Okay, let’s talk about Animal Rights – I’m agin’ ‘em.
Now, before you start gathering faggots of wood to go along with the pitchforks and torches, let me explain.
I’m a certified (certifiable?) tree-hugger from way back. I’m also an animal nut and help out at an exotic animal rescue facility. So clearly my objection doesn’t come from the you’re-bad-cause-you-think-animals-are-more-important-than-people side of the political spectrum. (When you compare perhaps 4,000 black rhinos against 7 billion human beings on this planet, I’m on the side of the rhinos.) Nor does it come from the side that thinks tests on lab animals that might save lives are immoral. As far as I’m concerned, if it will cure cancer or AIDS, the lab rats have to go.
No. My objection to Animal Rights is based on Philosophy 101.
Back in the dark ages, when I was in college, we had lots of readings and lots of discussions about exactly what constituted a “right” and who could share them. What I retained from that was a simple notion: a Right is a necessary complement to a Responsibility. You cannot have one without the other.
Another way of saying that is that every right bestows a correlative responsibility. The old saw has it that your right to swing your fist stops at the end of my nose. You have to use your liberty (one of Jefferson’s “natural” rights) responsibly and, if you do, noone has a right to take it away from you. If you don’t use it responsibly…
Note that “Nature’s God” (Jefferson, again) doesn’t protect any absolute right not to have my nose broken. If I walk into a door, all bets are off. My right only applies to your fist.
And that is the point. Rights only apply to beings who can understand the complementary responsibility.
Which animals, clearly, cannot.
For me, at least, it is not a question of whether some animal has the right to live. Rather it is a question of what gives some human being the right kill that animal. The right and (if you’ll pardon the word play) the wrong of the action lies wholly within the human being. Question of rights and wrongs fall into the moral and the legal spheres, neither of which an animal shares.
If you harm or neglect an animal, you may be morally wrong. You may also have committed a crime. You may have misused your right to do something or have done something which you had no right to do. But either way, the right or lack of it lay wholly with you.
And while we are reviewing Philosophy 101, let’s look at the idea of Power. Simply because you have the power to do something, does not automatically confer on you the right to do it.
Let’s suppose you have a lab full of bunnies. You bought them and you paid for them. You can do pretty much whatever you want with them. You can squirt a new shampoo into their faces to see if it harms their eyes. You can inject them with a cancer to see how it progresses and if you can cure it.
As a moral issue, you might feel that hurting rabbits to test your shampoo is superior to using human babies. Or you might decide that there are better ways to test you shampoo than causing rabbits to squeal. You could reasonably argue that cancer is such a dread disease that infecting some rabbits which you will later euthanize is a small price to pay for the wider benefit. Equally, you could decide to design an in vitro model for your research
The fact that you have the power to do something doesn’t solve the moral (or legal) question. In fact, it presents you with a right and wrong question to solve before you can act.
The fact that you have a high-powered rifle with a telescopic scope does not give you the right to shoot that idiot neighbor who blasts his stereo at 3 AM. It merely provides the temptation to do so.
The fact that you’ve adopted a stray dog does not give you the right to neglect it, to let it be sick, or to let it starve. You have the power to do those things, but it would be inhuman to do so.
Once you accept the power, you get both right and responsibility along with it. You have the power over those rabbits, and the responsibility to be as humane as possible. You have the power to shoot your neighbor, but also the responsibility to use your rifle wisely. You have the power to neglect and abuse your dog, but no right whatsoever to do so.
Rights don’t accrue to animals. Happily, neither do responsibilities. If you can’t accept and exercise the responsibility, you can’t enjoy the right. Human beings, for good or ill, have acquired a great deal of power over other creatures, both human and animal. That gives us both rights and responsibilities. It is our job, alone.
According to the Bible, man was given dominion over the animals. But, to quote a 19th century English lord speaking in Parliament, “The dominion is not absolute, but is limited by the obligations of justice and mercy.”
Limited, in short, by our humanity.