The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 45.0°F | Overcast


We the Animals

Kris Schnee

There were razor blades inside the envelopes.

Late last month, five Harvard scientists received threatening letters from the Justice Department -- not the well-known one, but a small group based in the United Kingdom. In one letter, the comment that the scientist had been “targeted” was backed up by a deadline of next autumn, after which “your violence will be turned back upon you.” Seventy other researchers nationwide received letters like those sent to Harvard, all booby-trapped with razor blades; the “Justice Department” has done even worse things in the UK, including the use of letter bombs and razors supposedly dipped in poison or infected blood.

These violent actions are the work of the extreme end of the animal-rights movement. The targeted scientists were chosen because they work with primate “captives” for medical research.

Surely we can condemn the Justice Department group and others like it -- most notably the Animal Liberation Front, though this group prefers sabotage to violence against people -- but their actions raise a very short and troublesome question: “Do animals have rights?”

The easy answer is to say that of course they do. The main argument for animal rights is biological: animals, at least all vertebrates, have the ability to suffer. They have central nervous systems and can feel pain just as we do. To deny that an animal has the right not to be killed for food or otherwise exploited, then, is to be “speciesist,” attributing special rights to humans even though we are not fundamentally different from other species in the capacity for suffering.

If the ability to suffer is the basis for having rights, we could then ask whether rights are proportional to suffering. If the answer is no, then a fruit fly has a right to life equal to a human’s. If yes, then brain-dead humans and the rare people who cannot feel pain do not have rights. Either way, the assumption that suffering equals rights leads to problems.

Why make that assumption? Is there some invisible thing hovering around an animal, called a “right”? More realistically, we could say that rights are a concept invented by humans. They are a convenient way for people -- yes, people -- to express what they do not want done to them, and are willing to restrain themselves from doing to others. In a sense, it could be said that not only do animals not have “fundamental” or “inalienable” rights, neither do humans.

Note that getting rid of the idea of inalienable human rights does not justify acts of violence against people. Again, people may have invented rights, but they did so for a very good reason: to put restraints on behavior, especially by governments. Rights are a very useful concept, since they allow us to decide what our highest ethical priorities are -- like protecting people’s lives -- and then to enshrine them in laws which supersede ordinary laws and cannot be changed without great effort.

People talking about animal rights often throw around the word “sentient” in reference to cows or primates. The word can lead to misconceptions. Animal rights activists use it to mean awareness of things like pain, so that the phrase “sentient animals” is redundant. We must be careful not to slip into another definition and start thinking of nonhumans as moral agents, self-aware beings who are capable of arguing over things like the concept of rights. A hungry tiger does not care whether you have the right not to be eaten.

Since animals are not capable of entering into the complex social agreements humans use, like constitutional republican government, and can’t be convinced to abide by the same laws, they are not automatically protected by the “rights” humans create. Animals do not have rights, unless we specifically decide to grant them rights. And if we do, it will be out of compassion, not duty; we can grant animals special legal protection, but we do not have to.

Thinking of rights as social agreements is probably the most realistic way to handle the question of animal rights. We cannot answer the question of whether we have some metaphysical duty to protect animals, but we can decide what laws to enact to protect them, and choose how to balance compassion and practicality. Rather than threatening people’s lives, groups like the “Justice Department” would do better to peacefully convince people that there are sound alternatives to using primates for research and cows for food, and that compassion justifies special legal protection for animals. If they do it peacefully, the animal activists have every right to try to win us over.