Mondays with Murray: Do Animals Have "Rights"?Submitted by Marc Clair on Mon, 05/20/2013 - 14:09
I’ve always been a big animal lover. I’ve had dogs throughout my childhood and now in my adulthood as well. In my early days as a budding libertarian, the issue of “animal rights” was always a difficult one for me. While I’m certainly no vegan, I’ve always held the issue of abuse of animals – both domestic pets as well as livestock – close to the heart. At the same time, surely animals could not be equated with humans in terms of rights, otherwise it would be against all libertarian principle to kill animals even for food, clothes, or other essential human needs.
So what was Murray Rothbard’s view on “animal rights”? Luckily for all of you, it’s Monday – the perfect time to find out!
From The Ethics of Liberty, Chapter 21:
But the fundamental flaw in the theory of animal rights is more basic and far-reaching. For the assertion of human rights is not properly a simple emotive one; individuals possess rights not because we “feel” that they should, but because of a rational inquiry into the nature of man and the universe. In short, man has rights because they are natural rights. They are grounded in the nature of man: the individual man’s capacity for conscious choice, the necessity for him to use his mind and energy to adopt goals and values, to find out about the world, to pursue his ends in order to survive and prosper, his capacity and need to communicate and interact with other human beings and to participate in the division of labor. In short, man is a rational and social animal. No other animals or beings possess this ability to reason, to make conscious choices, to transform their environment in order to prosper, or to collaborate consciously in society and the division of labor.
Thus, while natural rights, as we have been emphasizing, are absolute, there is one sense in which they are relative: they are relative to the species man. A rights-ethic for mankind is precisely that: for all men, regardless of race, creed, color or sex, but for the species man alone. The Biblical story was insightful to the effect that man was “given” or,—in natural law, we may say “has”—dominion over all the species of the earth. Natural law is necessarily species-bound.
Rothbard bases his views on the concept of natural rights - the idea that man, by his nature, has the capacity to make conscious decisions in order to pursue their preferred means. The concept of human action is the basis from which we can logically deduce that man is a rational and social being.
This same concept does not apply to animals, because they do not posses this ability which, as far as we know, only applies to the species of humans. We don’t think that a lion is “evil” because it goes out and kills other animals in order to feed itself. The lion is not acting using reason in this case, but rather instinct. If a human were to go on a similar killing spree of humans, even if it were in order to eat those humans as food, we would rightly be appalled and decry that person as “evil”. This is what makes human unique; humans utilize not just instinct, but reason.