I brought this point up in a larger entry I wrote last year, but maybe it’s worth repeating and updating because that entry was called “Animal Rights Philosophers on Animal Habitat, Part One: Tom Regan,” and I kind of suspect that no one read it. I wouldn’t have!
The basic point was this: one of the problems with saying that animals have rights is that doing so would create a massive class of beings whose rights we may potentially violate, but who cannot violate ours no matter what they do. This class already exists to a lesser extent with babies and other humans who are thought not to be responsible for their actions (and thus are potentially victims but can’t be criminals), but that’s not a major problem because there’s not typically a huge sacrifice involved in giving rights to humans who are incapable of returning the favor. But animal rights would surround us with beings who would suddenly have this asymmetrical advantage over us, this one-way obligation from us to them. Humans are held responsible for violating human rights, and vegans would hold humans responsible for violating animal rights, but animals cannot violate animal or human rights. As far as the rights argument is concerned, animals can hit each other, and they can hit us, but we can’t hit them.
Now, plenty of animal rights philosophers say we have a right to self defense and that we don’t have to be pure pacifists in our relations with other animals, but this only works if they’re putting the same ethical demands on other animals that they want to put on us. For a dispute between humans and other animals to be a dispute between ethical equals, we’d have to say that a lion eating an antelope (especially when the lion wasn’t about to die of starvation) is as much of a rights violation as a human doing the same. Few vegans want to say this because they recognize that other animals can’t be expected to understand our concept of rights. Fair enough, but the problem remains that humans overriding animal interests under any circumstances is always a rights violation, but animals doing the same to us is not. And if we are seeking to prevent rights violations, which is sort of the idea behind rights theory, animal rights would demand that we give animals the upper hand any time our interests come into conflict.
If we followed this consistently, and actually tried to give animals rights based on all their interests, this would straightjacket humans and give other animals free reign. That doesn’t sound too ominous if we’re imagining sheep unapologetically nudging against us. But in a potentially fatal confrontation between a truly rights-conscious human and a nonhuman animal — which I recognize is unlikely if you’re in New York City, London, Toronto, or Los Angeles — the death of the animal would signify a rights violation, but the death of the human would not. (The animal didn’t lose its right to life just because ours may have been in danger, and it doesn’t make ethical sense to punish an irresponsible being.) Therefore, the honest rights approach would say that if humans cannot run from such conflicts, the humans should honorably accept death.
That’s an obscure hypothetical concern for most people likely to read this, but the question of habitat dispute is not. If we were to consistently give animals rights based on their interests, we would have to give them a right to habitat. Habitat rights is something like property rights for animals (or right to sovereignty, as the authors of Zoopolis put it) and the fact that so many animal rights philosophers overlook it is a bit surprising, because habitat is vital for animals to be able to eat, mate and live — all things that appear to be very much in their interests. Doing anything to land that animals inhabit other than cautiously tip-toeing through it (and even that might be trespassing and infringing on animals’ privacy) is a violation of animals’ interests, and thus (according to animal rights theory) also their rights.
It would not, however, be a violation of our rights for animals to invade our settlements and homes. That’s because animals would have rights against us, but we would not have rights against them. What would our ethical basis for removing animals such as mice, rats and opossums from our basements and attics be? We can evict uninvited humans off our property because we say the trespassing humans have a mutual obligation to respect our rights, even though they have rights themselves. (Unless it’s a swarm of colonizing babies, in which case you’re screwed.) But our animal-rights-granting hands are tied if animals choose to make the same play, because they have no obligations to respect us. Human towns would become like a nation that opens its borders to every other citizen in the world, but whose own citizens are not accepted anywhere else in return.
It is not a violation of our rights to not usurp or otherwise use animal habitat to our own ends. Therefore, the rights-committed humanity would need to not do anything that would in any way damage land occupied by nonhumans, or anything else that would violate animal interests. Any time our rights conflicted with the rights of other animals, animals would have priority because we can violate their rights and they can’t violate ours. We would always need to sacrifice for them, and they would never need to sacrifice for us. All disputes would need to be resolved in their favor.
I don’t see how it would be possible for us to manage this and still survive, which would leave a vegan humanity (if professing a rights standard) having to admit that they weren’t actually out to abolish animal rights violations, but rather to reduce certain kinds of rights violations; this would reveal animal rights rhetoric as nothing but a mitigated utilitarianism in disguise. And the problem with utilitarianism — aka “suffering reduction” in the usual vegan interpretation — is that the best way to reduce suffering is to end all sentient life on the planet. You wouldn’t have to go that far with animal rights, though, because to reduce rights violations to nil, you’d only have to get rid of the rights violators: pretty much all humans. Only the very severely mentally impaired humans could stay.
I don’t know, maybe that’s a contradiction we could live with, because you could say the same of human rights — realistically, we’re never going to abolish all human rights violations, so the best we can hope to do is reduce them. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, right? But I think the problem runs deeper with animal rights because giving animals rights based on their interests isn’t even theoretically possible since (assuming we were consistent about it) it would force us to surrender and lose in any interest dispute with animals, whereas rights agreements between humans tend to work out as mutual obligations that are often at least somewhat mutually beneficial. Animal rights’ one-way obligation from humans to animals, which would be mostly detrimental to the humans respecting them (but could have beneficial side-effects, like to the environment), is either hopelessly impractical or suicidal.
If the way you’re phrasing your goal is impossible without human extinction, shouldn’t the goal be phrased another way?
Another way for vegans to phrase it could be to take away the middleman signifier of “rights” and just say “interests.” This way, we abolish the asymmetry of “rights” that gives animals so much more freedom than us; animals can’t violate our rights, but they can violate our interests, and making sacrifices for animals for their interests could go against our own. For instance, it doesn’t violate our rights to voluntarily refrain from doing anything that might destroy animal habitat or infringe on animal interests in any way, but such severe self-constraint could violate our interests. And if we’re allowed to care about our own interests again, we now don’t have to commit suicide every time nonhumans would be better off without us — which is most of the time.
But this plays right into meat eaters’ greedy hands. Since the ability of humans and nonhumans to cooperate is limited (especially in the case of wild nonhumans), saying that human and animal interests are all worth considering leaves us with no definitive standard of where to draw the line between our self-denial and egoism. Without rights, where do our interests end and our obligations to other animals begin?
Unless we’re going to cave into animal interests every time (as we would have to when phrased as “rights”), our weighing of animal interests versus our own can’t help but be arbitrary and self-serving. Does our interest in having highways, books and furniture trump the animals’ interests in the land those highways cut through and fragment? Most vegans seem to think so, or act like they think so, but why? Because it would suck to give up land transportation, books and furniture? But how is that different from meat eaters who think we can violate animals’ interests because it would suck to give up meat?
Oh, “because veganism is about intent and ending exploitation”? But why is veganism about those things when animals cannot distinguish between intentional harms and unintentional harms, or between exploitative harms and non-exploitative harms? And anyway, how is destroying animal habitat for our own desires despite knowing how much this will harm animals well intentioned and non-exploitative?
This is not to say that it’s impossible to argue against animal agriculture without demanding that humans become utterly self-sacrificing (and ideally nonexistent) pacifists. It’s just that there may not be any consistent set of principles that can explain what vegans want to allow and not allow. Animal rights appears to be one of vegans’ failed attempts to logically explain and justify what they want all of us to feel and to do.
— In the next entry, I’ll look at whether the book Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights resolves this problem with animal rights. I’d give you a hint, but I’m not done reading it yet.