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A Brief Introduction to Speciesism
Column by Don Stacy.
Exclusive to STR
Libertarianism, in its current state of development, does not present a definitive theory concerning the alleged rights of animals. However, the null hypothesis — the default viewpoint — is that animals do not have rights. The purpose of this essay is to briefly investigate the principal libertarian argument against animal rights, termed the speciesist argument.
Per usual, Murray Rothbard delivers the plumbline libertarian statement on a controversial issue, this time in chapter 21 of his 1982 book entitled The Ethics of Liberty, noting,
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 . . . . No other animals or beings possess this ability . . . . 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.
In short, Rothbard is a speciesist, for he asserts that rights are traits of specific species, not of individual animals.
Carl Cohen, a Professor at the University of Michigan Medical School, further explicates speciesism in a 1986 essay, entitled “The Case for the Use of Animals in Biomedical Research,” published in The New England Journal of Medicine. Professor Cohen claims that the capacity that distinguishes humans from animals is moral judgment and summarizes, impressively, the many potential origins of this capacity, stating,
The attributes of human beings from which this moral capability arises have been described variously by philosophers, both ancient and modern: the inner consciousness of a free will (Saint Augustine); the grasp, by human reason, of the binding character of moral law (Saint Thomas); the self-conscious participation of human beings in an objective ethical order (Hegel); human membership in an organic moral community (Bradley); the development of the human self through the consciousness of other moral selves (Mead); and the underivative, intuitive cognition of the rightness of an action (Prichard). Most influential has been Immanuel Kant’s emphasis on the universal human possession of a uniquely moral will and the autonomy its use entails.
Are there problems with the speciesist position? Several flaws exist, but the most common objection, particularly raised by individualist opponents of speciesism, is that organisms should be evaluated individually rather than collectively when rights are being attributed. This point of view logically leads to the aptly-named "marginal humans" critique, which can be summarized as follows: Some humans (infants, demented adults, etc.) do not have the capacity to make/grasp/apply moral judgments, which is identical to the moral capacity of animals; therefore, “marginal humans” and animals should have the same rights status, which means that rights are not traits of species and, thus, speciesism fails. To make a literary analogy, “marginal humans” proponents claim that speciesists believe, like the pigs in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, that,
ALL ANIMALS ARE EQUAL
BUT SOME ANIMALS ARE MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS.
What is the standard response to the “marginal humans” challenge? Professor Cohen takes the lead here, stressing — in the previously mentioned article — that the "marginal-humans" argument is false because "it mistakenly treats an essential feature of humanity as though it were a screen for sorting humans," “is not a test to be administered to human beings one by one," and humans "who are unable . . . to perform the full moral functions natural to human beings are certainly not for that reason ejected from the moral community.”
In conclusion, speciesists proclaim that humans have rights but animals do not. Advocates of the “marginal humans” argument disagree. Libertarians need a comprehensive theory of human and animal rights, which I plan to provide in future articles.