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The Danger of Animal Rights
by Diana Mertz Hsieh

Date: 6 Dec 94
Forum: Washington University in St-Louis, Argumentation class
Copyright: Diana Mertz Hsieh

The question of whether animal rights should be integrated into the legal code of the United States depends upon a whole series of antecedent questions like: What are rights? What is the purpose of rights? What is meant by "animal rights"? What are the criteria for possessing rights? and What would some consequences be of implementing animal rights? These are complex questions which must be answered in order to ascertain whether animal rights exist and should be protected. Since this controversy is often emotionally charged, we must be careful to remain objective, rejecting appeals to pity and simplistic "moral intuitions."

Rights are not, as the Declaration of Independence states, self-evident. Rather rights are complex principles which indicate the necessary restraints on human action in society so that individuals can survive and flourish. The traditional rights of life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness enable an individual to sustain her own life by protecting her against the aggression and unwanted interference of others, thus freeing her to pursue her own values. Now although I could argue that the government's primary responsibility is to protect these rights, for this discussion it is only necessary to indicate that the government should never violate rights. No government should use its power to arbitrarily dispose of the lives and property of its citizens.

Animal rights activists often argue that animals are entitled to the same sort of legal protection to which humans are entitled. This argument is justified by claiming either that animals have rights or that humans have moral obligations to animals that should be legally enforced. If animals have rights, they should be protected by the government. But if no such rights exist, then enacting laws which force humans to treat animals in a certain fashion would violate the legitimate rights of humans. In other words, the human rights of freedom of action and of property would be systematically undermined if animals were granted unwarranted protection by law. Because, as I will show, all claims that animals have rights are illegitimate, attempts to legally protect animals from harm, no matter how well-intentioned, will inevitably result in the violation of human rights.

In the preceding explanation of rights, I indicated that the purpose of rights is to provide the necessary conditions for the survival and flourishing of individuals. Implicit in this formulation is the idea that the recognition and protection of the legitimate rights of others is a necessary part of everyone's well-being. For example, in On Liberty John Stuart Mill argues extensively for freedom of speech, stating that if a true idea is suppressed people "are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth" and if the suppressed opinion is wrong, "they lose. . . the clearer perception and livelier impression of the truth." (21) The principle is the same for other rights: it is better to let people see their own mistakes than prevent them from making mistakes at all by violating their rights. By the same token, if animals do have rights, recognizing and protecting them will be in the interest of both humans and animals.

But granting and attempting to protect animal rights would be disastrous to humans, as well as to the detriment of many animals. Humans derive enormous benefit from medical testing on animals; in fact human life has been extended by 28 years by the very tests that animal rights activists are so quick to denounce as "useless torture." (Hughes 35) A National Review article reported that "animal research has led to vaccines against diphtheria, polio, measles, mumps, whopping cough, effective treatment of diabetes, and control of infection through antibiotics." (56-7) Although computer simulations and cell cultures can be used instead of animals in some medical research, human lives would be sacrificed by relying too extensively upon such methods because they are more simplistic than actual living systems and can omit crucial variables. The human consumption of meat is also attacked by animal rights activists as an unnecessary and unnatural part of human life. But human life is not just mere survival; happiness, comfort, and the enjoyment of life all make life worth living, and thinking strictly in terms of survival unnecessarily restricts human potential. By analogy, just because a woman can physically survive locked in her house, periodically beaten by her husband, doesn't mean that she ought to pursue such a life or that others should force her into it.

Similarly, granting rights to animals would be harmful to animals themselves because of the specific rights proposed, namely right to be free from unnecessary suffering. But because pain is a natural part of life, the only way to truly escape pain is through death. Of course, the death of animals is not the desired goal of most animal rights activists (although it is the goal of some), but it is the logical consequence of upholding the right to freedom from unnecessary suffering.

The argument for animal rights as freedom from unnecessary suffering relies upon the assertion that the capacity to suffer is the standard by which we should determine which creatures have rights and which do not. As Jeremy Bentham is often quoted as saying, "the question is not, Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?" (Hearne 60) This view of the origin of rights stands in sharp contrast with the classical position that only animals with the capability to reason -- in other words, only humans -- have rights. Since we have already seen some of the problems with the view that rights stem from the ability to suffer, let's take a closer look at the classical position.

Determining the necessary attributes of rights-bearing creature is a difficult task, so let me illustrate, with an example, the principles involved. A man, much to his dismay, is being devoured by a ferocious tiger. The man, in an attempt to stop the tiger, yells, "Stop you criminal! Rights violator! Initiator of force!" Clearly this is not only an ineffective strategy, but also an incorrect use of terminology. Why can't we rightfully accuse the tiger of violating rights? In short, because he cannot reason and lacks free will. And for these very same reasons, we cannot say that the tiger has rights himself, because rights are a set of reciprocal relationships, or in other words, only the animals that have rights are expected to respect the rights of others.

Although animal rights activists would downplay the importance of the human capacity to reason, to use abstractions and logic, is the human consciousness, not any physical attribute, that enable our survival. Skyscrapers, breathtaking works of art, and even the books crusading for animal rights are only made possible by the use of reason. Granting rights to beings who cannot reason, who are incapable of understanding what rights are or why they should be respected would destroy the reciprocity of rights. Animals would be permitted to systematically violate the rights of humans, because animals could not do better, while humans would be bound by law to respect the rights of animals. This double standard would destroy the necessary coherence in a system of rights. By the same token, an animal who does not have free will, whose instincts determine its course of action would not be capable of choosing to respect rights, could not be said to have rights.

No animals, with the exception of humans, have a rational faculty and free will; only humans are capable of understanding what rights are, weighing possible courses of action, and choosing one course of action over another. Edwin Locke, who did extensive investigation into the studies which claimed to show that chimps can reason and abstract found that these studies showed no such thing, but rather showed that the chimps were making perceptual associations. For example, no chimp ever learned to count, not even in the experiments that ran 500,000 trials, because counting necessitates abstracting away the particular entities in a group and selectively focussing on a particular quantity. Obviously, an animal that cannot understand what the number "thirty-five" means will never be able to understand what rights are or why they should not be violated. And if the closest relatives of humans, the primates, cannot be said to meet the criteria for rights, an argument for the rights of lower animals is virtually impossible.

I wish to briefly address the charge of "speciesism," which animal rights activists repeatedly level against those who oppose their radical agenda. Peter Singer, who launched the animal rights movement with his book Animal Liberation, defined speciesism as "prejudice or attitude of bias toward the interests of members of one's own species and against those of members of other species." By labeling concern for human interest above the interests of animals as an "-ism" and linking it to racism and sexism, animal rights activists hope to convince people that concern for one's own life and happiness or even for the lives of other humans is evil. This is altruism run amuck, where selfless concern for other humans is not longer a great enough sacrifice; now even regarding the life of a human as more important than the life of an ant is a moral crime.

The force of the accusation of "speciesism" rests upon a fallacious analogy between speciesism and sexism or racism. Sexism and racism attempt use inessential traits, like sex, skin color, and ethnic origin, as indicators of intellectual inferiority. In contrast, speciesism is the recognition that there are real differences in mental and physical ability within the animal kingdom which ought to affect our treatment of other animals. For example, recognizing the important distinctions between housecats and lions and treating each species accordingly is, at the very least, simple prudence, for refusing to recognize these differences could result in severe injury. It is a fact that humans have a more advanced consciousness than any other known species which gives them an incredible advantage in the natural world. It is a fact that to advocate the interests of another species at the expense of one's own interests will eventually bring death. And these are precisely the facts that those who decry "speciesism" wish others to ignore.

In sum, animal rights should not be integrated into our current system of rights for the simple reason that animals don't have rights. Of course, rejecting the legitimacy of animal rights is not tantamount to condoning animal cruelty, nor does it prevent anyone from peaceably advocating for more humane treatment for animals. Public awareness and debate, economic pressure, and boycotting are effective means of diminishing the mistreatment of animals which do not violate the rights of humans. If the arguments presented in favor of better treatment of animals are strong enough, concerned citizens will be able to secure change without government interference.

Works Cited

Hearne, Vicki. "What's Wrong with Animal Rights." Harpers Sept. 1991: 59-64.

Hughes, Jane. "Reigning cats and dogs." National Review 23 July 1990: 35+.

Locke, Edwin. "The Truth About Animal Cognition." The Jefferson School, 1989.

Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty. New York: Oxford University Press. 1991.

Singer, Peter. Animal Liberation.

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