Thursday, November 15, 2007

Why Animals Don't Have Rights

From KVUE-TV in Austin:
Next week the case of a strange crime pitting cat lovers against bird lovers goes to trial in Galveston. A noted birding expert is accused of killing homeless cats.

And at the San Luis Pass toll bridge where mostly they wait for cars, John Newland says he waits for justice.

Justice that’s been a year coming.

That's how long it's been since 11 News witnessed an encounter between Newland and noted ornithologist Jim Stevenson.

“I just wanted to make sure he wasn't killing more of my cats,” said Newland. “My cats.”

The confrontation came as Stevenson had just been arrested for allegedly shooting a cat living in a colony beneath the bridge and charged with a felony count of animal cruelty.

At the time, he told us he’d do whatever necessary to protect wild birds, especially endangered species.

(As I write this, the trial is being held and the case is with the jury.)

While the case itself revolves around whether a free-roaming cat nonetheless tended to by a human is wild (in which case killing it is not necessarily illegal), the case reveals the poverty of the concept of “animal rights.” One party, a cat-lover, believes that his cats’ right to life trumps that of the birds the other party favors.

But of course both parties cannot simultaneously have rights to life; nature will not put up with that. And so there is no way human law and logic could navigate a dispute like this and come up with an answer of whether any animal’s “rights” have been violated. And so instead the dispute revolves around a right unique, like all rights worthy of the name, to humans – the right to own property, including animals.

In recent years many pressure groups who oppose meat-eating, testing of cosmetics and medicines on animals before they are used on humans, etc. have used the word “right” liberally. But animals cannot have “rights” in the sense that we do – they cannot make the sorts of choices we make, they cannot sue to claim their rights, they cannot knowingly adhere to any social contract that parcels out rights and responsibilities. (Some humans, e.g. the severely disabled, admittedly cannot do these things either, but that is because of random chance, either genetic or due to an accident, shooting, etc; any state leaving them unable to assert or use rights could happen to any human who can do so. John Rawls’ “veil of ignorance,” even though it does not justify the welfare-state uses to which he put it, suffices to establish this.)

Cruelty to animals, up to a point, arguably ought to be a crime, but only because humans believe it to be so, not because the animals are invested with rights. If you drive during the summer and your windshield is full of dead bugs, you cannot be said to have violated the rights of any entity that could sensibly possess them. The lack of cognitive sophistication of such animals also makes it an infinitesimal crime at worst to kill them. The logic of rights is even more absurd when extended to, say, cobras, whose very nature can result in the cruel death of people. (On the other hand, the argument is vulnerable the closer we get to humanity - chimps, for example.) That aside, all we can do is arrange animals according to how much we object to their suffering in particular circumstances and depending on the animal, but that again is using human tastes to determine where animal rights begin and end, rather than asserting that the animals intrinsically possess them. Animal cruelty is wrong only because it upsets humans, not because the animals have rights of the sorts humans have.



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