The other day I saw the following sentiment online:
‘”Animal rights’ is not a gift we give animals, it is a birth right we have taken from them.”
This is obviously from a vegan page so they are likely just trying to make the point that animals should be respected and not killed for human use or disturbed from their environment.
But when you really think about the content of the message, it is not just naive, it is wrong. It is illogical and impossible. What’s more, it is dangerous.
Actually, we humans do give animals “rights” and it is very important to know why this is the case.
Before screaming, “You don’t care about the animals!” or, “They are just innocent vegans, leave them alone!” Hear me out. It is for the good of animals and humans alike.
How we think about this has bearing on how we view morality in itself, how we treat other humans, and ultimately how we positively treat animals from a position of true respect, not just empty sentiment.
The concept of “rights” can only be recognized by rational beings. Human beings, as the only rational beings on Earth (that we know of), are the only beings that can recognize these rights. When we are talking about “rights,” we must be careful not to equivocate the term. Human beings have fundamental, inalienable rights that derive from our rational nature. We use reason and logic to recognize the universal moral law that applies to all rational beings. It is in our nature, as rational beings, to follow this moral law from duty, that is, it ought to govern our actions and relationships between each other and our environment. A big part of this concept of a moral community of rational members is the expectation of mutual respect for the equality, dignity, and rights of all the members. So by our rational nature, all human beings have fundamental rights that cannot be infringed. This is morality. The same is not true for non-rational animals.
Non-rational animals, incapable of moral recognition and reciprocation, are governed by the law of the jungle, their feeling, their instinct, etc. In this state, there are no “rights” as we understand the concept. Now, we human beings, being rational observers of the world, understand we have a relationship with animals. We understand we are all a part of nature and that as part of our duty to cultivate virtue in ourselves, we logically and compassionately choose to recognize that non-rational beings also have an inherent worth that demands a certain level of respect. We therefore bestow upon animals, in varying degrees, certain “rights” in the context of human-created conditional privilege. This is partially a respect for the animal and partially a reflection on our own virtue and duty to act in accord with nature- to not act in a way that does unnecessary harm or creates disharmony in the interconnected physical environment.
Unlike fundamental inalienable rights that rational beings must recognize and honor mutually among all members of the moral community, we must bestow upon animals “rights” based to some degree upon their ability, their place relative to humans, and their natural condition. This is sometimes a reflection of human values (some smart, cuddly mammals tend to enjoy more “rights” in many cultures than creepy crawly creatures, for example). This is sometimes due to status (endangered species enjoy more “rights” than squirrels, feeder fish or birds in hatcheries).
As I hinted above, animal “rights” are always based on a condition that there is no threat to a member of the moral community. What do I mean by this? Animal “rights” are secondary to human rights and welfare. This is why, despite the carelessness and/or foolishness of the boy that fell into the gorilla enclosure at the zoo, the authorities were acting perfectly in accord with their duty when they unfortunately had to shoot the gorilla to guarantee the safety of the child. As members of the mutual moral community, innocent humans come first. This is also why there is no immorality in the human consumption of meat or the destruction of millions of animals to prepare fields for farming. It is impossible for human beings to continue to exist as individuals or as a species without killing or disrupting animals in some form or another to survive. In this way we are still a part of that “law of the jungle” dynamic, but as rational beings we have a power and a duty to at least try to treat other animals with a basic respect, to not harm anything when not necessary, to try to repair damage to nature when we cause it.
In this sense, environmentalists and animal “rights” activists have a great case for continuing what they do. They go too far however when they tend to equate non-rational animals with rational beings and bestow upon them similar concepts of rights. It is literally impossible to do this without instant violation of those rights and creating an inherent contradiction of the concept; unless of course we want to usher in our own destruction in the name of upholding and not violating the equal rights of all animals.
It is important to note too that this is not a view based on an in-group bias. It is objectively derived. Human beings just happen to be the only members of the rational, mutually respected moral community. If Yogi Bear was real and was capable of moral reciprocation, he would have the same fundamental, inalienable rights as humans. Same goes for ET or beings that came from another dimension that fit the criteria. Rationality is the common denominator and necessary condition.
So considering the original quote by the vegans above, humans did not take ‘birthright’ away from animals. We use our rationality to bestow upon them ‘rights’ in our attempt to fulfill a duty and responsibility we have to ourselves, to animals, and the environment. To think otherwise is not only naive, it cheapens the value of our own fundamental rights and can lead to worldviews and actions that create violations of them precisely because their origin is not properly understood.