Thursday, March 15, 2007

JARS: "Putting Humans First?"

David Graham and Nathan Nobis review Tibor Machan's treatise Putting Human's First: Why We Are Nature's Favorite, which is neo-Objectivist attack on the animal right's crowd. The review is somewhat critical. The authors are not impressed by Machan's arguments and they go so far as to accuse Machan of taking an ambiguous stance. At one point in his treatise, Machan writes:

"Should there ... be laws against certain kinds of cruelty to animals? This is not something I am willing to address fully here. Suffice it to say that, for my part, I would not necessarily take exception if someone were to rescue an animal being treated with cruelty, even if this amounted to invading someone's private property. If one spotted a neighbor torturing a cat, albeit on his own private property, one could well be morally remiss in failing to invade the place and rescue the animal."

This is a curious statement coming from someone arguing against animal rights from an Objectivist standpoint. It suggests that Machan feels a certain ambivalence about the subject. It further suggests conceptual poverty of Objectivist views on morality, politics, and justice. In the real world, things aren't so simple as the Objectivist would like them to be. Normal decent human beings are appalled by anyone who receives pleasure from torturing animals. To frame the whole issue in terms of human beings, who are the only creatures entitled to rights and may do anything with their property, and animals who have no rights and are the merely the property which human beings can do anything with, clearly misses the full reality of the issue.

The illustrate the inadequacy of the Objectivist view, take the recent case of two brothers who were sentenced ten years for torturing a puppy. From an Objectivist standpoint, this sentence is an act of injustice. Animals have no rights and while it may be immoral to torture them it should not be illegal. Yet this viewpoint lacks basic common sense. The fact is that any individual who is so destitute of common humanity that he takes pleasure in torturing animals poses a threat to society. Such an individual simply cannot be trusted. Who is to say that in the future he won't take pleasure in torturing human beings as well? Hence there is a kind of justice, or at least a kind of wisdom, in removing him from society.


Anonymous said...

Just to add a detail to Nyquist's post:

Almost all serial killers that I know of started out torturing animals when they (the serial killers) were children. And I'm not talking about pulling the wings off of flies or barnyard cruelty like chopping the head off of a chicken to watch it run around. I'm talking about the prolonged torture and mutilation of cats and dogs - animals that humans usualy feel some sort of empathy toward.

Now, not all people who torture animals are serial killers, but I think that what a serial killer and a "run-of-the-mill" (the idea makes me shudder) animal torturer have in common is the inability to empathize with others, which can and does lead to all sorts of woes in the world.

Perhaps empathy isn't "rational" and so Machan was unable identify why he finds animal cruelty abhorrent or why it deserves legal censure.

One Objectivist I talked to about this issue could only say that cruelty to animals "diminishes the humanity" of the torturer and thus it's in one's own self interest to refrain from such behavior, but I was unable to pin down exactly what he meant by "diminishing the humanity" of expect that it led straight back into the "man qua man" loop, i.e. that is, animal cruelty is immoral because it diminishes one's survival as a man qua.

And having explained things to his satisfaction (because, as far as he's concerned, it's not his problem is his explanation doesn't satisfy me)(afterall, I must be evil, evasive, or stupid), the conversation was at an end.

Unknown said...

Here's a link to an article on "The Problem of Animal Rights" from the Atlas Society's Navigator:

Nathan Nobis said...

Thanks for discussing this.
Here's that book review for folks who'd like to follow up:

Review (with David Graham) of Putting Humans First: Why We Are Nature's Favorite by Tibor Machan, (The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, Fall 2006, Vol. 8, No. 1, 85-104).


Anonymous said...

“One Objectivist I talked to about this issue could only say that cruelty to animals "diminishes the humanity" of the torturer and thus it's in one's own self interest to refrain from such behaviour…”

I think the ‘diminishing one’s humanity’ argument is reasonable enough, but as Greg points out, on its own this argument is inadequate. It doesn’t get to grips with the thorny question of what to do with people who gain satisfaction from torturing animals.

That question brings in wider aspects of balancing rights, the ability of a society to defend itself, the law, and so on. Since Objectivism bases politics on property, the best solution it can come up with in regard to these sorts of issues is moral disapproval.

But while moral disapproval can be effective, it’s an inadequate response to the problem of dealing with someone who is developing psychopathic or sociopathic tendencies. This is just one of those hard questions that can’t by dealt with by a philosophy that makes absolute claims for rights.


gregnyquist said...

Nathan: "Here's a link to an article on 'The Problem of Animal Rights'"

The link doesn't appear to work, so try this one:

Problem of Animal Rights

gregnyquist said...

“One Objectivist I talked to about this issue could only say that cruelty to animals "diminishes the humanity" of the torturer and thus it's in one's own self interest to refrain from such behaviour…”

I suspect this is a rationalization. The Objectivist intuitively feels horror at any individual who tortures animals but because his ideology claims that animals are property and people may do with their property as they like, he must resort to a makeshift rationalization to express his intuitive horror. This conflict between intuitive common sense on the one side and narrow and excessively ideological principles on the other is one of the central problems with the Objectivist philosophy. So-called "objective" principles certainly have their uses up to a point, but they can't answer every challenge that human beings face. That's why objective principles have to be supplemented with intuitive knowledge. Rand didn't like intuitive knowledge because it's not objective; its personal, where every individual has to rely on his own judgment and take the consequences. But the necessity make these personal, intuitive judgments is simply part of the human condition. To believe that everything can be reduced to simply objective principles that all rational people can agree on is to be guilty evading reality!

Anonymous said...

I am an animal rights activist and an objectivist. For the most part - people don't believe the two can exist next to each other. But here is my argument: the reason animals are exploited and treated the way they are, is BECAUSE of government control. Many objectivists feel that republicans are more "true" capitalists but they work to socialize animal husbandry. Most dairy industries and most vivisection labs would have been gone long ago - Because campaigners receive contributions from the dairy industry, the hog industry, the chicken industry - they give subsidies back to those industries after they have won their elections.
Ayn Rand was right when she said that we need LESS government control. If these industries stopped receiving subsidies - farms could very well go back to being green pastures, true free range. Most of the subsidies handed over are handed to the industrialized factory farms - if they lost those subsidies, they'd probably lose their farms...
I don't believe that laws will ever change the status of animals rights. We would never be able to make meat illegal and all the animal welfare laws that have been passed have been contradictory (meaning they apply to family pets but NOT farm animals) and often times actually give industries permission to do what they've been doing. One of the recent laws passed was that chicken farmers would have to provide larger battery cages for the chickens - all I can say is that most of these farmers probably just stuff more chickens into the extra space. These laws do nothing to protect animals.
The only logical way to tackle this issue is with Education, all of the studies that relate to health and over consuming animals, how manure lagoons pollute our fresh waters and kill billions of fish every year... etc etc...
The only way to tackle this - especially for farm animals, is to educate people and convince them to stop eating factory farmed meats/dairy especially.

Anonymous said...

"It doesn’t get to grips with the thorny question of what to do with people who gain satisfaction from torturing animals."

anyone who goes to a restaurant that serves factory farm meat (which is probably 95% of them) gain satisfaction from torturing animals. Sure, they might not be the ones causing torture - but they are providing people with money to do the torturing.
anyone who takes medication gains satisfaction from torturing animals. Animals had to be tortured, they had to have chemicals pumped into their stomachs before those medications were supplied for them...

In many ways - we are all guilty of supporting animal torture, we all gain satisfaction for other people's torturing animals...
And why is it that those satisfactions (like medicine to relieve pain) are more moral than the satisfaction the serial killer gets out of torturing the animal? Does that make it any more virtuous?
In this country - if you pay someone to murder another person - it's called second degree murder. Can we truely excuse ourselves for paying others to do our own dirty work?

If it's okay to take someones dog away for torturing the dog - why is it illegal to do the same to industries that not only torture animals but profit from it?
Everyone here just keeps referring to the abuse a serial killer or a neighbor might bring on their pet - yet no one here addresses the harms of factory farming - these cows are kept in stalls not even large enough to turn around in, they are milked - even when their udders are infected (got pus?), the same treatment is done to other farm animals... Why do cats and dogs have some rights and cows don't? How in the HELL is that consistent?

JayCross said...

Funny, because I feel like if Ayn Rand used terms like "common humanity", you would deride it as "intolerably vague."

I, too, find it appalling to torture animals. Just noting that you are using rather vague, empirically empty terms to defend this point of view.

gregnyquist said...

Jay: "Funny, because I feel like if Ayn Rand used terms like 'common humanity', you would deride it as 'intolerably vague.'"

The phrase "common humanity" is vague, like most terms, but it only becomes intolerably vague when one is asked to draw fine distinctions from it. Rand's use of the term "reason" is intolerably vague because she never provides a detailed explanation that would allow us to draw testable statements from it, so we could find out whether the theory is empirically true. That is the main source of my complaint. I wanted to test her claims about matters of fact: but how can one test her claim that reason is the only valid means of knowledge when, on Rand's own premises, there is no way to distinguish between rational and non-rational processes? The phrase "common humanity," though vague, is not intolerably vague as long as its used merely as a description of generalized psychological state that causes people to be uneasy at witnessing of the acute sufferings of others. Most people are familiar with this psychological state. And so to describe this state as "common humanity" is not problematic: most people know what is meant, and that's the only burnden of the phrase in this context. People who torture puppies for the pleasure of it probably lack that emotional constitution, referred to as "common humanity," that causes uneasiness at witnessing the acute sufferings of others. As a statement about matters of fact, it doesn't seem to me intolerably vague. One could test it, challenge it, gather evidence for or against it. Statements or phrases become intolerably vague when there is no way to know what sort of empirically testable statements can be consistently drawn from them.

JayCross said...

Thank you for clarifying, Greg.