Do Animals Have Rights?

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Since Peter Singer published Animal Liberation in 1975, animal rights activists have proposed the idea that animals should be granted the same rights as human beings. Various movements have emerged, and throughout the past decade, endeavors have turned out to be increasingly successful. Referring to scientific studies with animals exhibiting attributes similar to human beings, activists argue that animals are akin to human beings and should thus be protected with the same body of rights. So why is it that animals do not have the same legal status as human beings?

The Case for Animal Rights

The line of reasoning in favor of granting animals equal rights to human beings emphasizes the fact that scientists have found traits in animals we normally associate with human beings. As an example, a group of scientists showed that monkeys demonstrate self-consciousness at the same level as human beings. This has usually served as a justification for human rights, so why don’t we—as a minimum—grant equal rights to the most developed animal species? After all, the principle of habeas corpus—derived from the Magna Carta with the intention to prevent unlawful detentions—would protect those species from encroachment and arbitrary violations of rights, thus avoiding painful and degrading treatment.

Despite convincing scientific evidence, this argument does not provide any philosophical justification of animal rights.

The fact that some animals exhibit traits similar to human beings certainly provides a strong argument for granting at least some animals rights. But despite convincing scientific evidence, this argument does not provide any philosophical justification of animal rights. An adequate argument for animal rights would require further philosophical inquiry and not only descriptive conclusions. Of course, we can feel reverence and pity for animals being treated badly, but this does not lead to the conclusion that animals should enjoy the same legal status as persons.

Rights and Duties

There is a strong reason for maintaining that rights only apply to human beings. While fundamental rights surely are valuable in their nature, they would be worthless without any mechanism to uphold them. That is why we expect other people to respect our rights.

The mechanism that upholds our rights is the fact that other people are constrained by duties in their behavior towards us. In our everyday lives, we experience numerous situations in which fraudulent or violent persons could profit from violating our rights. Nonetheless, we see—of course, with some exceptions—that individuals cooperate and respect other people’s rights. Rights and duties are two sides of the same coin, and one cannot claim to have certain rights without having to comply with corresponding duties.

Thus, rights would merely be well-intended declarations if it were not for our moral duties toward other people. If it is my claim to live freely on my property without intrusion, my neighbor’s duty impedes him from violating my right to property and life. Suppose, however, he trespasses on my plot and engages in vandalism on my property. He will then be held accountable through judicial reprisals, for he has violated my property rights and failed his duty to respect my rights. This is completely reasonable, but we will certainly face obstacles if my property was violated by, say, an elephant or a chimpanzee.

If we assume that animals are granted the same legal status as human beings, justice requires that we now drag the culprit to court. For, remember, if our animal has rights, it will logically also have duties. In other words, it is responsible for its own actions. Therefore, it is now subject to the same legal procedures as human beings. This raises embarrassing practical questions, for who will defend the animal in court? And will the animal be able to comprehend what is going on? History provides us with a great variety of absurd trials involving animals.

Europe’s History of Animal Trials

Faced with criminal charges, animals suffered capital punishment for various crimes in early Europe. There are numerous instances of animals that were tortured and hanged for their vicious crimes. Yet some animals were in fact acquitted for their charges during this paradigm of animal trials. For instance, a donkey was acquitted in 1750 after facing charges of bestiality. But although torture and brutal hangings surely have inflicted pain upon supposedly guilty animals, an important question remains: Did those animals understand human law and morality? I stand to question that. It is inconceivable that those animals would comprehend the slightest fraction of the legal code, of moral questions and the procedures in court. And that is exactly the reason why animals do not have rights.

Dragging animals to court surely seems absurd. Nevertheless, granting rights to animals entails exactly this consequence. Because rights and duties are cognate, animals cannot only enjoy being protected by rights. They will also be subject to corresponding duties. But being unable to comprehend those duties and moral foundations, animals cannot have rights. As Roger Scruton writes, the Constitution was written under the assumption that people are familiar with their duties. We know it’s wrong to steal, kill, and cheat other people. But animals don’t.

Don’t Worry: We Can Still Treat Animals Properly

Though I strongly oppose the idea of granting animals the same rights as human beings, this does not conflict with the proposition that animals should be treated properly. I’m sure most readers here find animal cruelty repugnant, but this, however, is not equal to granting animals rights.

As Carl Cohen noted, we can have obligations from special commitments, but that is not the same as saying that animals have particular claims towards us. Animals are simply unable to discern right actions from wrong ones by applying moral judgments, which is the reason why it is futile to talk about animal rights.

I will now leave it up to the reader to imagine a chimpanzee in the dock indicted with, say, charges for vandalism on my property as hypothesized earlier. Wouldn’t it be absurd?