Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Do Animals Have "Natural Rights"?

In Foundations of Private Property Society Theory: Anarchism for the Civilized Person, I make the case that there is no such thing as "natural rights" and point out that Ludwig von Mises was in the anti-natural rights camp.


Mises in Human Action:
"There is, however, no such thing as natural law and a perennial
standard of what is just and what is unjust. Nature is alien to the idea
of right and wrong. "Thou shalt not kill" is certainly not part of
natural law. The characteristic feature of natural conditions is that
one animal is intent upon killing other animals and that many species
cannot preserve their own life except by killing others. The notion of
right and wrong is a human device, a utilitarian precept designed to
make social cooperation under the division of labor possible."


"From the notion of natural law some people deduce the justice of
the institution of private property in the means of production. Other
people resort to natural law for the justification of the abolition of
private property in the means of production. As the idea of natural
law is quite arbitrary, such discussions are not open to settlement."
From  Mises: The Last Knight of Liberalism by Jörg Guido Hülsmann:
"Traditionally, the champions of democracy had defended this
political form with the help of arguments rooted in ethics or
natural law. All men are born equal, they claimed, and therefore
all men should be equally involved in political decision-making.
But this could only be realized in a democracy. Mises did not
find this line of reasoning convincing. He believed it was rather
obvious that all men were born unequal, and he had little
patience with arguments based on claims about natural law,
which he considered to be a fiction of the intellect. No agreement
could ever be reached on a fiction. Rather, it was to be
expected that everybody made up his own version of “natural”
law, to buttress his political agenda. Thus natural-law considerations
were simply unfit to be applied in politics, because the
very point of politics was, from Mises’s perspective at any rate,
to resolve conflicts."
I bring this point up because of a comment at the post, The Queen Steps In: Meghan and Harry's Baby Will NOT Be a Vegan.

plainlib writes:
You can be a libertarian and vegan and find a lot overlap between the two, whether from a natural rights perspective or even a private property perspective. Wouldn't a cow value its own body?
Rothbard did say animals don't have rights but why not? Just because they can't engage in contractual agreements with humans and/or with other animals? Maybe they can't have rights to land property and such but wouldn't they at least have a right to their own body? Do we really have the right to aggress on animals (and we most certainly do aggress on them: http://www.nationearth.com). If you find people eating and/or harming dogs distressing, you can expand on that feeling to imagine why people might become vegans (and be healthy!)
This is the problem with natural rights.  As Mises put it:
As the idea of natural law is quite arbitrary, such discussions are not open to settlement.
On this planet, for the most part, humans rule. That is extremely significant.

Mises again:
Nature is alien to the idea of right and wrong. "Thou shalt not kill" is certainly not part of natural law. The characteristic feature of natural conditions is that one animal is intent upon killing other animals and that many species cannot preserve their own life except by killing others.
In the case of humans, some kill animals, many more eat animals and some animals are caged and leashed. Mises nailed it.

Finally, I must point out to plainlib that nothing in a PPS holds that a cow is necessarily protected. In a PPS, everything stems from the rules set by the human property owner. Animals can be protected on a given property owner's site or shot. It is up to the property owner.

Robert Wenzel is Editor & Publisher of EconomicPolicyJournal.com and Target Liberty. He also writes EPJ Daily Alert and is author of The Fed Flunks: My Speech at the New York Federal Reserve Bank and most recently Foundations of Private Property Society Theory: Anarchism for the Civilized Person Follow him on twitter:@wenzeleconomics and on LinkedIn. His youtube series is here: Robert Wenzel Talks Economics. More about Wenzel here.


  1. Natural law is called natural not because it is somehow found in the wild nature, but because it is the only legal system having no internal contradictions and exclusions placing some people above the law.

    The reason why animals don't have rights is because they do not and cannot respect rights of others. Now, given that socialists are willfully violating rights of others I think an argument can be made that they should be considered mere animals.

    1. No, averration, socialists are not animals. Animals lack the knowledge of what is right and what is wrong. Socialists don't lack the knowledge, they simply prefer to eschew it for their own evil purposes. That makes them evil. You know, like Trumpistas are evil.

  2. The only "natural law" is that you have to successfully reproduce in order for your genetic code to be sustained.

  3. I think von Mises made a common error which is evident in comments like "The notion of right and wrong is a human device,". This implies that humans are not part of nature and their "devises" are thus not part of nature. This seems self evidently false. Humans are an integral part of nature and their "devices" to be successful must be consistent with all of nature, including human nature. This consistency is not "arbitrary." It is an objective reality and is discoverable by human logic.

    1. It implies no such thing.

      It simply means that the notion of right and wrong is a human device (even though humans are part on nature) and not, say, of an earthworm which is also part of nature.

    2. Nope. The natural law is a product of memetic evolution, which doesn't require meme carriers to be human or even conscious (this has been demonstrated empirically by the AI/AL researcher Eric Baum in his experiments with market-based evolution of algorithms known as "the Hayek Machines"). The main advantage of market-based evolution over plain evolution is that it tends to split search space by modularizing it into smaller specialist domains (aka "division of labor"), thus reducing O(2^n) search to significantly faster O(k*2^(n/k)) (k is the number of modules).

      You can think of the natural law as a weakly Pareto-optimal resource allocation algorithm which is more efficient and scalable than the resource allocation strategies (notably intra-species aggression with various later augmentations such as dominance-submission signaling and social hierarchies, nest mate recognition, pair bonding, and finally ape-like fluid alliances and reciprocity-based strategies - read Konrad Lorenz for rather accessible exposition of fundamentals of ethology).

      To put it simply: there's a competition between societies defined by their beliefs (or meme complexes). Those societies which are closer to the natural law in their beliefs are more successful economically and demographically, and thus will carry more military and economic leverage, eventually causing either extinction or conversion of societies with other sets of beliefs.

      The socialist/collectivist beliefs persist solely because they match better instinctive behavior of humans (which is pretty much the same as behavior of troops of apes). This causes societies to regress back to rationalizing animal-like behavior patterns when the competitive selective pressure on their cultures is relieved. That's the reason why US, relieved of its geopolitical competition with the USSR, allowed its culture to regress to approximation of a bunch of overfed chimpanzees.

      The practical take-out from that is that keeping civilized society requires constant cultural vigilance.

    3. That's the biggest bunch of bullshit I've ever seen on here, averros

    4. Nice cogent argument D. The fact that you failed to understand what I said doesn't make it BS.

    5. I understand what you said, you just tried to dress a stupid argument in a bunch of arrogance and frills. If you can't state that nonsense in simple language, you dont understand it and are only regurgitating trash you have consumed from others

    6. Now, you heard this line of reasoning here first, for a very simple reason: this is my own understanding, combining results from a number of scientific fields (i.e. AL, AI, primatology, sociobiology, and ethology, as well as Austrian economics) which very few people have a working knowledge at the same time. My primary field is math/CS, by the way, so I know exactly how to construct logical arguments. (I'm actually considering doing a book-length treatment of natural evolution of resource allocation algorithms and corresponding social structures - if I ever find time for that).

      So, would you please, can your crap. If you want to engage in a reasoned debate on this, I'm all for it. If you just want to parade your own ignorance and lack of manners, I'm out.

    7. Averros,

      I'm an engineer and am used to interpreting complex arguments and language and using such information to get a desired outcome. I also had a grad school professor who, though not an economist, pointed out to us how people try to use scientific-sounding language and math in areas that they dont belong and in ways that they don't apply. He would try to trick us with BS all the time in homework and on exams because he thought we should be experienced in filtering the nonsense that comes at us. I can tell you, what you wrote is not coherent, it makes wild assumptions, and seems to be trying to use language that you don't understand in order to make an argument you haven't thought through. In other word's, it a huge mound of fertilizer. My apologies for the language, but when people try to dress ridiculous arguments like this up in language that sounds very complicated to most people, they are usually doing so to try to appear to be something they are not. People who actually know what they are talking about don't do that.

  4. To paraphrase Rothbard, all animal rights are property rights. If a person owns an animal, then anyone trespassing on that animal has violated the owner's property rights, and that owner can enforce these rights against the violator.

  5. Mises says "The characteristic feature of natural conditions is that one animal is intent upon killing other animals and that many species cannot preserve their own life except by killing others."

    But this isn't true for humans. Is it convenient and tasty for us to eat animals? Sure. Do we have to? No. It's not characteristic to our survival. Just because many people eat animals now does not mean it's characteristic to our survival. The way I see it, we've done plenty of horrible things routinely before. That doesn't mean we have to continue to do them to survive, be healthy, procreate, think, etc.

    As for the cow, why isn't a cow the owner of her *own* body? Is she not a sentient being with her own subjective feelings?

    If we go down the path of natural rights, why should a human be able to own a cow? Maybe you could respond someone needs to take care of the animal but there's a difference between being a caretaker and an owner. People are caretakers of dogs but they do not own dogs the way a milk farmer might own a cow. Not only would they find it objectionable to do so, they probably would be arrested. (Not to be too graphic but milk production necessarily involves repeatedly impregnating cows, taking away their calfs, and then extracting the milk from her udder that was meant for the calf.)

    If we go down the path of private property, then why doesn't the cow at least her own body? Sure, she might not be able to own parcels of land or house or whatever. But at the very least, doesn't she own her own body? She's quite aware that it's her body.

    Do we really reserve the right to do what we want to sentient beings that suffer just because they kill each other and/or they can't communicate with humans and respect our property rights, etc.? It's one thing if an animal was about to attack you and you killed it in self-defense. The vast vast majority of what we do, however, is not about self-defense. We *do* aggress against animals even though we don't have to. I don't want to point out specific acts of aggression in this comment box because it'll be too graphic. Anyone interested should check out the writings of Sue Coe, Gary Francione, Karen Davis, and if they are brave enough, to watch documentaries like Earthlings or Speciecism.

    The last thing I'll add is, a lot of the vegan authors who write about the issue are leftists. So if you read them, you will be infuriated (as I am) by lefty nonsense. It's problematic and inconsistent for a vegan to be a leftist. As someone earlier noted, these people profess rights for animals but not humans. I think that's a valid charge.

    1. You raise a set of interesting points, and this is a tough area.

      To develop an acceptable code of interaction among beings, it seems to me that you have to be able to argue different viewpoints and agree on that code, and I'm also partial to Kant's point about universalizeability, meaning that if you want to suggest a behavioral code, then it has to apply to everyone all the time, without exception (e.g, the NAP is a code of negative rights that could, as a technical matter, apply to all men, or RW's PPS, which is an agreement among men that "I'll leave your property alone if you leave mine alone").

      Animals are not able to engage in argumentation and agreement with humans, and they are also unlikely to respect any universalizeable rules. Thus it's not clear to me why animals are entitled to get the benefit of any interpersonal moral codes that we develop. We know that they don't respect each other, in that they wantonly kill, so why should they get the benefit of a "no murder" rule?

      In addition, if we were to recognize animals' self-ownership, where does that stop, and what would be the argument against taking that all the way as we do with humans? For instance, could they homestead land? Animals might often be on unowned land before humans, so do we say that the animals homesteaded that land? Could they bequeath that land to their progeny? How can we know who that is? Could a human physically eject or kill an animal that trespasses on his land, or on unowned land that he wants to homestead?

      While I lean to the view that animals aren't entitled to the same rights that I think we ought to extend to other humans, one thing that gives me pause is to consider the case where some other sentient beings who live by a different code from us landed on earth and couldn't communicate with us; would they be entitled to treat us like animals because we can't argue and agree with them, and don't live by their code?