It's Up To Us To Protect Animal Rights

Posted: March 16, 1990

I find it interesting in this resurgence of the animal rights debate that so few people have stopped to define animal rights or even human rights.

Webster defines a right as "something to which one has a just or lawful claim."

This definition tells us that "rights" are not something inherent in either humans or animals. For the religious, such "rights" are considered to be given by God. For others, they are only human constructs whose meaning and extent vary.

Some assert, as human beings, to demand and assign ourselves "rights," not only for the obvious reason that our intellectual capabilities allow us, but also because otherwise, we fall prey to one another. Due to this grim state of human affairs, the issue of "rights" boils down to one of individual survival.

Some assert that because "lower" life forms do not possess our intellectual capabilities, nor can love, laugh nor feel, they do not have

rights. They are therefore, like coal or natural gas, unowned resources

readily available for our exploitation. Some even assert that it is our

right (!) as "superior" beings to place such creatures at our disposal.

These are ancient arguments. Indeed, such arguments had been used again and again by plantation owners to rationalize enslavement of blacks, and by the Nazis to rationalize the systematic attempt to exterminate the Jews.

But as I suggested, the real reason blacks and Jews did not then have rights is not because they were considered inferior, but because more powerful people chose not to assign them rights.

Every person's rights exist only as far as another person or group will

allow him to possess them, or only as far as he can defend them against infringement by others. There is no such thing as a "birthright."

Might, quite sadly, makes rights, and the rights of the meek therefore depend entirely on the will of the mighty.

As true as this is for man's relations with his fellow men, it is equally true for man's relations with every other living creature.

I should note that animals cannot assign and respect the rights of humans and other fellow creatures, simply because they cannot form such intellectual constructs. Therefore to assert that a tiger that slays a gazelle or human has infringed on the slain creature's rights can only be considered absurd.)

But some will ultimately say, "We know that slave owners and Nazis were wrong to deny blacks and Jews rights, because, after all, blacks and Jews are human beings. Animals are not human beings."

It is true that animals may not be able to share intellectually in the concept of having rights. But certainly all living creatures share a rudimentary interest in their own lives, and in the quality of their lives, which is all that is really necessary to establish that a claim on that interest may be made, even if some living creatures cannot - especially since most cannot - make that claim.

History has already judged slave owners and Nazis. Whether animals will share in even the most basic rights that we profess belong to every human being - the right to live unfettered and to die naturally, without being exploited by others - remains solely up to us.

That animals may not be able to appreciate our beneficience is irrelevant - for after all, it is we who are being judged.


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