General AR Philosophy
A Libertarian Replies to Tibor
Machan's 'Why Animal Rights Don't Exist'
by David Graham
I find it strange that
so many of my fellow libertarians and anarchists oppose and ridicule
animal rights with such passion. For one thing, an animal right is
perfectly libertarian in that it is a negative right. Unlike
such as the 'right' to education or health care, the animal
right is, at bottom, a right to be left alone. It does not call for
government to tax us in order to provide animals with food, shelter, and
veterinary care. It only requires us to stop killing them and making them
suffer. I can think of no other issue where the libertarian is arguing for
a positive right--his right to make animals submit to any use he sees--and
the other side is arguing for a negative right!
libertarianism inconsistent with animal rights, unless one is an exponent
of contractarianism, an ethical theory riddled with problems. The
principle states that it is morally wrong to initiate force against
others (or their property), except in self-defense. The question is
whether this principle applies to animals. Are animals part of the 'moral
community' that is covered by the nonaggression principle? In his recent
Animal Rights Don't Exist,' Tibor Machan argues that animals cannot
have rights, which is to say that the nonaggression principle cannot apply
to animals. Does his argument succeed?
The Argument from Marginal
For the rest of
this essay, I will use 'animal rights' as a shorthand to denote the simple
claim that animals have a single right: The right not to be made to die
and suffer by humans except in self-defense. If you have problems with the
concept of a 'right,' you can also think of this position as being
equivalent to the following proposition: 'It is morally wrong to kill
animals and make them suffer except in self-defense.' The most powerful
argument for this conclusion is the
from Marginal Cases.
cases' are humans who lack the ability to reason or be held accountable
for their actions but who are still considered part of the moral community
and have a right not to be killed or made to suffer except in
self-defense. (Philosophers also call such people moral patients.)
This argument is so crucial to the animal rights debate that one
philosopher, Daniel A. Dombrowski, has written a whole book about it
and Beasts: The Argument from Marginal Cases.
I have never heard
a satisfactory response to this stunning argument. It has convinced me--on
a rational level--that it's morally wrong to kill animals or make
them suffer except in self-defense. Pure Aristotelian logic powers the
Argument from Marginal Cases. It demands simply that we treat like cases
alike--or else cite a relevant difference between the cases.
Here's how the Argument might work out in the course of a casual debate.
animal rights: How can
you say that animals have rights? It's impossible.
Opponent: For one thing, animals can't reason.
They can't be held responsible for their actions. To have rights, you must
have these capacities.
Proponent: Wait a minute.
Infants can't reason. Does that mean it's open season on babies?
Opponent: Of course not. Infants will be
able to reason someday. We must treat them as prospective
Proponent: But what if the infant is terminally
ill and has only six months to live? What about a person who was born with
part of his brain missing and has the mental capacity of a pig? What about
a senile person? Is it OK to kill, eat, and otherwise use these people for
our own ends, just as we now use pigs?
Opponent: Well . . . let me think about
Welcome to the
Argument from Marginal Cases.
Given the revolutionary importance of this argument, I am
shocked by the number of libertarians who ignore it when ridiculing animal
rights. Maybe I shouldn't be surprised. It's a tough argument to deal
with. Many times I have read
an essay ridiculing animal rights and e-mailed the author to ask what his
response is to the argument. Some of them respond, lamely, that being
human is sufficient to have rights, period. Some dodge the issue. One or
two authors admitted that they could not answer the argument, but they
would not go so far as to agree flat-out that animals have the same rights
as marginal humans.
especially excited when faced with the Argument from Marginal Cases. One
time I e-mailed Edwin Locke, an Objectivist writer, in response to an
essay he wrote ridiculing the notion of animal rights. Naturally, his
essay made no mention of the Argument. When I explained it to him, Locke
assured me that he had totally demolished the argument--in a recorded
speech he gave several years earlier. If I wanted to hear it, he said, I
should go to a Web site that sells Objectivist merchandise (he generously
provided the link) and buy an audio tape of one of his talks. When I
demanded to know why he couldn't just e-mail me his answer, he declared
that he had no desire to talk with me further, that I had 'misrepresented'
his views, and he was 'ending communication.' As you can see, the Argument
from Marginal Cases has the power to really rattle people.
The Argument from Species
That's why I respect Professor Machan. Not only does he bring up
the Argument from Marginal Cases; he also tries to address it, however
briefly. He even has the intellectual honesty to admit that it is 'the
most telling point against' him. Does his rebuttal succeed? Here is the
The most telling point against me goes as follows: "But there are
people like very young kids, those in a coma, those with minimal mental
powers, who also cannot be blamed, held responsible, etc., yet they have
rights. Doesn't that show that other than human beings can have
This response doesn't recognize that classifications and
ascriptions of capacities rely on the good sense of making certain
generalizations. One way to show this is to recall that broken chairs,
while they aren't any good to sit on, are still chairs, not monkeys or
palm trees. Classifications are not something rigid but something
reasonable. While there are some people who either for a little or longer
while ' say when they're asleep or in a coma ' lack moral agency, in
general people possess that capacity, whereas non-people don't. So it
makes sense to understand them having rights so their capacity is
respected and may be protected. This just doesn't work for other
Machan seems to equivocate here. He starts out with the objection
that includes people with 'minimal mental powers,' which includes people
who are permanently deprived. But in his answer, he seems to shift
to people who only temporarily lose their moral agency ('say when
they're asleep or in a coma') and argues that we should 'understand them
as having rights so their capacity is respected and may be protected.' But
people who are permanently without moral agency have no such
'capacity.' Think of the senile, the congenitally retarded, the
brain-damaged. These are the ones to whom the Argument from Marginal Cases
applies. It does not apply to people who are asleep or in a coma from
which they might someday awaken. Let us be clear about that.
How should we read Machan's broken-chair analogy? There is only one
coherent way to interpret it. He is arguing that, just as a broken chair
still belongs in the category of chairs, a marginal human still
belongs in the category of humans. And because marginal humans
belong to a species whose normal members can reason, have guilt, be held
responsible for their actions--which Machan previously argued is a
necessary condition for having any rights--the marginal members, too,
deserve the same moral protections as those normal members. Here an
implied premise lurks: Any member of a species most of whose members
are moral agents has the same rights and protections as the normal
members of that species. To put it more concisely: The moral status of an
individual depends on what is normal for that individual's species. I will
call this the Argument from Species Normality.
Why the Argument from Species Normality
the Argument from Species Normality hold water? Does it destroy the
Argument from Marginal Cases? The philosopher James Rachels addressed this
argument in his essay ' Darwin
, Species, and
This idea--that how individuals should be
treated is determined by what is normal for their species--has a certain
appeal, because it does seem to express our moral intuition about
defective humans. 'We should not treat a person worse merely because he
has been so unfortunate,' we might say about someone who has suffered
brain damage. But the idea will not bear close inspection. Suppose (what
is probably impossible) that a chimpanzee learned to read and speak
English. And suppose he eventually was able to converse about science,
literature, and morals. Finally he wants to attend university classes. Now
there might be various arguments about whether to permit this, but suppose
someone argued as follows: Only humans should be allowed to attend these
classes. Humans can read, talk, and understand science. Chimps cannot.'
But this chimp can do those things. 'Yes, but normal chimps
cannot, and that is what matters.' Is this a good argument? Regardless of
what other arguments might be persuasive, this one is weak. It
assumes that we should determine how an individual is to be treated, not
on the basis of its qualities, but on the basis of other
individuals' qualities. This chimp is not permitted to do something
that requires reading, despite the fact that he can read, because other
chimps cannot. That seems not only unfair, but irrational. (p. 100,
Animal Rights and Human Obligations, Tom Regan and Peter Singer,
Rachels's choice of a positive
right--the 'right' to attend a university--is unfortunate, but his point
applies to any kind of right. He gives us a straight reductio ad absurdum. The denial of rights for our
super-smart chimp follows logically from Machan's implied premise that we
should treat individuals according to what is normal for their
species. If you think
the outcome of Rachels's thought experiment is unacceptable or irrational,
then you must also reject the claim that led you to it--that the moral
status of a marginal human depends on what is normal for her species.
Logically, you have no choice.
why stop at rights? If an individual's moral status depends on what is
normal for her species, why not impose the same moral duties on
marginal cases? As Machan points out, an essential part of being a moral
agent is that other people may hold you responsible for your actions. On
the other hand, we do not hold those who lack moral agency responsible for
their actions, for they do not know what they are doing. They are unable
to have evil intent, or what lawyers call
rea. But normal humans know what they are doing. Therefore,
according to the Argument from Species Normality, we should punish even
marginal humans for their bad actions. If, for example, a man suffering
from the advanced stages of Alzheimer's escapes from a nursing home,
steals a car, and runs over a child, we should convict him of manslaughter
and throw him in the clink.
you willing to bite the bullet and accept these implications? Most people
would say, 'Of course you shouldn't punish an insane man for his actions.
You have to take into account his individual shortcomings. You can't treat
him like a normal human.' Exactly. And that is why the Argument from
Species Normality fails.
think about it, the Argument from Species Normality is very
un-libertarian. It demands that we judge a being not as an individual, but
as a member of a group, in this case her species. This is no different
from the 'identity politics' we hear from the left. If it's senseless to
decide a person's value or moral status solely on the basis of his race,
it's equally senseless to decide a person's value or moral status solely
on the basis of his species. Species, by itself, is simply not morally
relevant. What matters is the nature of the individual, viewed
under the light of objective moral principles.
easy to grasp this fact if you do some introspection and ask yourself
why it is morally wrong to inflict suffering on a human who can't
reason. Why is it morally wrong to torture an infant? Is it because she
has the 'potential to become a moral agent'? Be honest about this. Isn't
it really because the infant can suffer and has an interest
in not suffering? Isn't it
because forcing the infant to suffer against his will violates the
nonaggression principle? Why is it immoral to use a victim of Alzheimer's
for target practice? It is because he is 'a member of a species whose
normal members can think conceptually and can be held responsible for
their actions'? Surely not. It's because he can suffer, he has an
interest in not suffering, and to treat him this way against his will goes
against the nonaggression principle.
all of this also holds true for a monkey. Like a 'marginal' human, the
monkey can suffer. He has an interest in not suffering. To force him to
die and suffer, except in self-defense, violates the nonaggression
principle. It's a simple matter of treating like cases alike. Pure
Two Common Objections
Sometimes skeptics, including some
libertarians, make the following objection to animal rights: 'If animals
have a right not to be made to suffer, doesn't it follow that we should
police the wilderness and prevent predatory animals from attacking their
prey?' No, this does not follow. Animals should be allowed to defend
themselves, of course, but they do not have a 'positive right' to
protection any more than humans do. What the Argument from Marginal Cases
proves, based on the logical requirement of treating like cases alike, is
that it is immoral for moral agents to treat animals in ways we
would not treat human marginal cases except in self-defense. Because
animals are not moral agents, what they do is outside the purview of
ethics. We might as well ask whether a zebra has a 'right' not to be
crushed by a falling rock. As moral agents, we can only concern ourselves
with what we should do and not do. Animals in the wild are on their
own. At least an animal who is preyed upon in the wild has a fighting
chance. It is not locked in a cage.
Another popular objection goes like
this: 'But animals kill and eat each other in nature, so why shouldn't we
be able to do the same thing?' In other words: 'If animals do it, then we
can do it.' Surely it would be silly to base our moral principles on the
actions of animals who can't even engage in moral reasoning! Some animals
eat their offspring. Does that mean I am morally entitled to eat my
valid question from an anarchist is, 'How would an animal's right be
protected in an anarcho-capitalist world? Unlike a person, an
animal can't pay a protection agency to protect it from aggression.' I
plan to address this issue in a future essay. At any rate, before we worry
about the practical matter of how to protect a right, we first have
to settle the philosophical matter of whether that right exists in
the first place.
Giving Animal Rights a Fair
beginning of this essay I said I was surprised by the number of
libertarians who ridicule animal rights while ignoring or evading the
Argument from Marginal Cases. Not all libertarians fall into this
category. At the FEE (Foundation
for Economic Education) convention in 2002, I attended a talk by the
great libertarian psychologist Nathaniel Branden. During the question and
answer session, a young man told Branden that he maintained an Objectivist
Web site. He had posted an essay ridiculing animal rights on the site. A
woman had e-mailed him recently and challenged him with the Argument from
Marginal Cases. He confessed that he could not think of a good retort.
Branden cut him off: 'I'm afraid I won't be able to help you on this.' Dr.
Branden explained that he himself had 'struggled' with the question of the
moral status animals. He said even Ayn Rand (a confirmed cat lover, by the
way) had felt there must be something morally wrong with mistreating
animals, but, unable to make it fit her Objectivist philosophy, she
shelved the issue. As for him, he could not deny the pure Aristotelian
logic of the Argument from Marginal Cases. He was stuck.
libertarians should follow Dr. Branden's example and face up to the merits
of a reasoned animal rights position. Animal rights is not ridiculous.
Animal rights is not inherently leftist. Just because the animal rights
movement has been associated with the left does not make it inherently
leftist like social security or socialized medicine. Leftists are also
antiwar and against the Drug War. Does that mean we libertarians can't
hold those positions without succumbing to leftist ideology? Of course
not. Being for animal rights does not put you in the same category as a
screaming animal rights protestor any more than being against the War in
Iraq puts you in the same category as Michael Moore or the hyperemotional
'peace protesters' of San Francisco.
once asked the anarchist Dr. Mary Ruwart whether libertarianism would
allow for natural rights for animals. She gave this answer:
"The libertarian philosophy addresses
relationships between human beings, not humans and other species. Many
people are looking for a coherent way to address this issue, so please
give some thought to developing one."
libertarians are supposed to be the party of principle, the sticklers for
logical consistency. It's time to put aside ad hominems and straw men.
Let's take up Dr. Ruwart's challenge to address this issue with coherence
and honesty. As a starting point, I encourage you to read
to Animal Rights: Your Child or the Dog
by Gary Francione. He offers a
philosophy of animal rights that any libertarian can coherently