Saturday, August 27, 2011

Another Criticism of “Animal Rights”

Tibor R. Machan

Though this is a topic that I have visited on several occasions, having recently become an avid fan of the Discovery Channel’s series on life in the deep oceans and other seas, I am motivated to observe just how absurd the notion of animal rights really is.

Here we have the oceans of the globe teeming with billions of critters of immense variety. Looked at close up these are often very beautiful animals, indeed, and their agility is fantastic, to say the least. Not that people cannot match what these animals can do, although some of their feats are not within human reach except with extensive technological assistance. But it is undeniable that the wales, octopuses, herrings, crabs, seals, sharks; they do have amazing lives and incidentally put on a great show. At times what they do takes one’s breath away!

But there is an element to the lives of all these animals that makes it very clear that although there is much that we humans share with them--as with other animals across the earth--there is one area where humans really are distinctive, namely, in having a moral dimension in their lives. The widespread and unrestrained carnage that is routine in the seas is something that is mostly found seriously objectionable when evident among people, at least for the last several thousand years. Not that human beings always conduct themselves peacefully, properly and in a civilized fashion. But that when they do not, it is properly found to be wrong, morally objectionable. It is no excuse to say, well that’s just how we are--carnivorous beasts, through and through. Animals, however, are mostly just that. And their fans among us testify to this when they direct their moral ire at us, not the killers among them.

Here what comes to my mind is the moral high ground claimed by those who object to eating meat, by vegans, for example, who choose to consume only vegetables not for reasons of nutrition but for supposedly moral ones. In short, the claim is that vegans act as we all should, refraining from killing and otherwise using animals. (Exactly why it’s OK to kill fruits and vegetables is a complicated story told by them.) Clearly, however, all those murderous animals of the seas, planes and forests are acting just as they must--there is nothing of “should or should not” about any of it. Right and wrong do not pertain to how nonhuman animals carry on, mainly because they have no choice about it, at least none that is evident. In contrast, people have identifiable standards that guide them to do what is right and avoid what is wrong. And when these are violated, they can be chided, even condemned. In short, people have a moral nature which other animals do not.

It can be wished for, of course, that the carnage in the wilds diminish, that wild animals behaved nicer toward one another but that is all it is, a wish. That’s the Bamby syndrome, as some call it, extrapolating from the human animal to the rest, a bit in the fashion of Disney animations.

But there is no justification for this, seriously! Any careful observation of the rest of nature will make it evident that applying moral criteria to how animals live is in error--what philosophers have called a “category mistake.” And at the same time and for similar reasons, ascribing rights to animals is also misguided, just as would be to ascribe guilt to them when they carry out their killings and maiming in the wilds.

I am not about to speculate on the motivation behind the way some animal lovers want us to relate to animals and why they insist on confusing them with us in certain important respects. These may vary a great deal. Certainly empathy plays a role--we do share a great deal with the rest of the animals, including the capacity for feeling pain and even loss. But none of these translate well into the moral point of view and making the attempt can lead to unnecessary hostilities among human beings and even worse, to public policies that are very intrusive.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

From Machan’s Archives: The Deficit and the Tragedy of the Commons

(December 2004)

In the 4th century B. C. Aristotle identified a very important principle of community life. He demonstrated the social value of the right to private property. He said,

"That all persons call the same thing mine in the sense in which each does so may be a fine thing, but it is impracticable; or if the words are taken in the other sense, such a unity in no way conduces to harmony. And there is another objection to the proposal. For that which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it. Every one thinks chiefly of his own, hardly at all of the common interest; and only when he is himself concerned as an individual. For besides other considerations, everybody is more inclined to neglect the duty which he expects another to fulfill; as in families many attendants are often less useful than a few." (Politics, 1262a30-37)

This same idea was more recently clarified by Professor Garrett Hardin, in his 1968 article, "The Tragedy of the Commons," published in the prestigious magazine Science. Hardin gave the example of common grazing area used by several owners of cattle to feed their livestock. Because there are no borders identifying what area belongs to which cattle owner, the commons tend to be overused, not because of any greed but because each cattle owners wants to achieve the best possible results, namely, feed the cattle adequately.

The principle at issue has been very fruitfully applied to environmental problems and the conclusion has been drawn by many scholars that without extensive privatization of what are now treated as public properties - lakes, rivers, beaches, forests, and even the air mass - environmental problems will remain unsolved. Everyone knows that a problem exists with common ownership but no one can do anything about it without changing what is commonly owned to private property. The political will and savvy to achieve the solution is, of course, lagging far behind the analysis that identified the solution. Still, in this area, at least, such identification has occurred.

What has not been widely noticed is that a tragedy of the commons exists, as well, in our national treasury. We have here what by law amounts to a common pool of resources from which members of the political community will try to extract as much as will best serve their purposes. Be it for purposes of artistic, educational, scientific, agricultural, athletic, medical, or general moral and social progress, the treasury stands to be dipped into by all citizens in a democratic society. And everyone has very sound reasons to try to dip into it - their goals are usually well enough thought out so they have confidence in their plans. They know that if they receive support from the treasury, they can further their goals. So they will do whatever they can to do just that, namely, extract from the commons as much for their purposes as is feasible.

But, as both Aristotle and Professor Hardin knew, the commons are going to be exploited without regard to standards or limits - "that which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it." Which explains, at least in part, why the treasuries of most Western democracies are being slowly depleted and deficits are growing without any sign of restraint. Japan, Germany, Great Britain and, of course, the United States of America are all experiencing this, as are numerous other societies that make their treasuries available to the public to use for sheer private purposes. For how else can we construe education, scientific research, the building of athletic parks, the upkeep of beaches and forests and so forth than the pursuit of special private goals by way of a common treasury?

Some might try to obscure this by claiming that all these goals involve a public dimension. Of course. So does nearly every private purpose - including the widely decried phenomenon of industrial activity that produces the negative public side effect of pollution and contributes to the depletion of a quality environment. Private goals can have public benefits. But their goal is to serve the specific objectives of some individuals. When AIDs research is supported from the public treasury, the first beneficiaries of success would be those with AIDs, not those who haven't contracted the disease. When theater groups gain support from the National Endowment for the Arts, there may be beneficiaries beyond those obtaining funding but they are still the ones who benefit directly, immediately. When milk producers gain a federal subsidy by having the price of milk fixed or their withholding of production compensated, they are the first to gain from this, not some wider public.

And so on with thousands of other "public" projects - they are, actually, supporting private goals, first and foremost. One need only observe who lobbies for them. But because the treasure is public property, there is no way to allocate what is in there rationally, with proper budgetary constraints. Instead politicians embark on deficit spending - taking non-existing funds, ones not yet collected but only rather uncertainly anticipated, and funding the requests without restraint.

And there is no end in sight. Only when the country no longer has the credit worthiness in the world community, so that its bonds will no longer be backed by hopeful lenders, will the Ponzy scheme be called to a screeching halt. We will have to declare bankruptcy and those of our citizens who had nothing at all to do with the enterprise will be left to hold the empty bag, namely, our grandchildren.

Not unless the treasury stops allowing private projects to be funded from its coffers, confining itself to the support of bona fide public projects - the courts, the military, and police – will there be an end that avoids the perhaps greatest tragedy of the commons. To reach such a position of financial responsibility, the governments of our society will have to sell off all the unwisely held common assets - lands, parks, beaches, buildings, forests, lakes and such - to private parties. They will thus liberate members of our future generations from the shackles that have been so irresponsibly placed upon them by means of the tragedy of the commons.

Tibor R. Machan holds the R. C. Hoiles Chair in Business Ethics and Free Enterprise at the Argyros School of Chapman University. His (unproofed) columns are stored @ &