The incongruity of “animal rights.”

Many Market Anarchists fail to grasp the significance of the concept of “rights,” and prefer to adopt a more “everything goes” attitude, at least insofar as social principles are concerned. However, this begs a question: when is aggression justified?

Even answering “all aggression is justified, but I am also justified in retaliating against it,” which would be a standard “no-rights” approach, is in itself a statement of rights. Rights, after all, can be most simply defined as a principle regarding when aggression is or isn’t justified. The only problem with this model is that it is contradictory. To claim that one is justified in using violence against an act is to claim that the act is unjustified. One cannot then start from the premise that said act is also justified.

When discussing rights, statists raise two main issues: “positive rights” and “animal rights.” They try to slip the State in by claiming that we need the security afforded by the “positive rights”: freedom from fear, freedom from want. They demand that man’s use of other species be constrained by the rule of law. In this entry I will examine the notion of “animal rights” and how the nature of rights fundamentally contradicts this statist construct.

First, we must ask: how do we know rights exist? The answer is that we know rights exist because they are axiomatic. And we know they are axiomatic because any attempt to deny the existence of rights leads into a direct contradiction, as I already pointed out. Whatever stance we take, we have no choice but to declare some acts justified and some unjustified.

The simplest and clearest position on rights in Market Anarchist theory is expounded upon by Benjamin Tucker as such:

When I describe a man as an invader, I cast no reflection upon him; I simply state a fact. Nor do I assert for a moment the moral inferiority of the invader’s desire. I only declare the impossibility of simultaneously gratifying the invader’s desire to invade and my desire to be let alone. That these desires are morally equal I cheerfully admit, but they cannot be equally realized. Since one must be subordinated to the other, I naturally prefer the subordination of the invader’s, and am ready to co-operate with non-invasive persons to achieve that result.

This is somewhat of a radical position, at least as regards to moral judgment, but regardless of its radical nature it reveals fundamental Market Anarchist truths. As Tucker points out, one cannot support both the invader and the victim’s actions. On any given social issue, one can only either support the parasitic invaders (the ruling class and its supporters, as well as more petty criminals) or their victims (the “citizenry”). Statists support the invaders; Minarchists, both depending on the issue; Market Anarchists support the victims. The State is not immoral solely because it is violent; but the State is immoral because it imposes violence on those who do not wish violence.

The concept of “animal rights” hinges, not on which act is justified, but on whether other species are social agents at all. After all, the issue of whether this or that act is justified only arises because certain human beings live in society with each other. The issue of whether you are justified in punching me or not does not arise in the first place unless we are already in society with each other, meaning that we exchange values (as per the definition of society). If we’re not, as in the case of clashing armies, the issue does not arise at all: we consider each other to be the equivalent of lumber or fish, in short as objects to be killed or exploited and not as human beings. All refusals to respect the rights of others can be reduced to the desire to treat other individuals like objects and not like individuals.

So the issue of “animal rights” reduces itself to: do animals of other species live in society with us? No. Most animals of other species live in a state of nature, and the values they provide to society are solely harvested by human beings. There is one exception, and that is pets. Pets live in society with their owners, but only because that relationship is maintained by constraint and training. So this social relationship is also conditional on human work.

Opponents argue that this attitude is “unenlightened.” In their attempted refutation of Argumentation Ethics (the most basic argument about the axiomicity of rights, and not the one I explained here), Murphy and Callahan claim that the proposition that polar bears are not in society with us (not their words but mine) is as untenable as Aristotle’s position that barbarians are irrational and thus do not deserve rights. Aristotle’s bigotry prevented him from considering barbarians as human beings, and we may be in the same position, or so goes the argument.

But this is hackneyed. Surely a bigoted position about other human beings is not the epistemic equivalent of simply observing that polar bears can’t talk or have higher reasoning. It’s not as if, like Aristotle, we simply refuse to observe or study polar bears and use our bigoted judgments instead, only interacting with them to kill or maim. The idea that modern man is unenlightened to this level is simply silly. Rather the opposite: we like other species rather too much, to the point of ignoring scientific facts.

So “animal rights” cannot exist because we do not live in society with animals of other species. Living in society is of vital moral importance, as the fulfillment of our values depends heavily on other people. The State is the enemy of society, and therefore to associate State coercion with the defence of rights is contradictory.

The second problem is somewhat simpler, but no less fatal. It can be explained in one word: predation. This is a “killer argument” (pun intended). If a salmon has rights, then it is unjustifiable for a bear to eat it. We are also perfectly justified to arrest the bear for this. But such a conclusion is clearly absurd. Statists only want to apply their standard to humans, not to other species. But if both the salmon and the bear have rights, then they obviously are also responsible for respecting those rights as they exist in each other. “Animal rights” are not rights but the statist exploitation of private property mascarading as a benevolent enforcement of rights.

Statists often confuse rights with moral obligation. Rights do provide moral obligation, but they are not, by far, the only kind of moral obligation we recognize as valid. I do not recognize the right of any non-human animal to be treated “compassionately,” but that does not mean I go around maiming and goring them. The fact that I do not recognize rights for, say, a dog does not mean that I do not value the dog’s well-being in any way. I have other reasons to value this. A baby has no rights, but this does not mean that babies should be left to starve and die. We have numerous moral reasons to value babies which have nothing to do with rights.

The concept of “animal rights” is ultimately nothing more but an extension of utilitarianism: an attempt to extend the arbitrary principle of “minimization of suffering” (why suffering?) to an arbitrary bracket. Why not bacteria, trees or rocks? Granted, they do not feel pain, but neither do many sea creatures, according to studies, and animals simpler than fish definitely do not. Like any other belief system, once we start looking beyond the sound bites, logical contradictions abound.

9 thoughts on “The incongruity of “animal rights.”

  1. James Pyrich April 7, 2007 at 14:05

    How does it work out that a baby has no rights? If a baby starts out with no rights, at what point does it acquire them?

    My understanding of rights is that a baby has rights but does not yet possess the capacity to exercise or defend those rights. That falls upon the caretaker(s) of the baby until such time as the baby-grown-into-child is able to engage in reciprocity.

  2. Francois Tremblay April 7, 2007 at 17:00

    Basically, children acquire rights as they become intellectually and physically capable of grasping and using them. At least that is the rough idea.

  3. James Pyrich April 9, 2007 at 08:02

    I apologize, I may be conflating “self-ownership” with what you’re talking about. Are you talking about “effective” rights, in that a mentally-retarded person or an invalid can only ever take advantage of so many rights due to their respective conditions?

  4. Francois Tremblay April 9, 2007 at 08:18

    What right exactly can an invalid not take advantage of?

  5. James Pyrich April 9, 2007 at 20:03

    I erred. I should have chosen an individual suffering from progressive dementia (sort of a child-in-reverse) rather than an invalid for the purposes of posing my question.

    My initial thought regarding the invalid was that he is bedridden and physically unable to defend himself. Of course, he can uphold his right to do so by proxy.

  6. Francois Tremblay April 9, 2007 at 20:06

    Well, yes. A bedridden invalid can still communicate with others and see to his interests. A foetus or a bear can’t.

  7. ed42 April 12, 2007 at 21:54

    Just to play devil’s advocate…

    Combining elements of your last post “The Viciousness of Social Coercion.” with this one.

    Last post you said “This is very difficult, and turning a human being into a conditioning machine demands constant propaganda efforts. But it can be very workable, as the current sad state of some people demonstrates.”

    Is there a point in which this “conditioning machine” becomes a non “social agent” (i.e., an animal as described in this post), such that they no longer have positive rights?

    PS. I agree with your posts, I’m just thinking out loud.

  8. Francois Tremblay April 12, 2007 at 22:00

    An interesting point. As I mentioned, fighting armies are not social agents, as long as they fight each other. Someone who is wholly hostile to others, and refuses to trade with free individuals, could perhaps become a “non social agent.” However this is purely hypothetical, as even a politician or a soldier depends on voluntary trade to a large extent.

  9. […] Francois Tremblay at Check Your Premises unmuddles the mess that is the “rights” issue and especially as it pertains to […]

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