Many people take for granted the claim that animals should have some rights. Exactly what rights animals should have varies from one claimant to another. Some people might say animals should have a right not to have pain inflicted on them, but not the right to vote. This idea is based on misunderstandings of rights and of human beings and animals.
One problem is that many people seem to think that rights are a sort of social nicety, but they are wrong. A right is an enforceable claim to something. For example, if I have a right to own some piece of property, then if somebody takes the property, I have a claim to get the property back. And it’s not just the case that I can say ‘pretty please, give me the property back’. I can call the police and they may use force to get the property back and detain the person who took it. A right is not a polite request for something, or indeed a request of any kind. When you say ‘animals should have rights’, you’re not saying that it would be a good idea for people to treat dogs well. Rather, you’re saying that if a person doesn’t treat a dog well, then people can and should use force directly or indirectly to stop him from treating the dog badly. If you wouldn’t be willing to say that a person should be thrown in jail for violating the alleged right, then you shouldn’t call it a right.
Under what circumstances should a particular thing be granted rights? I don’t think anyone would say that a lump of concrete should have rights. There are a couple of reasons for this. The concrete itself does not ask for rights. In addition, the concrete will not act very differently if we say it has rights and treat it accordingly. By contrast, if you beat a person up, he will claim that what you’re doing is wrong and that you should be held accountable for your actions. He will also not be inclined to deal with you after you have beaten him up. So it makes a difference whether you treat other people according to their rights or not, both to them and to you. But it is not enough for there be a difference of some kind depending on how you treat an object. If that were the case, then my computer should have rights since it will stop working if I hit it with a sledgehammer.
If I respect a person’s rights, he can go off and do things independently of me that may benefit me, directly or indirectly. He could become a computer programer and help write a great game. He could compose some music. He could become a doctor or nurse, and help save people who can produce goods from which I can benefit, or his medical treatment might save my life or relieve some pain or something like that. My computer doesn’t act the same way. the only way we know of to get a computer to do something is to give it suitable instructions. Those instructions may be written by me or by other people, but there is always a person giving the orders. Nothing useful happens without those orders. The person can produce a potentially open ended stream of benefits for me and for others. The computer can’t do this.
Why can a person do this, but not a computer? The person is capable of creating new explanatory knowledge. A person can create knowledge about music, or physics, or how to lay out a retail store, or how to cut hair, or anything else. Computers can’t create new explanatory knowledge. This is a qualitative difference, not a quantitative difference. The idea that it is possible for us to understand anything about how the world works is required to make the rational, scientific worldview work. If there is a restriction on what sort of things it is possible for people to explain, then this fundamentally means we can’t explain anything. If there was such a limitation on being able to explain parsnips, say, then it would be impossible for us to understand things that interact with parsnips. And we would then be unable to understand things that interact with things that interact with parsnips and so on. So there is a qualitative difference between people, who can understand how the world works arbitrarily well, and computers as they are currently programmed.
There would be another problem with granting a computer rights. The computer can’t give or withhold consent to be treated in a certain way. If I have a right to control a piece of property, that means I can consent to give it up if I want to. If I have a right to control what substances I put in my body, I have the right to consent to put something in my body or not.
The question of whether animals should have rights has a lot to do with whether an animal is more similar to a person or a computer in the respects I explained above. It might appear obvious to you that the animal is more like a person. If you try to torture or kill an animal it will fight back, as a person would. The animal will make noises that sound a lot like the noises that a person makes when he is angry or in pain. And animals are made out of the same kinds of material as humans, muscle, bone, brain, nerves and so on. And an animal’s nervous system is, in many respects, similar to a person’s. So you may think that what is going on inside a screaming animal is the same as what is going on inside a screaming person. So then it makes a difference to the animal how you treat the animal.
If you made this argument, you would be wrong. The problem is that when a person feels pain, his interpretation of that experience is part of what makes it bad. The person understands that he might die, or be unable to perform certain tasks, or it might change his view of the world and make him less inclined to go out, or whatever. Such interpretations depend on his ability to understand the world. Without that ability, no such interpretation would exist. And other animals lack that ability. Dogs don’t write plays, or songs, or come up with scientific theories. It’s not that some dogs do those things, and others don’t. Not a single dog in the whole of history has ever done any of those things.
You might think that some species are smarter than dogs in some way. For example, bonobos have used sign language. But as recorded in Kanzi: The Ape on the Brink of the Human Mind by Sue Savage-Rumbaugh and Roger Lewin, bonobos never managed to understand a sentence as simple as ‘put the coke can in the trash can.’ What was going on in the bonobos was something very different from what happens when a person learns. An animal has some finite set of behaviours it can enact, determined by its genes. It has some set of features of the world that it can discriminate, again, determined by its genes. And the animal can try out combinations of the set of behaviours until the results meet some criteria encoded in its brain by its genes. See R. W. Byrne’s paper ‘Imitation as behaviour parsing’ and ‘The Beginning of Infinity’ Chapter 16, Section ‘How do you replicate a meaning?’ starting around p. 401.
Some people might say that we evolved from animals so we can’t be qualitatively different. But evolution has give rise to qualitative differences, e.g. – differences between multicellular organisms and single celled organisms. Differences between animals that perceive light and those that are blind. And since humans are qualitatively different, there pretty much had to be other species that were similar to us in many respects, except in their ability to understand the world.
Since animals can’t understand the world, an animal does not have the potential to produce an open-ended stream of benefits in the same way a person can. We gain nothing by granting them rights. Administering any rights granted to animals would also be a problem since the animals can’t give or withhold consent. A person can consent to eat spicy food, even if it makes him have an experience in which his mouth feels like it is burning and tears are running down his cheeks. But we know he wants this because he can tell us. So how are we to decide whether an animal wants spicy food: the animal can’t tell us.
Granting animals rights is a mistake. We are throwing out the actual interests of people for something that doesn’t benefit us and can’t benefit animals. We may wish to treat animals well for a variety of reasons. Some animals look cute and we don’t want to hurt them. Some animals produce better meat or eggs or milk or whatever if treated in specific ways. This does not require giving animals rights. We have nothing to gain and a lot to lose by trying to grant rights to animals.