There’s a commonly held belief amongst the general public that philosophy is useless. What has it ever really done for us? Everything useful, everything that has helped gradually progress humanity from a state of primitiveness to civilization has been done through science, right? Isn’t philosophy much too abstract to be put to practical use? This kind of thinking is not only dangerous, but is, in fact, quite untrue. It’s why we’re here today.
One of the things philosophy has “done for us” is the concept of rights–it’s the very reason why you (if you happen to be from Canada or the US, at least) live in such a (theoretically) free state. The idea of unalienable rights for all really gained a foothold through such thinkers as Thomas Hobbes and John Locke during the 17th century. Locke’s work, in particular, influenced the United States Declaration of Independence, the basis for which many other declarations of independence were written. These days, it is widely excepted that humans do indeed possess rights. But ought we to extend these rights to animals? This is where I think it has gone too far.
First of all, what is a right? I shall appeal to Wikipedia by saying that, generally, it is agreed that rights are “…the fundamental… rules about what is allowed of people or owed to people…”. In other words, it describes something that people may do of their own free choosing (such as the right to cross borders, the right to strike, etc.) or something that is owed to another individual (such as the right to life, which can easily be re-worded as the right to not be killed arbitrarily).
But can we give these rights to animals? Well, we certainly can–after all, the concept of “rights” is unique to humanity in that they are totally man-made, and thus can be given freely. But in my view, we shouldn’t just hash out rights because we feel that we should: there needs to be reasons for us to give animals rights. Personally, I would like to give animals rights. I love animals. But for the reasons outlined below, I cannot genuinely bring myself to allow it.
If there exists some chasm between us and the animal, what is it? Why do we call the killing of another human murder, when we are free to squash as many annoying insects as we please? You could make the argument that the killing of a higher animal, such as a cat or a dog, is illegal and cannot be done freely. But if you were to do that, you’d get in trouble in a different way: namely by killing someone else’s property, and thus infringing on another person’s right–the right to not have their animal property arbitrarily killed. We would never call this murder.
It seems to me that humans possess something that animals, whether they are the tiniest amoebas to even, I daresay, our closest relatives, the great apes, lack. It is the concept of forethought. Many other people might call this “abstract thinking” or “conceptualization”, but practically speaking, thinking about abstract thoughts or concepts allow us to pre-plan, pre-meditate and pre-think about anything we are thinking of doing. It allows us to think into the future and make reasonable guesses about what is to come. It follows that, if we are able to think about the future (which hasn’t been realized yet), we are also able to think of other concepts that are unreal, unnatural or unapparent to the senses (such as rights). Thus, we have established humanity’s one advantage over animals–the ability to think beyond oneself into the realm of abstraction.
If animals lack this sense of “abstract thinking”, then it is obvious that they would not and could not think of concepts such as “good” or “bad”, “right” or “wrong” when making a decision. If a tiger were to attack a human being, we cannot reasonably hold that tiger accountable, for it is merely acting on the desire to feed itself. It cannot conceive that somehow attacking the human is itself a bad act, for if it could, it could also choose to spare the human. The tiger has no free will–it is acting only out of the desire to satisfy its hunger. Therefore, one reason that the animal should not be given rights is that they cannot be held responsible for any infringement of those rights, since they do not have any concept of “duty” or “what should be owed to another”. For if it did, we are obligated by our own rights to throw the tiger, and any other being we give rights to who break them, into prison.
Therefore, we have established that the right to live requires that the bearer of those rights must defend other people’s right to live. This can work with any other “right” as well: the right to be free of harm requires that the bearer of those rights must defend other people’s right to be free of harm; the right to privacy requires that the bearer of those rights must defend other people’s right to privacy; and so on it goes. And as we have just shown, an animal, by definition, is incapable of doing so. It is senseless to give rights to a being that cannot act upon them or responsibly sustain them. Humans, on the other hand, who do possess forethought and thus are able to conceptualize these rights and act responsibly to defend other people’s rights, can and do possess these rights and must be held accountable for any infringement thereof.
But this conclusion that we have come to is not, in my view, a warrant to abuse animals. I’ll discuss why in a later post.