I’m going to open by saying that I do not believe in animal rights; so you can stop reading or post a vitriolic comment now if you wish.

Fundamentally, I believe that having a “right” is enmeshed with the idea of having a choice. If you aren’t in a situation where you can make a choice, whether or not that choice is realistic, then you are denied that particular right. You can have the right to vote, for example, and choose not to; but if you are denied the right to vote, then you can’t choose whether or not to do so.

That’s a very simplistic and familiar example, of course. You can choose to rob a bank, but by law you don’t have the right to do so. The latter is arguably an example of the government depriving you of the right to make a particular choice, and I think most of us would support that particular prohibition. The ability to choose is not the same as having a right; but offhand I can’t think of an example wherein you have a right but do not have a choice. (I’m sure someone can come up with one.) I’m not counting situations in which social mores, personal ethics, or religious beliefs come into play since I posit that those are in themselves choices.

That’s enough gruendlichkeit. Let’s get back to my theme.

From single celled creatures almost all the way up, animals (and vegetables, for that matter) do not have the ability to make choices. They have astoundingly complex instincts, so complex that I marvel that something with so few neurons has the ability to exhibit the behaviors that it does; but an amoeba doesn’t have the ability to think “I feel like sleeping in today, I’ll get something to eat later.” It isn’t capable of making that choice.

Now I’m going to backtrack and soften my opening comments, which were provocative and admittedly designed to attract attention.

I do believe that as we work our way up the branches of the evolutionary bush (it is a common misconception that it is a tree), we do reach heights at which the distinction between instinct and the ability to think becomes very blurry. In point of fact, I’m inclined to think that it is self-awareness, rather than actual thought, that makes the difference. Baboons are self-aware even though they cannot, so far as we know, contemplate the world beyond their troupe, and they are able to make choices. Chimpanzees are certainly self-aware, can do rudimentary arithmetic without training, and are aware of the thoughts of others to several degrees; they are also, of course, able to make choices. Dogs are able to make choices, although their degree of self-awareness is a matter of debate. Cats are so inscrutable that we have no clue what’s going on in their furry little heads; for all we know, when a cat stares at a random point on the ceiling it is receiving some inspiration from on high.

I could go on forever, or at least until I ran out of animals, speculating on which creatures reside above or below my postulated grey area; but there’s no point. The question I raised is whether or not animals have rights. I also pointed out that human beings do not have absolute rights, regardless of the range of choices they might have.

It is commonplace for one group of human beings to deny others the rights that they, themselves, have. Sometimes this is viewed as slavery or oppression; sometimes (such as making it illegal for three-year-olds to drive) it is regarded as protecting society; all too often “protecting society” is used as a pretext for denying other people what could be considered rights.

So if we often deny other people their rights, what does this mean for our treatment of animals? Are we denying them their rights, and hence the ability to make choices? I would argue that this is as murky as the distinction between animals that can, in fact, make choices and those that cannot. I would maintain that the degree to which they have rights is a matter of degree; worse yet, it is a subjective matter of degree.

Since the question of animal rights, and which animals have them, and to what degree, is subjective it is not surprising that people have a wide variety of opinions. Let’s take the rather extreme example of what people eat:

  • Some people won’t eat honey, because (I guess) they believe it is cruel to the bees to steal the fruits of their labor.
  • Some people will eat honey, but (presumably) wouldn’t eat the bees themselves.
  • Some people will eat animals that were hunted down and killed.
  • Some people will only eat wild animals that were culled as a matter of good husbandry.
  • Some people will only eat domestic animals that were raised for that purpose.
  • Some people will only eat animals that were raised humanely, whatever that means for an animal that is destined for the dinner plate.
  • Some people will not eat what are considered companion animals.
  • Some people will eat anything that doesn’t outrun them.

There was recently a dustup between an animal rights group and the people running an agricultural fair about the presence of an elephant act. Here’s how the local political cartoonist summed it up:
Cruelty at the Durham Fair

Here’s a less political example:

I have what looks like a stuffed cat, which I kept on my desk at work. At a quick glance, it looked like a kitten that had curled up for a snooze. One of my coworkers, upon seeing it for the first time, asked “Was that thing at any time a real cat”? I reassured her that it had never been a real cat; but much as I was tempted, I did not tell her that it had at one time been a real rabbit. I’m not sure how she would have reacted. I suppose it would have depended upon whether or not she viewed bunnies as companion animals.

It’s time I put a stop to this meandering and state clearly state my opinion:

Whether or not animals in general, or any animal in specific, has rights is not only subjective but immaterial. What I believe is that human beings have responsibilities, and that those responsibilities include treating animals as well as we possibly can.

Do I mean that we shouldn’t swat mosquitos? No, that doesn’t bother me in the slightest. A Jain, motivated by his religious convictions, would feed differently. Do I believe we should eat horses? I don’t see why not. Would I? I’m not sure. I have personally eaten lion, bear, elk, venison, alligator, ostrich, pork, beef, chicken, squab, and probably other meats that I can’t remember off hand. I don’t feel guilty about it, at least once it is sitting on my plate. If you want to really get into this at the gut level, contemplate cannibalism. Discuss it with your friends, and then imagine discussing it with the Donner party.

I have seen documentaries about the mistreatment of dinner animals, though, and I am as horrified at what I’ve seen as any bleeding heart should be. This is where human responsibilities come into play. It is our responsibility to forbid the mistreatment of animals. There are going to be exceptions, such as swatting mosquitos or expelling termites from my house.

Medical research is, to me, another of those grey areas. Those who believe that animal research is unnecessary are, at least at this time, wrong. If they want to volunteer for a safety test of some new medication that hasn’t been tested on animals, they can do so; but I will not. On the other hand, I stand with those who believe that testing cosmetics on animals is wrong. Putting something into a rabbit’s eye to see if it does damage is beyond the pale (although giving a cat a perm sounds like it would make for an interesting blood sport). This is all for the sake of vanity, and I don’t believe it is justified.

I’m aware that this is a slippery slope, indeed, and I’m not at all happy about the slipping down and clawing back up that it imposes on me. Nonetheless, as long as humans sit on the top of the heap we are the only ones in a position to make any of these judgments, and that is a heavy, inevitable, and terrible responsibility. It is so easy for us humans to be in the wrong. Regardless of whether or not they have rights, our own humanity demands that we treat them well. Someday we might not be at the top of the heap and the fewer things we have to answer for, the better.