February 11, 2011
Any Animals Qualify For Personhood Status?

A view which I see as completely wrong:

The Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET) is committed to the idea that some non-human animals meet the criteria of legal personhood and thus are deserving of specific rights and protections.

My take: That someone could say the above in all seriousness stems from impractical and romantic notions about where rights come from in the first place. Rights come from a capacity and motivation to respect rights in others. If the very concept of rights is beyond the mental capacity of beings around you to understand then these beings are not going to treat you as a rights-possessing being.

The characteristics that IEET uses to describe why animals have rights fall far short of what it takes to create a rights-protecting society.

Owing to advances in several fields, including the neurosciences, it is becoming increasingly obvious that the human species no longer can ignore the rights of non-human persons. A number of non-human animals, including the great apes, cetaceans (i.e. dolphins and whales), elephants, and parrots, exhibit characteristics and tendencies consistent with that of a personótraits like self-awareness, intentionality, creativity, symbolic communication, and many others. It is a moral and legal imperative that we now extend the protection of 'human rights' from our species to all beings with those characteristics.

Wesley J. Smith's response gets to the core of the problem I have with animal rights: We can't have rights without the capacity to recognize rights in others.

Thatís just regurgitating Peter Singerís Great Ape Project, but with greater diversity. And, of course, these so-called persons will have no responsibilities to go along with their rights, nor even, the knowledge that their moral status has been elevated.  This is solely and completely, a human issue (because we are exceptional).

Some want to believe that our rights were given to us from God. I don't know whether God (or the simulator writers for the multi-verse) exists. But even if true this does not explain what about humans enable (some of) us to create rights-recognizing societies. Others (notably Objectivists) think our capacity to reason makes a rights-protecting society possible. I think this is necessary but not sufficient. In my view a rights-based system rests upon a complex bundle of cognitive characteristics such as the instinctive desire to carry out altruistic punishment against cheaters. These cognitive characteristics are mostly a result of selective forces on our genes on top of which some humans built arguments to create rights-based societies.

Why all this matters: We will some day be able to genetically engineer smarter animals and build artificially intelligent machines. Unless we unsentimentally figure out which cognitive characteristics are needed for a rights-based society we run the risk of granting rights to intelligences that will act to undermine and destroy the institutions and customs that protect our rights.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2011 February 11 07:48 PM  Bioethics Humanity Definition

Nick G said at February 13, 2011 10:58 PM:

I'm not sure why "rights" depend on a minimum of cognitive abilities.

Infants don't have much cognitive ability, but we see them as having rights.

Walenty Lisek said at February 13, 2011 11:02 PM:

"Rights come from a capacity and motivation to respect rights in others. If the very concept of rights is beyond the mental capacity of beings around you to understand then these beings are not going to treat you as a rights-possessing being.

We can't have rights without the capacity to recognize rights in others."

Well, "rights" are beyond the mental capacity for liberals to understand, as they have clearly demonstrated time and again. Hmm...

RadiVis said at February 14, 2011 12:29 AM:

Rights come from the ability to overthrow those who don't respect the rights you claim to defend. Therefore, animal rights depend crucially on the ability of animal rights activists to overthrow the reign of those who oppose animal rights. More theoretical considerations are rather secondary. Especially if technology will allow us to take any animal and lift it up to the status of an AI god. Consider the Buddha nature in all living beings! ;)

Eirik Magnus Newth said at February 14, 2011 12:39 AM:

To follow up on Nick Gs comment: this territory has been amply covered by philosophers such as Peter Singer, who in his "Practical Ethics" argues convincingly for extending rights to non-human primates based on cognitive ability. The fact of the matter is that a significant percentage of humanity at any time is unable to respect the rights of others (infants and very young children, the mentally impaired, patients in a vegetative state, Alzheimer's patients, many would include fetuses), much less conform to the complex bundle to which you refer.

So either you base your concept of rights on less advanced mental traits which in its turn might lead to the inclusion of chimpanzees, or you accept the fact that rights are granted on a genetic basis. You might not even be conscious, but you're still Homo sapiens and as such you have rights.

PacRim Jim said at February 14, 2011 1:19 AM:

Are there enough IP addresses for the trillions of robots and sensors that will go online in the coming decades?
The autonomous AI-driven devices will want Web access, too. (And their own blogs?)
The world will soon change so fast that we'll hesitate to buy the latest gadgets, preferring instead to await next-week's improved device (or the one a week later).
I miss the 20th century already.

Ben said at February 14, 2011 1:41 AM:

I don't think one needs to be cognizant of the fact that they have rights (or that anyone/thing else does either) in order to be granted rights by others. Rights don't exist in any innate sense, nor do I think they're earned on account of an individuals philosophical sophistication: they're a beneficial construction given to us by our fellows. They represent restrictions we are willing to place on ourselves aspirationally because we think it will make the world better. So I see no reason why, choosing to believe in and enact rights as we do for persons (yes, because we are exceptional), we may not grant rights to animals as well.

Whether animals have personhood is another question, of course, but I don't think you need to be a person to have rights. You just need to be one to recognize them.

I mean, maybe we shouldn't get into the whole abortion thing here on top of the animal thing, but there's an ongoing debate there, and it's not about whether a fetus is aware of it's own rights holding status. It's about whether a fetus ought to be protected because WE decide they're morally valuable. Rights are about value.

Melissa said at February 14, 2011 6:38 AM:

I don't really understand why people think infants and the severely handicapped do have rights. They don't. They are almost never allowed to make decisions for themselves (see the recent court case where a handicapped/mentally impaired man was banned from having sex). They have protections and those are very different.

Anonymous said at February 14, 2011 8:30 AM:

I second Radivis: Rights are the result of a power struggle. And I'm in law school.

@Melissa: infants and mentally challenged have rights, just not all the rights.

kurt9 said at February 14, 2011 8:43 AM:

This is one issue where I agree with Wesley J. Smith over IEET. I think the IEET people are bonkers in some respects.

Chris T said at February 14, 2011 9:24 AM:

Rights come at the sufferance of the powerful. If you cannot defend your rights, they are very tenuous indeed.

Randall Parker said at February 14, 2011 10:07 AM:

Eirik Magnus Newth,

I see 2 viewpoints:

- Who grants the rights and enforces them.

- Who gets the rights granted to them.

I think the mistake is to debate the second point when it only is possible to have rights if there are people around capable and desirous of enforcing a rights-based society. Babies and Alzheimer's patients (and Border Collies and Bonobos for that matter) are not capable of granting and protecting rights. Retarded people are not so capable either.


If you use "Anonymous" again I will delete your comment. Use a distinctive pseudonym.

Fat Man said at February 14, 2011 7:22 PM:

As a not yet disbarred lawyer, I have always said that I will happily represent any animal that shows up in my office alone with a check for a ten thousand dollar retainer.

No takers yet.

I am not holding my breath.

P.S. PacRim Jim the problem is being solved. IPv6 will be implemented soon see: here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IPv6

You may already be using it:


Avenist said at February 14, 2011 8:07 PM:

I think rights are artifacts of morality used to control behavior and that morality is a cultural adaptation of the survival instinct. Different cultures would emphasize different morals, depending on how they affected the survival of the culture, much as evolution selects for DNA.

Promotion of rights for animals is completely daft. Who thought of this, PETA?

And I also think morality is the root of most evil.

JPR said at February 15, 2011 10:22 AM:

Good discussion. But I haven't yet seen the perspective that I find most persuasive: empathy-based granting of "rights" (or protections, or whatever you may call them or define them as) based on ability to suffer and, even more so, experience excruciating pain. Thus, the empathy-based approach is not based on whether the animal is cognizant of its rights, or capable of fulfilling responsibilities to others (for, as mentioned, an infant human can do neither) - but rather based on the undesirability of intentionally inflicting suffering on a neurologically advanced animal. I get the sense that torture is torture, and the suffering is similar, whether done on a human or, say, an elephant or a dolphin.

Marcus said at February 16, 2011 3:12 AM:

"Unless we unsentimentally figure out which cognitive characteristics are needed for a rights-based society we run the risk of granting rights to intelligences that will act to undermine and destroy the institutions and customs that protect our rights."

What does this say regarding the extension of legal rights to those (Jihadists, Bill Ayers, and other terrorists come immediately to mind) that look to "undermine and destroy the institutions and customs" that protect our (and their) rights? Is a willingness to forgo terrorism a "cognitive characteristic" for the granting of human rights?

Methinks p'rhaps the answer depends on whose institutions are getting gored. As such, this seems entirely too subjective a qualifier.

Stephen said at February 16, 2011 10:46 AM:

Every right comes with a set of implicit or explicit responsibilities necessary to sustain it socially. If you cannot, even in theory, exercise the responsibilities pertaining to the rights in question, you cannot justly be accorded the rights associated with them. You may be deserving of respect and appreciation--e.g. as a living creature--but it is dangerous to conflate such worthiness with candidacy for legal rights.

Nick G said at February 16, 2011 10:55 AM:


What are the responsibilities of an infant?

A good smile, perhaps...

celebrim said at February 16, 2011 11:06 AM:

Animals do have certain rights.

Those rights are not based on their personhood, but on their status as animals. Traits such as 'self-awareness, intentionality, creativity, symbolic communication' don't establish them as persons (since termites exhibit all those things), but do establish the animal is more deserving of rights than a rock (which doesn't exhibit those traits). We, as persons, are obligated to decide what rights do extend to animals according to their needs, but we are under no obligation to treat animals as persons. A cow for example does have certain rights, and you can be prosecuted under the existing law for violating those rights. But a cow doesn't have the right to not be a persons property nor does a cow have a right to not be humanely slaughtered and turned into food nor does a cow have a right to demand reparations for wrongful imprisonment. A termite has no right not to expect humans to poison them when we find them eating our houses, and generally by virtue of its status doesn't even need or require the same rights as a cow. But to the extent that it deserves any rights, we should be as careful to avoid refraining from extending them just because they aren't as cuddly as cows as we are to avoid extending rights to animals just because we find them lovable.

Extending the rights of personhood to animals is simply nonsense. How can you know what animals consent or don't consent to? How can animals make reasonable informed decisions? If humans are persons, surely they have a right to self-determination and participation in the political process, which would probably explain Congress, but hardly seems like an appropriate way to handle either the needs of the animals or the needs of their human guardians.

The False God said at February 16, 2011 11:23 AM:

"What does this say regarding the extension of legal rights to those (Jihadists, Bill Ayers, and other terrorists come immediately to mind) that look to "undermine and destroy the institutions and customs" that protect our (and their) rights? Is a willingness to forgo terrorism a "cognitive characteristic" for the granting of human rights?"

I would posit that anyone and everyone that attempts to undermine the system which protects the positive rights of people, or attempts to replace that system with one that denies rights to people, or attempts to remove the capacity of people to determine rights peacefully and openly, is, in fact, undeserving of the rights granted to the average human by that society. If your answer to the question of "Why aren't people supporting my dogmatic, totalitarian, negativist redesigns of their society?" is "I need to kill the people stopping me.", then you shouldn't expect for society to support your efforts or even acknowledge your right to be a part of it. Once you undermine the system of law and established free society, society is effectively lawless. The greatest crime in society is not murder, but attempts to undermine equal law and those institutions which protect positive rights. Murder only affects one person: corruption affects everyone, and can have a spiraling effect on the integrity of the system as a whole.

PacRim Jim said at February 16, 2011 11:37 AM:

As Director of the League for Bacteria, Viruses, Prions, and SNPs (LBVPS), I demand the same rights for our hypogenetic cousins.

richard40 said at February 16, 2011 11:41 AM:

I never really liked the word "rights" anyway, since it can be twisted into a concept where people have the "right" to force others, through taxes, to pay their bills. I prefer the concepts of freedon/liberty and responsibiity. Somebody has freedom/liberty if they fulfull the inherent responsibilities, such as defending those liberties against others who would take them away, being self suporting, and respecting the liberties of others. Children do not really have liberty, only potential liberty, being totally dependent on others, and not respecting others liberties. As they grow up, and acquire increased ability to take care of themselves, and respect others, their liberties and responsibilities gradually increase. Those who are not self supporting, will lose liberty to those that support them, in proportion to the degree that they are supported, vs the degree they can still fend for themselves. By this definition, animinals in the wild do have a degree of liberty, since they support themselves, although not human style liberty, since as others stated, they have only a limited concept of respecting liberties of other animinals. Captive animals do not have liberty.

BenK said at February 16, 2011 12:32 PM:

I find this discussion a little confusing. Are you assuming that 'rights' are things that really exist, independent of what anybody thinks about them, that can therefore be argued about 'scientifically'? Are they legal/ethical fictions that can only be argued about on the basis of utility? Or are they simply expressions of emotion, that can't really be argued about a all?

craig said at February 16, 2011 12:47 PM:

I see many comments here confusing rights with powers. The power (i.e., ability) to do something is orthogonal to the right to do it, or the right not to be hindered by others from doing it. Rights are an artifact of our status before God. The entire notion of rights come from the fact that all other creatures, human or animal, are also His creations and thus intrinsically have value to Him. As such, we are bound to treat other creatures as He so directs. God has the standing to declare rights; we do not.

Lions, dogs, and cattle possess no rights by virtue of their animal status except those which relate to mankind: the right to be treated humanely by men. Again, men are merely the stewards of creation, not its owners.

Babies and dementia sufferers are not capable of recognizing rights in others. They still possess rights solely by virtue of their human status; they have an intrinsic relation to human action either in the actual past or in the potential future. (But no dolphin ever started life as a man nor ever will end life having become one: they lack the potential.)

All men are manifestly unequal, except in their status before God. This is mere empirical fact. So any basis for rights that does not involve God as a third-party arbiter cannot long involve human equality because the entire notion of pre-existing rights disappears. Rights become something that do not pre-exist human society but are delegated by it -- and what society gives, society may take away.

In the same vein, natural selection cannot be the origin of rights unless it also can be the termination of rights. We don't speak that way because (by definition) natural selection deals only with powers, not rights. The rationalization of cognitive-based or ability-based conceptions of rights will not end up in anything resembling Western morality: it cannot *not* devolve to mere survival of the fittest.

TFG said at February 16, 2011 1:18 PM:

"it cannot *not* devolve to mere survival of the fittest."

Which is odd, considering the unfittest are the most eager to define negative rights that they can use against you, and the most likely to modify the system of law to provide a cushy position for them to rest on. Then again, maybe it is survival of the fittest: parasites also adapt to survive better.

West said at February 16, 2011 1:54 PM:

Skin 'em naked, paint 'em green, and stick them in the monkey house at the San Diego zoo for a week. When they get out (IF they survive), poll them once more on what rights they think animals should have.

Bill DaH said at February 16, 2011 2:30 PM:

"All men are manifestly unequal, except in their status before God. This is mere empirical fact. So any basis for rights that does not involve God as a third-party arbiter cannot long involve human equality because the entire notion of pre-existing rights disappears. Rights become something that do not pre-exist human society but are delegated by it -- and what society gives, society may take away."

I was waiting for this point, being that it's in the mission statement of the United States, a/k/a, the Declaration of Independence. My rights are not dependent on your opinion and definition, you do not get to say what rights I have, you do not grant them or take them away according to your cultural beliefs, you may only recognize them and, in an environment of consensual government, with proper application of justice and law, limit them. But we still recognize these rights even while passing sentences.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

We believe this as Americans. The king does not grant us rights, nor the government, nor you, nor anyone else. God does. Whether or not you believe in God, it is necessary to believe this definition of rights for a free society to remain. If you do not -- call it ceremonial deism if you prefer a nod to the unknown -- then you will inexorably run afoul of Godel's Incompleteness Theorems, and struggle to define a system in terms of itself, which systems cannot do.

Nick G said at February 16, 2011 2:30 PM:

I've never expected to cuddle up to a tiger. Heck, small children can be pretty rough - ask any small animal left at the mercy of a toddler. Still, I think tigers have a right to not be exterminated, and small children have a right not to be well treated.

I don't this depends on God - I think my built-in intuition is enough.

murph said at February 16, 2011 2:54 PM:

Younger me linked rights to powers, the ability to act. Liberties to the 'social contract', the agreements/promises between you and your neighbors/fellow citizens to protect every persons execution of their rights/powers. I think that 'person hood' is the 'glue' that holds rights and liberties together

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

When the founders wrote "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness"

they didn't mean equal in ability, or even that one person was better than any other.

They were trying to communicate that no one is worse than anyone else. That no human is automatical inferior and therefor the Natural Property of others*.

Before the 'Declaration of Independence' being human was a special gift granted by God through the office of a King or other Nobility.

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother (and recognized as human); be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;

The Founders asserted that a king was not needed, that you were human by virtue of being born.

*God is an Iron, what do you expect? They were making a statement that was judged as insanity by pretty much everyone, what contributions to civilization have YOU made today.

If 'A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy', why do you always seek to destroy the boy?

Steven said at February 16, 2011 3:31 PM:

You're being much, much, much too generous.

"The Terror of Animal Rights"

" 'We need a drastic decrease in human population if we ever hope to create a just and equitable world for animals," proclaims Freeman Wicklund of Compassionate Action for Animals.' ... "

"Animal 'Rights' vs. Human Rights"

"How do these advocates try to justify their position? As someone who has debated them for years on college campuses and in the media, I know firsthand that the whole movement is based on a single--invalid--syllogism, namely: men feel pain and have rights; animals feel pain; therefore, animals have rights. This argument is entirely specious, because man's rights do not depend on his ability to feel pain; they depend on his ability to think.

"Rights are ethical principles applicable only to beings capable of reason and choice. There is only one fundamental right: a man's right to his own life...."

These people are followers of a killer creed, which they practice either explicitly by killing scientists or blowing up labratories or implicitly through their sociopathic sloganeering.

The first need to be imprisoned; the second, ignored.

Shelby said at February 16, 2011 3:35 PM:


If you take seriously the matters discussed in your post, you need to read Wild Justice. It's a very serious and well-thought-out (and mostly well written) exploration of animals' display of many of the attributes we associate with justice. It does not attempt to place animals in a distinct relationship with humans, and the authors are clear about their own concerns re the implications of some of what they have observed. I can't imagine it's possible to have a complete discussion of this topic without an understanding of that book.

Avenist said at February 16, 2011 4:03 PM:

How many rights can fit on the head of a pin? How many angels can fit on the head of a pin? All garbage.

As soon as people are able to conceptualize government as their enemy, the need to fabricate rights will go away.

Jake Badlands said at February 16, 2011 4:50 PM:


When you say "the need to fabricate rights will go away," are you suggesting that this applies to all rights, or to the frivolous generation of rights (animal rights, FDR's Four Freedoms, etc.)?

Rights are an abstract concept no matter how we slice it, but I think they're an important concept to civilization. Rights are to human interaction as transparent, just, legible laws are to a free market. I am able to interact peacefully with you, generally, because I know you are going to grant me the same. I am from time to time disappointed that I cannot make the streets run red with the blood of my enemies, but I recognize that if our system of morality is thusly breached, I am very likely to end up dead myself. I am not a strong man.

Randall, I have to question the notion that beings with rights need to be able to understand those rights themselves. "Rights," as we think of them, generally extend to human action. If we determine that a pig has a right to life, it matters little what that pig thinks or knows. What matters is that those who are in a position to deprive said pig of his new rights buy in. It's entirely possible that we are living in a snow globe on the desk of a capricious giant, and only his respect for our right to life keeps him from hurling that globe out the window. We would in this case be unaware of our rights, but enjoying them nonetheless. Don't rights just require a significant portion of the affected community to a.) acknowledge these rights and b.) be willing to enforce them? We all know the drowning man takes no comfort in his right to life, liberty, etc. These things are of man, not nature.

As for your last question, that's a really good one. Reason is absolutely insufficient. We have to start from some arbitrarily-arrived at base, it seems to me. "Murder is bad." Why? Any argument for this obvious truth will always devolve to basic assertions about the value of human life. Reason alone can't get you there; it just happens, thankfully, that we share a certain set of prejudices which are a net-positive for human existence.

Zoe Brain said at February 16, 2011 9:02 PM:

If a Chimpanzee, Bonibo, Gorilla or Orang-Utan comes up to me and signs or types via a keyboard "I want to be considered a person", then I think they should have the right to be so considered.

I also think that on the neorological evidence, they have the capability to understand the concepts involved, the rights and also the responsibilities.

Should they be considered "first class citizens"? I don't know. But they should, even at the moment, have at least the same safety from being vivisected or used as a food-source as pre-verbal "developmentally disadvantaged" H.Sap.

That will of course mean that they are subject to criminal law, because they do have the capacity to understand the concept of criminal responsibility. The more that we know about cognition, AI, neuroscience, and the way our own minds work, the more difficult it is becoming to tell ourselves that these entities differ in kind, rather than differ in degree, from ourselves. Observations of wild chimpanzee troupes is a savannah environment show extreme similarities in social constriction of societies to a number of tribes in New Guinea. That's not to say that New Guinea tribespeople are any less human than you are, or I am: but that chimpanzees are people too, by any rational definition of the word.

Note that as a large part of a spiny lobster's neuro-anatomy can be exchanged with $10 worth of radio-shack parts, I don't consider them to be more sophont than a toaster-oven. I'm not a rabid animal-rights advocate who sees all animals as being the same as all people. I'm someone who thinks that, on the evidence, some of who we call "animal" should be classed as "people" instead.

cranston said at February 16, 2011 9:02 PM:

You worry that 'we run the risk of granting rights to intelligences that will act to undermine and destroy the institutions and customs that protect our rights'.
A PastandPresentPundit could have told you that we have already done just that!
But don't worry - they won't be able to genetically engineer smarter animals and build artificially intelligent machines.

Zoe Brain said at February 16, 2011 9:22 PM:

I better give a disclaimer here.

I have an unusual medical condition. It appears to be genetic. There was some discussion amongst my medical team as to whether I should be considered a member of H. Sap or not. Not whether I was a person, just whether I was of a subspecies, biologically speaking. They decided that, on balance, I was biologically human, but that it was reasonable to at least raise the question.

Comments obita dicta in Woods vs CG Studios indicate that from a legal standpoint, people like me are not human, in that jurisdiction, for some purposes. Neither Men, nor Women, nor Children. That case actually led to a change in South African law, when one smart cookie noted that they had the same problem there in the wording of the law.

I therefore am likely to be biased towards a more inclusive definition of "person" than is warranted. For my own benefit, and that of my son.

Randall Parker said at February 16, 2011 10:08 PM:

Jake Badlands,

There are two groups:

- Those who recognize and protect rights.

- Those who get rights granted to the by the former.

Why should a being qualify for the second category if they are are unwilling or unable to fit in the first category?

Nick G said at February 17, 2011 8:18 AM:


I'm really puzzled. Wouldn't you want infant humans to have rights to food, proper treatment, protection from abuse, etc? Wouldn't you want tigers to have a right not to be exterminated? Australian Shepherds to have a right to not be tortured?

craig said at February 17, 2011 9:49 AM:

Good catch, Nick G. Many here still fail to see the problem I noted earlier. Probably some of them stopped reading at the mention of God. The problem is twofold.

First, only moral agents can have either rights or duties. Rights and duties make no sense outside of a proper understanding of personhood.

Second, personhood is defined by moral agency as either an actual or potential ability. The possibility of conscience is necessary to personhood; a being that has no conscience is is intrinsically incapable of being a moral agent and so cannot be a person. This is not true, however, for a being that is only temporarily incapable, as in the case of infants (who generally fulfill their potential for conscience) and coma patients, dementia sufferers, et al. (who have possessed conscience and would be expected to again were they restored to health).

Nick G said at February 17, 2011 10:57 AM:

only moral agents can have either rights

?? Is it ok to mistreat animals who happen not to have the cognitive capacity to be moral agents?

Further, I don't really see the "temporal" distinction. Is it ok to abuse a dementia patient with no hope of recovery? Or an infant who will be killed by a genetic disease at 6 months?

craig said at February 17, 2011 1:43 PM:

If there is no God, then everything is permitted.

In a sane world, no, it is not ok to mistreat animals. Moral agents can and do have duties to non-moral agents. But they are noblesse oblige, the duties of the superior to the inferior. It muddies understanding to claim "rights" for non-moral agents which are actually conditions that can only be realized through an affirmative duty placed upon moral agents. (This is the same problem causing confusion throughout politics. Failure to distinguish between the rights of a moral agent to do a thing, and the supposed duty of another to do it for him, is why the right to work has been confused with the "right to a job", or why the right to seek remedies for ailments has been confused with a "right to health care".)

Animals have no right not to be tormented by other animals. Humane treatment of animals is a duty given only to humans. But if there is no God, then there can be no duties, only fickle social norms.

Likewise, in a sane world it is not OK to kill, maim, torture, or abuse persons. Moral agents have duties to other moral agents, and rights other moral agents are bound to respect, as equals to equals. Personhood is not achieved, acquired, or maintained, it is innate. A person who cannot at this moment act as a moral agent nonetheless could, if he woke up, grew up, or his health improved. The norm is the healthy adult human.

Whoever wants the right to snuff others who are "going to die anyway" wants to be ubermensch. The idea that personhood (and thus rights) can be lost, simply because in the opinion of others one has not done enough lately to retain it, is incompatible with equality before God and the law. But if there is no God, then there can be no rights, only fickle social norms.

Nick G said at February 17, 2011 1:55 PM:

If there is no God, then everything is permitted.... if there is no God, then there can be no duties

Regardless of whether God exists, I will continue to feel strongly that no one should abuse children, disabled humans, or animals. I believe that's genetically built into me, not a matter of "fickle social norms". Empathy is hard wired, by mirror neurons, etc.

It's true that some people who are pretty similar to me genetically don't always act this way, but I estimate they have been disabled/injured by their environment.

Randall Parker said at February 19, 2011 9:19 AM:


I do not want tigers to be exterminated. I do not have to grant them rights in order to grant them legal protections. Ditto protection of Australian Shepherds.

The over-use of the term "rights" hobbles our ability to assure rights in the long run.

To repeat: In order for rights to exist there must exist entities with the capacity and desire to protect rights. There is a difference between the entities who can do this and the entities who can't. We ignore that difference at our peril.

Avenist said at February 19, 2011 9:47 AM:

Jake Badlands: "When you say "the need to fabricate rights will go away," are you suggesting that this applies to all rights..."

All rights. What kind of rights discussion would you have if everyone were anarchists/voluntaryists? Of course that is unlikely to happen.

Rights aren't characteristics of being human, behavior is, and the less animal behavior you have, the more human you are.

By the way, if rights are God given, where's the list, and if they're government granted, where do you get the right to form a government?

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