Column on Another Criticism of “Animal Rights”

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.

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