research or ex-perimentation, one school, led by Professor Tom Regan, has proposed the idea that animals have rights like human beings do, while another school, under the leadership of Professor Peter Singer, has proposed that the well being of animals should be considered in a utilitarian as-sessment of how they ought to be treated. I aim to argue here that the concept of "rights" has not be shown to apply to animals in any-thing like the way it applies to human beings. Looking at the concep-tual foundation of basic rights, especially a la John Locke, rights are founded on the moral nature of human beings, specifically on their moral agency. They identify, as the late Robert Nozick put it, our moral space. Given that animals have not been shown to possess moral agency, the basis of ascribing to them rights of the sort human beings possess is lacking. As to the utilitarian case associated with Pe-ter Singer, I will only mention, briefly, that Singer's ultimate founda-tion for ethics does not support any kind of normative stance toward animals, given that he is fundamentally a non-cognitivist or conven-tionalist. I shall develop these ideas and consider some objections to my position.

Outlining the Case Against Animal Rights
Since 1985 I have addressed the question of whether animals have rights in the sense that human beings are said to have them, first in my papers “Some Doubts About Animal Rights,” and “Do Ani-mals Have Rights?” and later in my book Putting Humans First, Why We Are Nature’s Favorite. Since then I added yet another paper to my examination of the topic, namely, “Rights, Liberation and Interests: Is there a Sound Case for Animal Rights or Liberation.”
In the presentation today I plan to offer an outline of my objec-tions to animal rights and consider some questions that arise in con-nection with these objections and have been raised both directly in criticism of my work and indirectly by supporters of the animal rights/liberation position. In particular, I wish to make clear that the reason I object to animal rights is that I hold that arguments for such rights commit what has been dubbed by some “the fallacy of the sto-len concept.” This fallacy is well exhibited by defenders of intelligent design when they make confident use of the concept “intelligence” but deny, in the same breath, that intelligence arises from a living human brain, in particular the frontal cortex. Affirming that intelligence ex-isted at one time while such a human brain did not is to commit the fallacy because the concept of intelligence requires the concept of the human brain as its foundation in reality.
In the same way, the concept of rights—as in the right to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and private property—presupposes something that such rights theorists as William of Ockham and John Locke affirmed, namely, human moral agency. In more recent times the natural rights advocates Ayn Rand and Robert Nozick both rested their conviction that human beings have basic rights on the fundamen-tal idea that human beings are by their nature moral agents. As Nozick argued, rights secure the moral space that human beings require in their communities, the breach or trespass of which space undermines their dignity or capacity for morally significant action. This kind of ac-tion requires choice—or, as Kant had it, “ought” implies “can,” mean-ing, the responsibility to do the right thing and avoid doing the wrong assumes that the agent can choose between the one and the other; either way of acting is open to the agent, all things being equal.
Given that non-human animals aren’t moral agents—not in the general and fundamental sense, certainly, that we take human beings to be—there is no conceptual basis for ascribing to them the kind of rights that human beings are said to possess. Some higher primates do exhibit sensibilities that some take to be characteristic of moral agents but they do not involve moral responsibilities, guilt or pride. So, then, to attempt to ascribe such rights to non-human animals as akin to attempting to build a third story in a building that has not got a basement and first story. It produces a mythical but not an actual right.
This is the gist of my skeptical argument about so called animal rights. Notice here that the point of my argument isn’t so much to es-tablish that animal rights do not exist—which would require proving a negative—but rather that the existence of such rights hasn’t been es-tablished. To put it somewhat differently, the burden of showing that animals have those rights human beings possess hasn’t been met.
If, however, it were to be argued that animal rights aren’t the sort that human beings are said to have, then we have something like the case of God’s existence that denies that God is omniscient, om-nipotent and omni-benevolent—it is not about the God that is of inter-est in philosophy and theology. Rights not founded on the moral agency of the rights holder are not the sort of rights that command re-spect and require protection in a just legal order; they aren’t the rights of interest in political and legal theory.

Some Criticisms of the Refutation
The Marginal Case Argument
There have been several efforts to discredit my argument and I wish now to turn to some of them. One maintains that the claim that human beings are moral agents is wrong since there are human be-ings, such as infants and some invalids, as well as all of us while asleep—who lack the capacity for moral agency, yet they are generally deemed to posses the basic rights ascribed to human beings. As Na-than Nobis and David Graham put the point:
...true, we might agree that only humans have this capacity for dis-cerning right and wrong, but only some humans, not all: it's not the case that all humans who, intuitively, should not be treated as ani-mals are treated have this "moral nature" that Machan describes: they don't make moral decisions and so are not moral agents. Thus, Machan's theory of rights seems to provide no protection for vulner-able humans—human babies, severely mentally challenged individu-als, and others (regrettably these humans are often called "marginal cases" or "marginal humans")—who are not moral agents and so lack the moral nature he describes. So, if such humans have rights, this shows that Machan's argument against animal rights is unsound because he has a mistaken view of what is necessary for having any moral rights.
There are several problems in this passage. First, I do not speak about moral rights anywhere in my argument against animal rights. I am talking about natural rights in the tradition of John Locke. It is these sort of rights that serve as the foundation for laws that secure for human beings their moral space. Graham and Nobis make a lot of my failure to discuss moral rights yet do not say why such a discussion is relevant. After all, moral rights are no what is at issue in the animal rights debate. What is at issue is the kind of rights that warrant legal protection.
Another problem with this response is that it demands an ac-count of a definition of the concept “human being” that is impossible to attain and because of this it cannot support any account of the kind of rights animal rights advocates are interested in ascribing to non-human animals. To complain that moral agency is lacking while some-one is in a coma or asleep is to misunderstand the point of a definition, a statement of the nature of something. Such a statement is not a necessary truth but a truth for “the most part.” Human beings are moral agents when they are intact, awake, healthy, and so forth, not, however, while asleep or seriously brain damaged or in a vegetative state. However, the definition of “human being” applies to them none-theless since it captures what best distinguishes them from other ani-mals.
It is unclear what kind of rights my critics want to ascribe to animals if they are dissatisfied with the rights associated with the natural rights tradition or rights talk. Yes, a conventionalist approach to rights may provide some very weak support for human and animal rights but not the kind that either human or animal rights advocates need in order to back up their demands for treating human beings or animals with the kind of respect that human beings receive in light of their possession of natural rights. In another words, if the rights in-volved are conventional—which is to say, they are not derived from something firm such as human nature but decided upon in some community—they then may be over-ridden by some alternative pref-erences of the majority in a human community that could abolish rights altogether.
The point of claiming that animals have rights, exactly as it is of claiming that human beings do in the Lockean tradition, is to convince those who make laws, perhaps the majority, perhaps its representa-tives, that animals really ought to be treated in certain ways, namely, left alone, free to do as they will. It is not sufficient for this to establish that some group, say the majority, could decide, willy-nilly, to claim rights for animals. Some group might not, just as easily, and if there can be no convincing objection to this, nothing of significance has been achieved by ascribing rights to non-human animals. This also holds for ascribing merely conventional rights to human beings—it carries to philosophical or moral weight at all.
The Moral Agency Argument
Another objection to my defense of skepticism about animal rights is that in our Darwinian era, in which the theory of evolution has become scientifically validated, there is no justification for regarding human beings as unique in being moral agents. As John Gray states,
The idea that morality is uniquely human has many variations, but all of them rest on the assumption that humans are in some funda-mental way exempt from the evolutionary laws that govern other animals.
Gray goes on to state that
Darwinian theories have no place for teleological explanations—that is to say, explanations that rely on ascribing purposes to evolution-ary processes.
Let us take a closer look at this objection. First of all, there are variations among Darwinians. Some of them argue that it is possible to find purposive or goal-directed behavior among living things, espe-cially when we come to humans who have evolved so as to be able to set their own goals, purposes or ends. Some believe that all of hu-man behavior consists of random events, without any purpose or end in sight for any of it and certainly with no free will anywhere to be found.
The most curious invocation of Darwin's views is found among environmentalists who tend to both accept it and then apply it in quite inconsistent ways. For example, many environmentalists insist that there is what we can identify as a healthy ecosystem. Supporters of endangered species legislation insist that there is an optimal balance in nature which is supposed to include a great variety of living species. And they believe in ethics, as well, urging us all to abide by certain standards of right conduct so that the environment is well cared for. Urging us to act this way certainly suggests that human beings have a moral nature.
Darwinian teleological explanations do not ascribe a goal to evo-lution—except in the sense that what results from natural selection needs to be successful, namely, survive. But there is no reason to deny the validity of teleological explanations to some aspects of life. Indeed, most biologists invoke just such explanations when they talk about the beak of a particular bird or the color of the fur of a certain type of rabbit and how these serve to promote the welfare of the ani-mals in question. Similarly, there is nothing anti-Darwinian about the claim that certain ways of choosing to act—e.g., those in conformity with the virtues—enhance the life of a human being.
Contrary to Gray’s claim, if human beings are moral agents it doesn’t follow that they are “exempt from the evolutionary laws that govern other animals.” The process of natural selection, Darwin’s most important discovery, does not imply that a species that emerges in nature cannot posses moral agency. The contrary is far more com-patible with Darwin’s theory.
The highly diverse natural living world can accommodate a kind of animal that has the capacity for moral responsibility and choice. Af-ter all, among all the living things on earth, among all the different species, there are enormous differences. A sea horse, for example, is very different from a puma. Yet both are subject to Darwinian evolu-tionary laws. Why then would it not be possible for human beings to have emerged from a process governed by those same general laws with attributes and capacities that are very different from those other animals possess? Their capacity for making original choices, for free will and moral responsibility, could be as much a part of the natural order as the male sea horse’s capacity to carry the young (unlike other animals, where it is the female that does this).
Moreover, environmentalists routinely talk of the health of the ecosystem, which is one reason they are concerned about, say, an-thropogenic global warming. Health is a concept that pertains to an organism's doing well at proceeding toward the goals of surviving and flourishing. It assumes that there exists such a goal, one that can be enhanced or thwarted as the organism carries out its life processes. If the goal is enhanced, it is a healthy specimen, if it is thwarted than it is unhealthy (either from some internal malaise or from external im-pediments).
The very idea of health contradicts the idea of mere random, mechanical development. If all development had to be purposeless, then none would be an enhancement or a thwarting of the life of something. It would be akin to how we see the movements of celestial entities—they just move, none of their movement is better or worse in and of itself. It makes no sense to construe the behavior of Mars or the sun as good or bad, healthy or sick. All of that is misapplied when it comes to behavior that has no goal, no end in sight.
So, now, if one accepts that Darwin rules out both purposive talk and endorses thoroughgoing determinism, applicable to all living things including humans, then talk about a healthy or sick ecosystem is completely out of order, as would of course be chiding human beings for failing to promote it. There can then be no sensible discussion without morality of how human beings should act as far as the envi-ronment or animals are concerned—they will do what they are deter-mined to do and they have no choice in the matter, nor is there some standard by which how they act can be evaluated since nothing is ei-ther good or bad for the ecology or the environment. It all just hap-pens, period.
So in terms of some of the most elementary features of envi-ronmentalist language certain moral concepts are quite explicit—we are all being urged to conduct ourselves responsibly toward the wilds, for example. And this sort of admonition is not addressed to non-human animals, suggesting very strongly that environmentalists ac-cept the moral nature of human beings.
So, a version of Darwinism clearly does not negate the moral na-ture of human beings. Although people are animals, they also differ from other animals—as indeed, other species of animals differ from one another—in that they are moral agents. And this is quite compati-ble with Darwinian biology.

Reply to Another Critic
In the title of his comment on my recent paper “Why Human Be-ings May Use Animals,” Professor John Hadley refers to non-human animals as “others,” as if they were akin to, say, one’s neighbors. (He also loads his title with the notion that using such others would be some kind of “abuse.”) So, then, even before reading his comment, one is already lured into sharing his conclusion, never mind that the argument is yet to come and may turn out to be unsuccessful.
But, of course, this is something many of us do—the title of my own original paper assumes that we may use non-human animals and proposes to justify this. Still, I shall henceforth resist such ploys whenever I am tempted to use them. Let me then get to why I do think Hadley’s case is unsound.
The form of his argument is of the reductio ad absurdum variety. He purports to accurately recast my own argument in such a way that (a) it is compatible with what I believe and say and (b) results in an “unpalatable conclusion.” What is that? That cognitively impaired hu-man beings maybe used by the non-impaired ones.
This not only conjures up the Nazis but Hadley explicitly states that “It was the Nazis who used cognitively impaired human animals as resources for the sorts of tasks that Machan claims are necessary for beings considered more important to ‘succeed in life’ or ‘flourish’ as in medical research.” The approach to arguing one’s position that charges one’s opponent with sharing the views and policies of the Na-zis is a pretty low blow but, again, not all that unusual. Let us now see how he justifies this rather drastic charge, namely, that my views are equivalent to those of the Nazis.
Hadley states that in my paper I am making only a generaliza-tion when I define human beings as animals capable of moral agency. This is because there are cases of what we would all regard as human beings who are “incapable of moral reasoning.” He puts it this way: “After all, if the value of an individual is commensurate with their [sic] capacity to engage in moral reasoning, then it is reasonable to suggest that human animals wholly incapable of moral reasoning will have value at least equal to, or even below, some nonhuman animals such as greater apes.”
Let me first note that Hadley changes my own wording quite sig-nificantly. He speaks of the “capacity of engage in moral reasoning,” whereas I speak of moral agency. He never justifies his rewording. Perhaps he has in mind the same thing, but those were not my terms. Quite a few human beings who are moral agents aren’t capable of en-gaging in moral reasoning at some point, say when asleep. And such reasoning, in any case, is something moral philosophers do, not ordi-nary folks who, for example, when they act negligently—say by driving recklessly—aren’t reasoning much, yet their moral agency is in no dispute. Is one necessarily capable of moral reasoning when one is blamed for this? I am not sure but it doesn’t sound right—moral rea-soning is more of an intellectual activity—it requires deliberation—whereas moral agency requires only that one is capable of intentional action or conduct, judgments that issue in behavior. Such judgments may well amount to no more than unexamined beliefs, ones someone has picked up without any “moral reasoning.”
But perhaps this is indeed minor for even such minimally intel-lectual performance could rest on the capacity to reason morally. The risk of such recasting of someone’s way of stating his or her argument is considerable, however. My own moral theory, for instance, makes reasoning itself a moral act, so those who do in fact reason correctly, carefully, are ipso facto morally praiseworthy. This is in the tradition of Aristotelian “right reason” ethics. I do not hold that there is some spe-cial intellectual activity called “moral reasoning.”
In any case, is Hadley correct to hold that because I define hu-man beings as “rational animals,” that is, “animals with the capacity to think abstractly,” and ascribe to them moral agency—being responsi-ble to act rightly and open to praise or blame depending upon whether they do so—I am committed to the view that I consider “rights inap-propriate for cognitively impaired human beings”? No.
When one defines a class of beings, one focuses on what they are normally, and in the case of living things, what they are at their state of maturity. So infants and those who are impaired will not (yet) fit the correct definition of the concept “human being” fully but it is clearly understood—in biology, botany, and other life sciences—that a certain definition is the most apt way to classify them.
A pheasant, to take another case, may be defined as “a large bird related to and resembling domestic poultry.” Now some pheas-ants, in fact, will lose their wings or experience some other temporary or even permanent impediments or alterations, yet this does not lead to their being something other than pheasants. No new classification will be required for such specimens of pheasants and whatever biologi-cal or zoological statements will be applicable to pheasants will be ap-plicable to such infant or impaired instances, with appropriate modifi-cations taking account of their special status.
This epistemological approach is routine. Furniture may be de-fined as “the movable items such as chairs, desks, or cabinets in an area such as a room or patio,” yet when some chairs are affixed per-manently to a floor or if one of them breaks and is no longer usable as a chair, or, again, if some piece of furniture from years gone by be-comes a fragile museum piece and would break upon being moved, it does not alter the fact that the most apt definition of furniture still ap-plies, provided the requisite modifications are made. “Model furniture,” “play furniture” or the like will clarify that, though these pieces are in-deed properly called “furniture,” they are exceptional for the specified reasons. No wholesale reclassification of them is required or would be rational.
When a person is asleep and does not evidence moral agency, he or she is still a moral agent and if moral agency is what justifies the ascription of rights to human beings, the sleeping person possesses the rights in question. Similarly with infants or children—which partly explains the substance of the debate about abortion rights: though no one disputes that zygotes, embryos, fetuses, or infants are unable to exercise moral agency as of yet, it makes perfectly good sense to in-quire as to whether they possess rights since normally they are on the way to becoming mature members of the class of beings who are nor-mally moral agents. When it comes to impaired people, again the pol-icy of classifying them with normal mature people for the sake of learning what sort of political principles need to be observed in order to treat them properly (say, in the field of medical ethics and law) is the most rational approach to take, provided certain modifications in the way they are to be treated are also spelled out. (Thus, children’s rights are not respected and protected exactly the way the rights of human adults are, nor are the rights of the invalid or senile.)
Hadley and some others who have addressed my discussion of the basis of natural rights —namely, the normal capacity for mature or adult human beings for moral agency (which is in gradual develop-ment from infancy and which is temporarily or permanently under-mined for impaired persons)—are making a case for a way to under-stand what it means to be a given kind of being via a definition that is useless for deriving any kind of policy conclusions, be these ethical or political. That is because these definitions are envisioned as having the attributes of logically necessary truths, not of definitions as they de-velop in such sciences as biology, botany, sociology, economics, and psychology. They confuse definitions in the formal disciplines like logic and geometry with those in these substantive disciplines (or spheres of knowledge). As such, they rob themselves of any possibility of defining substantive entities, as distinct from formal ones.
A theory of rights is by its very nature general, guiding law and public policy, and since human beings living in communities who are in need of such guidance aren’t formal entities, definable by statements that are necessary truths, there will naturally be some exceptional cases. (This, among other things, accounts for the familiar jurispru-dential idea that “hard cases make bad law,” as well as the doctrine of judicial discretion which authorizes legal authorities to make excep-tional rulings.)
Despite Hadley’s very confident language alleging that my ap-proach to assessing whether animals have the kind of rights human beings have (that would justify banning their use by human beings) fails, he has not shown such failure, nor, therefore, that my ideas lead to anything like the Nazi practices he claims I must endorse, nor, cer-tainly, that non-human animals have rights. They do not, whereas young and impaired human beings do, along, of course, with the rest of us (which makes good sense of why Amnesty International and various organizations monitoring governments and legal systems con-cerning whether they respect and protect rights are focusing on hu-man, not animals rights).
In his comment-review of my book in which a spend some time discussing so called animal rights (posted both on and his web site —Nathan Nobis says that my basic idea is that “a being has rights—it is wrong to harm it for pleasure or even serious bene-fits—only if it has a ‘moral nature,’ i.e., a ‘capacity’ to see the differ-ence between right and wrong and choose accordingly (pp. xv, 10).” This is roughly right but contains a serious misunderstanding.
This misunderstanding consists of a mischaracterizes having rights in a very important respect that really should be avoided.
Having rights does not mean it is wrong to harm someone for pleasure or even serious benefit, not if they consent (as in sports or scientific experiments). Having rights means it is wrong to invade someone’s person or property, as when I assault another person or rob him or trespass over his land. Harm is definitely not the issue since often invasive actions are not at all harmful, may even be quite help-ful. When someone is hospitalized against his will, this is invasive but it is not harmful—could, in fact, be helpful—but by rights theory it is also a violence against the person, against his human dignity. Or when someone is burglarized, this may not be harmful at all—the person may be so wealthy as not to suffer any harm from the burglary. If I trespass and take up residence on someone’s land, that may again not be at all harmful.
One clear way to appreciate this point is to contrast the benefi-cial nature of some paternalistic actions with their rights violating character. The whole point about rights is they spell out what Robert Nozick called the “moral space” surrounding moral agents, space re-quired for them to exercise meaningful moral choice (something non-human animals cannot do).
Indeed, in Putting Humans First I state that it may well be wrong to harm or hurt animals—I explicitly condemn wanton infliction of suf-fering—but that is not an issue of rights. For example, even in human relations, when one wrongs another person—say a friend or lover or kin—it is not even usually a matter of violating rights. It is more often, instead, not treating the person as he or she deserves or should be treated. Rights violations are only a small group of such untoward ac-tions toward others, mainly to serve as the basis of the rule of law in a free society.
Hadley goes on to add to his objection that “Machan says hu-mans are of that ‘kind’ [meaning moral agents] and animals are not and so concludes that humans have rights and animals have none. But these arguments are imprecise: true, only humans have this capacity, but only some humans, not all. Thus, his theory of rights seems to provide no protection for vulnerable humans who are not moral agents and so lack the moral nature he describes.”
The humans my critic says aren’t moral agents are, typically, in-fants and people in a coma and other marginal or borderline instances which are clearly enough known to be such (we could add people who happen to be asleep). A legal system that aims for the protection of human individual rights deals with some of these cases by making special provisions in light of their special attributes. To object to re-garding human beings in general as moral agents because of these marginal cases is akin to objecting to regarding, say, chairs as artifacts for sitting simply because, well, one cannot sit on museum chairs or broken ones.
The exceptional nature of these marginal cases is obvious but not relevant so long as they remain marginal. As the famous saying goes, “hard cases make bad law.” The point of rights is to spell out a broad framework for how to treat beings with a moral nature, not to address the special cases.
One should not develop theories about how the world should be understood based on marginal, exceptional cases, cases that, by the way, couldn’t even be identified as marginal or exceptional without first having a clear enough grasp of typical or normal ones an under-standing of which enables one to develop general principles, laws or rules. Where would medicine or engineering be if such exceptions could undercut the principles that guide our actions in these fields? In-deed, no one who embarks upon a systematic statement of ethical or legal principles, based on the most up to date substantive understand-ing of the world, is ever going to be able to produce the kind of geo-metrical framework these critics demand of me as I spell out a reason-able conception of human individual rights.

Summary of My Position
So what have I tried to do here? I outlined, very briefly, my skeptical argument about animal rights, claiming that the foundation for the sort of rights human beings are said to have does not obtain in the case of animals. I then responded to the charge that the rights I agree human beings have cannot be defended because human beings often fail to exhibit moral agency (when they are vulnerable, for ex-ample). And finally I replied to those who maintain that human beings lack moral agency altogether and any differentiation between human and animal rights based on this capacity must fail.
I should like to close with just one more important point. The fact that animals lack rights does not imply that no moral considera-tions apply to how human beings interact with them. Just as human beings may have moral responsibilities toward great works of art, none of which have rights, so they could also have moral responsibilities to-ward animals, or some animals, even though these animals have no rights. Rights talk pertains to human beings because of their capacity for moral agency. But even in the case of human beings, many other moral considerations apply to how they interact with one another and the world around them other than considerations of rights.
1 Tom Regan, The Case of Animals Rights, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.
2 Peter Singer, Animal Liberation , New York: New York Review of Books, 1975.
3 See, Peter Berkowitz, “Other People’s Mothers,” The New Republic, January 10, 2000. Berkowitz shows Singer to be a non-cognitivist and also makes note of the fact that despite Singer’s proclamation that the very old ought to be allowed to die and the resources to keep them alive ought to go to help those who suffer poverty and deprivation, Singer himself has spent extensive resources on helping his own elderly mother.
4 “Some Doubts About Animal Rights,” Journal of Value Inquiry, Vol. 19 (1985), 73-75.
5 Tibor R. Machan, “Do Animals Have Rights?” Public Affairs Quarterly, Vol. 5 (April 1991), 163-173.
6 Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004.
7 Hon-Lam Li & Anthony Yeung, eds., New Essays in Applied Ethics: Animal Rights, Personhood, and the Ethics of Killing (New York: Palgrave & Macmillan, 2006.
8 Nathaniel Branden, “The Stolen Concept,” Objectivist Newsletter, January 1963.
9 David Graham and Nathan Nobis, “Putting Humans First?” Journal of Ayn Rand Studies (Fall, 2006): 90-91.
10 John Gray, “Are We Born Moral?” The New York Review of Books, May 10, 2007, 26.
11 Ibid.
12 For more on this, see James G. Lennox, 'Teleology' in Keywords in Evolutionary Biology, eds. Evelyn Fox Keller and Elisabeth Lloyd, Cambridge MA , 1992, pp. 324-333, and 'Darwin was a Teleologist', Biology and Philosophy Vol. 8 (October 1993) pp. 408-421.
13 For more on this, see Tibor R. Machan, “Environmentalism Humanized,” Public Affairs Quarterly, Vol. 7 (April 1993), 131-147.
14 Tibor R. Machan, “Why Human Beings May Use Animals,” Journal of Value Inquiry 126 36(1) (2002).
15 See, John Hadley, “Using and Abusing Others: A Reply to Machan,” Journal of Value Inquiry xxx; 1-4, (2004)
16 Ibid., p. 2.
17 Indeed, that may well be the source of their negligence. For more on this point, see Tibor R. Machan, Classical Individualism (London, UK: Routledge, 1998), chapter 3, “Human Action and the Nature of Moral Evil.”
18 See, for example, Nathan Nobis at http://www. courses.
19 This pretty much means they are unable to produce any kind of theory of rights or ethical conduct based on an understanding of what kind of beings might have such rights or require certain conduct. Perhaps this is why these philosophers seem to be more apt to engage in criticism than theory development, at skeptical reflections rather than at producing a workable understanding of something.
20 I develop some of these points in greater detail in Tibor R. Machan, Putting Humans First, Why We Are Nature’s Favorite (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004).
21 Op. cit., Machan, Putting Humans First.
23 It was the philosopher J. Roger Lee who made all this clear in a paper titled “Choice and Harms,” critical of another philosopher, Judith Jarvis Thomson. (The exchange is included in M. Bruce Johnson and Tibor R. Machan, eds., Rights & Regulations [San Francisco: Pacific Legal Foundation, 1983].)
24 Unfortunately, these critics do not bother to look at the work I have produced on natural rights theory so as to develop my position as fully as possible—Tibor R. Machan, Human Rights and Human Liberties (Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1975), and Individuals and Their Rights (LaSalle, IL: Open Court, 1989), work that paves the way for my discussion of so called animal rights.
On a Blog called Technoraty one entry goes like this: "The libertarian arguments against animal rights I’ve seen, most of which stem from the tradition of Rand and/or Rothbard, engage in twin, massive cheats...." What a wonderful way to set out to engage in a discussion, is it not? Rand and Rothbard and others who see things roughly their way "engage in twin, massive cheats..." In other words, they are liars, not wrong! Well, there is no reason to talk with people who consider you a liar--clearly there is no hope of any kind of fruitful exchange once such a ad hominem has been hurled at someone. This is one way I am not all that fond of Blogging--there are too many people involoved who lack even a modicum of civility.
Ideas in Conflict

Tibor R. Machan

Amartya Sen is a Harvard University, Nobel Prize winner in economics, who has been Master of Trinity College at Cambridge University, where he also received much of his higher education. Sen has been a very active player in the field of political economic debates and although he is no champion of the fully free society, he has been closely associated with the ideas of human freedom as they relate to economic development in poor countries. He is widely respected and admired and was on excellent terms with both the late Robert Nozick, the Harvard libertarian political philosopher, and Peter Bauer, the late developmental economists who trusted classical ideas of liberty to serve as the best means to rescue the poor around the globe.

On of Sen’s most influential books is Development as Freedom (Knopf, 1999). At first glance the title suggests that Sen shares Bauer’s ideas but that would be wrong. Sen’s idea of what freedom means is very different from Bauer’s and other classical liberals and libertarians.

What Sen means by freedom is the ability—or capability—of people to take active part in politics whereby they can demand support for their various projects. We know this system as the democratic welfare state. But in Sen’s hands it has some nuances worth exploring.

For starters, Sen holds that the infrastructure or legal order of a country is something that is to be decided upon by way of the democratic process or national conversation. In other words, there are no principles such as the American Founder’s believed in, basic individual rights governments must secure. The principles, if we can even call them that, are conventional, decided upon in a kind of national dialogue. The idea of natural rights or natural laws that are supposed to be discovered and on which the law ought to rest is absent from Sen’s position. Everything is open for debate and discussion and only after the discussion has ended can we talk of constitutional principles, fundamental laws, justice and the like. As he puts it,

“Indeed, the connection between public reasoning and the formulation and use of human rights is extremely important to understand.~ Any general plausibility that these ethical claims, or their denials, have is dependent, on this theory, on their survival and flourishing when they encounter unobstructed discussion and scrutiny, along with adequately wide informational availability.” (“Elements of a Theory of Rights,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 32.4 [2004] p. 349.)

Contrary, then, to the American political tradition, which owes a great deal to John Locke’s idea of natural rights—meaning, rights derived from an understanding of an objectively ascertainable human nature—Sen’s idea of basic justice or right has no foundation in nature, only in widespread conversation.

Now this sounds like a coherent notion until one digs a bit into some of what is presupposed in Sen’s position. One thing, for example, that does not appear to rest on debate and discussion is the right of everyone to take part in the discussion! So it appears there is, after all, a natural base for Sen’s idea of freedom—everyone, because of his or her humanity, has the right to take part in political deliberations. Why? The one good answer to this is that by virtue of our human nature, we are entitle to have our political ideas aired in a human community. Being human, moral agents, is what this entitlement or right rests on, not on a discussion or debate.

Now if it is true that there is at least one principle that isn’t negotiable, namely, the principle of free political participation, there could be others. If it turns out that the same features of human nature that support this right to freedom also support other rights, they, too, would be morally and political immune to being discussed away.

One such right that is immediately evident is the right to private property. One’s labor and time, for example, couldn’t be up for public debate—no one has the right to decide that you or I may or may not make decisions respecting the disposition of our labor, our time, indeed, our lives!

Sen’s idea of freedom, however, strongly implies that participants in a democratic discussion and political debate could conclude with the idea that my or your or anyone’s life could be conscripted to serve various goals to which no consent has been given. But then the same could hold for the right of participation in political discussion—that right, too, could be debated away (and in some countries it has been and is, because the foundation of the right to take part in politics is not deemed to be natural but conventional).

A well integrated theory of freedom cannot accept that some of our rights are firmly grounded while others up for debate. These rights are all unalienable. Which means that democratic debate may not end with conclusions leading to the abrogation of these rights. And that is just the kind of freedom that the classical liberals, like Peter Bauer, believed is fundamental and not up for compromise. It is also the best avenue for development and emergence from poverty.

Professor Sen’s bifurcated theory of the right to freedom, whereby political participation is an absolute but property rights, for example, a mere conventional right, just will not hold up when fully scrutinized.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Some Little Good News

Tibor R. Machan

When you write columns, most of them turn out to be critical. This despite my beef about how mainstream news is routinely negative, so nothing much about new scientific advances, medical breakthroughs, great novels just finished, and so forth manages to be reported. But I don’t wish to fall in line with such negativism.

So here is a bit of good news. In her recent column, “Fooled by Winds of Reform,” in the International Herald Tribune (8/25-26/07), Camelia Entekhabifard wrote a line I must celebrate. She writes, “Iranian citizens who have sought to progressively influence the country’s youth....” The rest isn’t relevant to my point, so I’ll leave it be. But just notice: Entekhabifard uses “progressively” correctly, in contrast to nearly everyone else on the punditry circuit where the term “progressive” is mostly deployed to refer to some kind of statist measure by a government—more national health service, more wealth redistribution, more government regulation, etc., and so forth.

Now all these so called progressive measures are, of course, blatantly reactionary, the very opposite of progressive. “Progress” is supposed to be made when matters improve, when public policies become more adjusted the proper ideas and ideals of justice. These statist measures, in contrast, all entrust government with immense powers and they move the responsibility for solving problems from the voluntary to the coercive realms of society. All those who have this blind faith in government hold out hope that if only some problem is handed over to politicians and bureaucrats, matters will be just fine. (They really ought to learn more about public choice theory!) Yet that is the old idea of the top-down running of society, the idea that shored up monarchies for centuries, the idea that wasn’t given up by the so called revolutionaries like Karl Marx.

So what most call “progressive” is, in fact, regressive, reactionary, and, most importantly, fatally flawed. (As F. A. Hayek called the notion, “a fatal conceit.”) In historical terms the idea of progress should be attached to developments that free people from dependence on government. Given that for centuries on end problem-solving had been entrusted to pharaohs, tsars, monarchs, dictators, and politburos, why would continuing and enhancing such a system be construed as progress?

No. It is indeed, as the remark by Entekhabifard implies, when citizens take over the task of running their lives and governments are kept to the minimal job of keeping the peace that true progress is in evidence. So it would be progress if Iranian citizens gained the right to self-determination and take from their government the power to influence the country’s youth by means of various versions of coercion.

Come to think of it, this is so even in Western societies, where, sadly, the education of the young is entrusted to governments, as if that didn’t mean mostly indoctrination rather that teaching! (There should be a separation of education and the state just as firmly secured in law as there is of the separation of religion and the state! That way not only would there be greater justice but we could be truly critical of what is going on in so many near-totalitarian countries across the globe where education is firmly in the hands of governments.)

There should really be a groundswell campaign in support of taking back the concept “progressive” from those who try to hoodwink us all into believing that re-empowering governments around the globe is what progress consist of. It doesn’t. Even in terms of simple history, that is rank regress.

All in all, of course, there is no guarantee that matters will change—progress—as they ought to. That is a matter of human will and determination, not of impersonal historical forces. The only type of progress that people can hope for, at the broad public policy level, would involve making of government nothing but a body guard, not our secular or spiritual savior! If it were not for the strongly entrenched, age old governmental habit, this kind of progress may in time get off the ground.
Keep Talking of What You Know

Tibor R. Machan

As an avid fan of tennis as well as some features of the Sunday supplement magazine, Parade—my secret pleasure is to read Walter Scott’s inside front cover gossip column and Marilyn von Savant’s “Ask Marilyn”—I was looking forward to read the interview with Andre Agassi, former tennis megastar. I was looking forward to his views on tennis—the recent Wimbledon and U. S. Open tournaments, some of the current greats like Roger Federer, the Williams sisters, Maria Sharapova, et al.

You can imagine my dismay when what the piece offered up is Andre’s slip shod philosophy of life. Ditties like “It’s better to be lucky than good,” and “I’m a tortured soul in most things I do; I’ve succeeded at something that at times I’ve hated, and that’s relevant to the person who goes down to the auto repair shop and puts in his time.” Hardly a word about tennis!

So you may ask, who am I to complain. After all, I’ve kept writing columns, books, articles, scholarly papers, and giving lectures and seminars nearly nonstop for nearly 40 years. Surely I must be talking a lot about stuff I know little about.

Not really. Mostly I try hard to stick to the topics I have researched and studied all my life and leave ones I know little about untouched or at most for speculation and questioning. Why? Well, I’d want to be right about things, not just babble on about them.

Take that offensive bit about auto repair shop workers. Has Agassi done serious research about whether folks who work that job hate it? I actually check out such things and have managed to ascertain, though only informally, that a great many people who work at jobs others wouldn’t go near with a considerable measure of satisfaction. Take folks who collect trash. Some might think they just have to hate the work but it doesn’t look like it.

Indeed, when I hear about how long a vacation most Europeans take each summer—from five to ten weeks, the International Herald Tribune reported recently—while Americans tend to take only about two or three weeks, I suspect the reason is that Europeans on average treat work as a chore, while Americans tend to turn work into something rewarding if not out and out enjoyable.

I recall when I was working at a U.S. Army depot in my teens, the team of kids who took on the job of re-strapping a whole lot of oil boxes that have been badly strapped to start with, we managed to make the work into something of a contest and, thus, quite a lot of fun. When I drove a school bus during my graduate school days, I nearly always enjoyed it despite the early hours and screaming students. And back when I was a box cart loader I learned how to make loading up those freight wagons a challenge and, thus, not at all a pain. So, I suspect that most people who work in auto repair shops have chosen this line of work so as to suit their talents, inclinations, options, and such and aren’t moaning about how badly they have it in life.

Yes, tennis is enjoyable, but it is foolish to think it is the only enjoyable profession for people. The one-size-fits all attitude Agassi exhibits in his comment should remain a secret prejudice of the man, not a piece of supposedly worthy insight from which perhaps some of his fans will take a very bad lesson.

No less flawed is the idea that it is better to be lucky than good—to start with, those who aren’t good, tend to blow their luck on trivial pursuits. Moreover, luck is something we cannot do much about—it either comes or it doesn’t—whereas goodness is up to us and we can usually make a decent effort to bring it about in our lives.

Anyway, the point is not complicated: Folks do better talking about stuff they know about than when they just shoot off their mouths, perhaps with the illusion that having gotten good at one thing, they are now experts at everything.