A reader asks about human rights and animal rights

“Among the natural rights of the colonists are these: First a right to life, secondly to liberty, and thirdly to property; together with the right to defend them in the best manner they can.” ~ Samuel Adams

A friend from Twitter, Isaac Pringle, left the following letter after my post about disagreeing with Murray Rothbard on abortion and children abandonment. I found the questions to be worthy of a lengthy reply rather than a short few words in the comment area. I also thought that others might be interested in the question of “rights” as well. Anyway, here goes.

Here is Issac’s letter reproduced in full:

Hi Mark, I have some thoughts about your position I was hoping you could clarify. This is such a fascinating area of libertarian thought but I’ve never been able to settle on a position.

Firstly, where do rights come from? Why does an embryo/foetus have rights that animals of greater sentience not? Is a chimp or a pig not more deserving of the right to life than something that may only be a ball of cells? If self ownership is to be truly universal must it not also apply to all beings of certain sentience? If the reply is to be along the lines of ‘an embryo has potential to be a fully sentient human’ then I would ask what of the severely mentally handicapped, do they have the same rights or not?

The old Rothbard quip about ‘animals can have rights when they petition for them’ would apply for children, foetuses and the mentally disabled, as well as animals, or it must not apply to any, surely?

But at the same time you say that the child must be reared by the parents until is can survive on it’s own. If children have property in their being regardless of their mental faculties then surely the majority of parenthood is going to be a violation of property, well meaning and loving yet ultimately still a constant barrage of violations against the rights the child has? So we have a situation in which the child has property in it’s being yet also doesn’t. The child has a right to be reared until it is able to live it’s self yet inherent in that rearing is a constant attack on the being of that child. This is a failing of your position is it not, or perhaps a greater failing of natural rights?

So if I’ve missed something or my arguments seem muddled!

First I want to thank Isaac for bringing up some of these issues that I was not going to mention — out of laziness or what I don’t know. And then some friends and I got into a conversation on these issues and even more hard ones on twitter yesterday. I realized that I have never really taken on the really hard issues that sometimes divide us in the liberty movement. I have never tackled the issues that divide we anarchists very much — and yes we anarchists can be a contentious lot. So today I want to begin to look and some of those issues. (well, I guess I began with the post disagreeing with Rothbard but you get my drift I hope) This is the first in a series of posts that might be more … ah, … controversial.

1) “Firstly, where do rights come from?”

I am asked “where do rights come from“, and do animals have these rights? Professor Hans-Hermann Hoppe claimed that the standard natural rights argument was lacking. He observed:

It has been a common quarrel with the natural rights position, even on the part of sympathetic readers, that the concept of human nature is far “too diffuse and varied to provide a determinate set of contents of natural law.” Furthermore, its description of rationality is equally ambiguous in that it does not seem to distinguish between the role of reason in establishing empirical laws of nature on the one hand and normative laws of human conduct on the other. (The Economics and Ethics of Private Property [EEPP], p. 313; also A Theory of Socialism and Capitalism [TSC], p. 156n118)

I am not surprised to find myself in agreement with Dr. Hoppe on this issue and even Murray Rothbard claimed that Hoppe had advanced libertarian theory past his own foundation in natural rights. I will say however that even though Hoppe may have a better foundation for libertarian rights I never had much difficulty with natural rights as a basis for libertarian ethics and law; but then being a mystic might have something to do with that. I’ll concede that Hoppe has moved our philosophy forward.

Hoppe’s approach is called Argumentation Ethics and the sort summary at the link ended with:

Argumentation as action: the act of engaging in an argument is certainly revealing of some facts. First of all, we are willingly interacting in a peaceful way with the interlocutor. Argument, after all, is not any form of talking: it implies at least two people engaging voluntarily and freely in it. A speech to the slaves in a galley may not be an argument although it certainly is communication, of course. But if we talk about ethics, we are talking about principles equally valid (the universalizability of rights is a vital part of its definition, as a table has to hold things from falling to the ground in order to be a table) for all humans in the same situation.

Second, then, some ethical principles are revealed in the course of argumentation. One of them is contract, of course (and this is not tautological by any means, just keep in mind the galley example). But contract requires property. So denying self-ownership to the parts, would be denying the whole argumentation possibility. And yet, the one denying it would be engaging in some sort of argument if he was free to do it or not from the start. So in this case, we have a clear case of proof by contradiction of the opposite.

Human beings have a right to own themselves, as the act of argumentation clearly shows: nobody else can have command of their own bodies.

In sum, Hans-Hermann Hoppe has discovered and developed a system of rights that is grounded on the fact that humans act, that humans have a mind that is analogical to its circundating reality and that does not require an “is-ought” duality in order to show us the proper ethical system for rational animals. We are the rightful owners of our bodies and of property we create through the use of our minds, ourselves or through contract. If slaves in a galley can dream of freedom in the near future, so can citizens of an statist world. Argumentation Ethics provides us with a template based on facts of how to untangle, understand and finally free a world ridden with contradition and denial of justice.

Another good, short explanation is at the Mises.org wiki and can be viewed here.

Now that was a lot of quotation to get to the heart of the matter. Sorry for the delay. I would not even have mentioned Hoppe if Issac had not asked about animal rights verses Human rights. Well maybe I would have since all members of the liberty movement should understand the foundation on which we base our hatred of the State and our hatred of aggression against innocent people.

Now to the basic question. The human life cycle, like that of a cat, begins at conception. This is still taught in university at the freshman level. It is no secret even thought the Supreme Court has denied that humans are human throughout their life cycle unlike all other animals.


The human animal is a rational animal and we claim that it is human kind and not just some of humanity that is deserving of human rights: of libertarian rights. The rational human has these rights throughout its life cycle and not just when it reaches some stage or the other. Nor does the human lose any of its rights due to accidental brain damage or retardation. From conception to the grave all human animals have these rights.

2) “If self ownership is to be truly universal must it not also apply to all beings of certain sentience?”

But what about animals? I contend, unlike Rothbard, that animals have rights also. These rights may be far less than human rights due to the reduced rationality of the animal but I personally think that many, if not most, animals are far more intelligent and self aware than we give them credit for being. As a vegan it may be that it is real easy for me to defend animal’s rights but I only became vegan late in life and I don’t think I am being judgmental of others. I truly think that my Tuxcedo tom-cat is very smart and he engages with me in argumentation all the time. (he wins most of the time as you might have guessed) We lose a lot of our own humanity when we fail to honor the rights of all life. It is true that nature may have it that often we can not help but to take an animal’s life — but we can do so with humanity and kindness — and we can do so a rarely as we can. We can also be sensitive to the wild animal’s habitat and the fact that we must share the earth with all the other life forms.

3) “So we have a situation in which the child has property in it’s being yet also doesn’t.”

Isaac and I part ways a bit on this issue. The extended family has been the basic unit of human society for millions of years. It is too bad that modern life seems to attack the family in every way it can do so and the state leads the charge in this assault.

The human animal needs protection and training as it grows. While we may have some instinctual behaviors we certainly come into the world as a mostly blank slate that needs a lot of help as we grow and maturate. As the child becomes more able to think for himself and gains in experience he then becomes more of a self-owning, rational human being. It is true though that parents may commit many errors in raising the child; after all we don’t get but a few chances to learn how to do it. Our science of raising children is still in its infancy (no pun intended) and hopefully we will be able to raise our children without error someday. But I contend that the parents do a far better job in general without meddling by the State.

At some point the child thinks it is an adult and the mother is not yet ready to admit that. This is a classic situation and is entirely human. No philosophy is going to change that heartwarming fact.

Isaac, I hope I covered your points and did not evade them. I also hope that I wrote something of value to you. Cheers my friend.


2 thoughts on “A reader asks about human rights and animal rights

  1. Wow thanks for the thorough reply! I was aware of argumentation ethics but never fully convinced by them, so I appreciate your position on the origin or rights but wary of embracing them fully.

    Secondly when it come to animal rights I think what you were describing was almost a system of social norms or customary rules. A set of norms that would prevail in society in which people as a whole would take a very dim view of those engaging in cruel treatment of or towards animals. I would like to think that if, in our voluntary society, someone physically intervened in order to stop cruel treatment of animals and in doing so violates the perpetrators property, as long as it was the minimum necessary force needed to stop the attack on the animal that no jury would convict. The notion that humans are to fully reject all coercive and violent relationships toward each other yet would happily stand by and be uncaring at the spectacle of violent cruel acts perpetrated by people on animals seems naive, misguided and to a degree worrying. Having said that I suspect there would be little to no market for the commercial exploitation of animals, eg battery hens ect. And that ‘private’ acts of violence against animals would be at least drastically smaller. I should also declare myself as a meat eater 🙂

    Thirdly I think when it does come to child rearing and the family unit I think it’s best just to say that we have no rights theory that convincingly deals with this situation, I’ve read many but none bowled me over.

    I absolutely agree with the rest of you statement on parenting and I guess this is an area of libertarian thought that is lacking. I think Walter Block is of the opinion that children and animal rights are the two weakest areas of libertarian though at present. I quite like the idea that we recognise that the parenting process is necessarily a coercive one but parent in such a way so that if the child did have the freedom to reject they wouldn’t choose to leave. Easier to type I imagine that do but aspirational at least.

    Fourthly I’d like to probe you a bit more on the likelihood, and consequences or an abortion prohibition. Is an early term abortion murder to the same extent that murdering a fully grown adult is murder? Could the woman expect a lengthy prison sentence for the expulsion of a non sentient (full human genome or not) ball of cells from her body? That would seem to me hugely disproportional. Given the ease and lack of evidence, shall we say, that early term abortions can be carried out would it not be effectively impossible to police. It seems we can theorise about it all day but it a reality that is with us to stay.

    I understand full that the life cycle begins at conception but do have issue with the idea that the mother has entered into contract with the embryo or that she must be forced to give birth to the child.

    Thanks as always,


    • Would the woman be charged and punished for having an abortion in a market anarchy? That is hard to say. I find that abortion is murder but I don’t get as upset by it like many of my Roman Catholic friends do. The world is full of murder and the US military is committing way more than its fair share at the moment. As long as one does not look at the ultrasound pictures of the tiny baby and see that innocent little human — we have the capacity to put it out of our mind most of the time.

      In an anarchy, the local people would be the ones in charge for the most part and in some places preforming an abortion might not be a wise thing to do. The doctor would be afraid to do so — but the female could travel a short distance to a more hospitable locale for the abortion. I doubt she would be charged (shunned perhaps) since the dead human is in no position to charge her and I doubt the family would either. But say she is charged and found guilty. What would be the penalty? That is a poser. I reject the death penalty but that does not mean that it could not happen in a given locality.

      Another word on the “contract” between mother and child. This is not your everyday contract to have your car fixed. This is the act of creation of human life. If the mother creates the life then she should bring it to term — and let others adopt if she does not want to raise the child (or can not). Mother and Father are the joint creators of life — let them not create life unless they plan on protecting that life.

      I doubt I will convince you; after all, it is a very hard subject, but I can not see any reason for a mother to kill the unborn child unless her very life depended upon it and that would be a damn hard decision. (one that women have had to make by the way)

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