A ‘right’ is a moral claim or potential claim that one party may exercise against another. Rights are contingent on moral agency, not species membership. By definition, such a claim can only be exercised by, or on behalf of, one moral agent against another. What makes a moral agent?
One good definition is derived from Immanuel Kant’s emphasis on the universal human possession of a uniquely moral will and the autonomy the use of such will entails. Humans and only humans confront choices that are purely moral. Humans and only humans lay down moral laws, for others and for themselves. Humans and only humans are self-legislative and morally autonomous. That in and of itself entails moral agency. What humans possess as a matter of human nature, no animal can be said to have at all. I’ll discuss that in detail in a moment.
Animal Rights (AR) advocates seek to extend to animals what they can not have – ‘rights’- but the actual result of the achievement of AR goal, by their own argument, would not only fail in that regard, but would result in the stripping of rights from human beings.
Here’s the problem. While AR advocates may claim that animals may benefit from the extension of some variation of the human concept of ‘rights,’ the fact remains that the only results will affect humans, not animals. The policy changes made will only affect human society; the consequences imposed for infractions will only affect human behavior. A rabbit can not make a moral claim against a wolf that would eat it for lunch, nor can a wolf claim it has a right to the rabbit. The AR agenda would not place that onus of responsibility on animals. It would not affect animal behavior in any way, and so it in no way extends moral agency to animals.
So, by their own definition, AR advocates exclude animals from the unique status of moral agency that is the sole province of humans, which automatically negates the argument that they be entitled to any extension of the socio-legal concept of ‘rights.’
However, there’s a darker side to the AR argument. Since AR favors a ‘case-by-case’ assessment of moral agency and rights based on ability, the AR agenda carried to a logical extreme can only result in inhuman treatment of the retarded, of the handicapped, of the elderly. It can only result in the inhuman treatment of any humans who are deemed ‘inferior’ and ‘unworthy’ by whatever arbitrary standard a hypothetical despot could dream up. And they’d have a moral ground for doing so; the AR agenda, after all, has already set the precedent.
Moral agency is the arbiter of rights, not species. However, moral agency as a workable principle can only be assigned on the basis of kind; it can’t justifiably be assigned on a case-by-case basis. The capacities that enable moral agency are unique to humans as a body; while humans can be and are moral agents, no animals can be said to have that capacity. Once the precedent is set to make individual capacity or ability, or any other arbitrary attribute, a qualification for assignation of ‘rights’ then you open a Pandora’s box, the ultimate consequences of which stagger description.
At the heart of this issue is a matter of fundamental public policy. It is proponents of AR who are arguing the need for a vast and fundamental change in the very fabric of our society. It is proponents of AR who, in an age where billions of humans are denied the basest human rights, wish to extend this very concept to non-human animals. Therefore, the burden lies on AR advocates to prove that human society would benefit in some measurable way by doing so. And it is only the benefit for human society that we need consider, as it is only human society that you would affect. It is only humans upon which you would place the onus of responsibility. It is only humans that you would restrict in any behavioral, legal or moral actions. The AR agenda would have no effect, moral, legal, or otherwise, on animal’s interactions with humans or other animals. Indeed, the iteration of the AR agenda unwittingly recognizes the lack of moral capacity in animals, and this is a fundamental flaw in itself.
AR advocates can’t discuss this on even ground; they are arguing against a status quo. AR is seeking to overturn a state of affairs that is a fait accompli, and so AR advocates have to prove an overwhelming benefit or compelling need exists to enact their agenda. That’s the reality of public policy, and if you’re not advocating AR as public policy, but instead purely as a semantic exercise, then why bother?
AR advocates are fond of comparing human ownership of animals to slavery. That argument is a non-starter, again because of the issue of moral agency. Slavery is recognized as a great moral evil precisely because of the unique human status of moral agency. The fact remains that human slaves are in any event moral agents, and even in slave-holding societies are recognized as having the capacity of making moral claims against other humans, although that ability may be immorally curtailed by the enslavement. In virtually all slaveholding societies, slaves were allowed to marry, and they were allowed to conduct limited trade. In many they were entitled to work towards earning their freedom. Indeed, in some societies people were even allowed to enter into an agreement of indenture for a limited time to satisfy a debt. None of those are possible without the capacity to enter into a moral agreement or exact a moral claim; the AR argument falls apart on the very face of this issue.
It is the fact that rights are contingent on moral agency that sounds the death knell for the oxymoron, “animal rights.”