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!
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 humans, by their nature, have 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 humans unique; humans utilize not just instinct, but reason.
But what if we did find another species with this same ability to act rationally? How would rights apply then?
This is what Rothbard refers to as the “Martian problem”?:
What of the “Martian” problem? If we should ever discover and make contact with beings from other planets, could they be said to have the rights of human beings? It would depend on their nature. If our hypothetical “Martians” were like human beings—conscious, rational, able to communicate .with us and participate in the division of labor, then presumably they too would possess the rights now confined to “earthbound” humans. But suppose, on the other hand, that the Martians also had the characteristics, the nature, of the legendary vampire, and could only exist by feeding on human blood. In that case, regardless of their intelligence, the Martians would be our deadly enemy and we could not consider that they were entitled to the rights of humanity. Deadly enemy, again, not because they were wicked aggressors, but because of the needs and requirements of their nature, which would clash ineluctably with ours.
Again, we would apply the same logic to any new species discovered that we currently do to both humans and animals. If this alien species was a predator species, who naturally fed on humans, then they should be treated no different than a household pest and exterminated with extreme prejudice. If, however, the “alien” species were like man, and acted with reason in order to achieve their preferred ends, then the same natural rights would certainly apply to them as well.
In the end, the concept of natural rights is derived, as one would gather, from the nature of a species.
None of this is to say that the abuse of animals should not be condemned, or that we shouldn’t treat our beloved pets with the same respect and attention we pay to other humans if we so choose. But this is vastly different than applying the concept of “rights” to animals.
Rothbard closes with a fairly compelling argument:
There is, in fact, rough justice in the common quip that “we will recognize the rights of animals whenever they petition for them.” The fact that animals can obviously not petition for their “rights” is part of their nature, and part of the reason why they are clearly not equivalent to, and do not possess the rights of, human beings. And if it be protested that babies can’t petition either, the reply of course is that babies are future human adults, whereas animals obviously are not.
Check out our past editions of Mondays with Murray!
5/13/13 – A Further Insight on IP
5/6/13 - The Boston Lockdown
4/29/13 – The Problem with Empirical Studies
4/22/13 – The Real Story of the Whiskey Rebellion
4/15/13 – What is an Entrepreneur?
4/8/13 – Rothbard on Intellectual Property
3/11/13 – Rothbard on Lysander Spooner
3/4/13 – Rothbard on Statism
2/25/13 – Rothbard on John Bolton and Ann Coulter
2/18/13 – Rothbard vs. Krugman on $9 Minimum Wage
2/11/13 – Time To Hoard Nickels
2/4/13 - The Death of Keynesian Economics
1/28/13 – Competition and Monopoly
1/21/13 – Rothbard Down The Memory Hole?
1/14/13 – We Are Not The Government
1//7/13 – Why Does Someone Become A Statist?
12/10/12 – Rothbard on Conspiracy Theory
12/3/12 – Rothbard on Secession
11/26/12 – Rothbard on the Drug War
11/19/12 – Rothbard on the Euro Crisis
11/12/12 – Rothbard on the Lions of Liberty
11/5/12 – Rothbard on Voting and Gas Lines
10/29/12 – Mythbusting the “Free Market Cartel”
10/22/12 – Rothbard on the Two Party Charade
10/15/12 – Rothbard on Private Roads
10/8/12 – Rothbard on Private Law
10/1/12 – Rothbard on Ron Paul
9/24/12 – Rothbard on QE