(The following are remarks I posted to a Facebook discussion on the question of “animal rights.” I thought it might be of value to post them here, both for posterity and to get a wider audience, with more discussion. A number of the examples are drawn from those offered by other participants in the Facebook discussion; I don’t think though any greater context is necessary to make sense of my remarks. Comments are always welcomed and appreciated.)
First, I would distinguish between natural rights or law and natural purpose (for lack of a better term, I’m open to suggestions). All living things have a kind of natural purpose which has evolved out of their experience of natural selection. Mother bears’ purpose, in part, is to defend their cubs. If they had not evolved with such a purpose, bears would have gone extinct long ago. Rights and law, though, are only meaningful in the context of a judicial institution. (The history of which, of course, has long been separate from, and was only at a certain point colonized by, the state, as will be known to readers of Bruce Benson’s work.) Rights and law, while based on natural purpose, are the consequent of reason. Only a certain calibre of intellect is capable of the cognitive invention of rights and law. They have to be conceived as abstract entities. It is only at this nexus of natural purpose and reasoned right that we speak meaningfully of natural law.
But rights are not only reasoned, but also rooted in morality: the domain of ethical choice and mutual obligation. A judicial institution is possible among intelligent animals only to the degree that they are capable of mutual moral empathy and commitment. There are no rights without responsibility. To receive moral consideration from others, you must be capable of extending the same. It is not enough to say I have the right to not be aggressed by others; you must be willing and able to commit to also not aggress against them. In the absence of this capacity and commitment, what is being called a right is nothing more than license: a monopoly on aggression. Thus, rights can only exist between beings of comparable intelligence and with compatible capacity for morality.
Is it immoral for the owl to eat the mouse or the fox the rabbit? Of course not. It is their natural purpose. All animals act to feed and shelter themselves within the limits of their capacities. Those animals with bigger brains simply have more capacity. A slaughter house that feeds a city of humans is no more immoral than the robin eating the worm or the shark eating the seal. Can we make a moral pact with an enterobacteriaceae or an alligator that if we don’t kill it, it won’t kill us? Or even with a rabbit, that if we don’t put up barbed wire around our garden, it won’t devour our plants? Our natural purpose, like that of the owl, the fox, the robin, the shark, the enterobacteriaceae or the alligator, is to make the most of our world, with the capacities that we have. That’s how we discovered the mutual benefits of trade and thus enabled the rise of human civilization. It is not only that rights exist exclusively between those equally enough intelligent to recognize and commit to a moral bargain, but they only can exist in such a context.