Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.

We Are Not What We Eat

Putting Humans First: Why We Are Nature’s Favorite
Tibor R. Machan

Rowman & Littlefield, 2004
xvi + 135 pgs.

Sidney Hook used to tell his classes that one brilliant sentence on a test would be sufficient to earn an "A." Judged by this standard, Hook’s friend Tibor Machan merits very high marks for Putting Humans First. He says this about rights: "If we did not have rights . . . there could be no clear idea as to whether we are acting in our own behalf or those of other persons. A kind of moral tragedy of the commons would ensue, with an indeterminate measure of moral dumping and sharing without responsibility being assignable to anyone for either" (p. 51, emphasis removed).

Should the clear spheres of responsibility that Machan demands include moral duties to animals? If so, should these duties be legally enforceable? Animal rights are today much in fashion, but to our author the notion is nonsense. Only those capable of deliberation and choice can have rights, since a right by definition designates an area in which someone has free jurisdiction. Unless you have the capacity to reason, how can anything be up to you to decide? "The most fundamental objection to the notion that animals have rights is that only human beings have the requisite moral nature for ascribing to them basic rights. However closely humans and lower animals resemble each other, human beings alone possess the capacity for free choice and the responsibility to act ethically" (p. 10).

Machan claims that the contrary view quickly leads to absurdity. If an animal has a right not to be killed, are not animals that kill other animals rights violators? Yet not even the most extreme advocates of animal rights propose to apply moral sanctions to animals: cats that kill mice do not count as criminals.

This account of rights stands open to an objection, and of this Machan is fully aware. On his definition, babies, the severely retarded, and senile and comatose people would have no rights; yet clearly they do. Does it not follow that Machan’s account of rights is mistaken?

Machan does not think so. "One cannot make general claims based on special cases; one cannot even know what constitutes a special case until one first knows what constitutes a normal and typical case" (p. 16).

I cannot think that Machan has responded adequately to the objection. We may grant that the existence of exceptions does not require that we throw out his analysis of rights: clearly he has grasped a central use of the concept. But he is not entitled to ignore exceptions as of no consequence. If some human beings have rights without meeting Machan’s criterion, why not animals as well? (I hasten to add that I do not contend that animals have rights; the point at issue is Machan’s argument.)

But let us put this aside. As he rightly recognizes, even if animals do not have rights, a crucial issue remains to be resolved. Have we any moral duties toward animals? Perhaps animals are "moral patients" to whom we have moral obligations, even though they themselves cannot be called to account for their behavior. Further, if such moral obligations exist, to what extent, if any, should they be legally enforceable? (The sharp distinction between moral duties and legally enforceable claims is characteristic of modern libertarianism. Vittorio Hösle notes that this division is prominent in the political philosophy of Fichte. He held that cruelty to animals, though morally wrong, could not be banned by the state. See Hösle, Morals and Politics, University of Notre Dame Press, 2004, p. 642.)

Machan does not altogether rule out such laws: "Should there . . . be laws against certain kinds of cruelty to animals? This is not something I am willing to address fully here" (p. 22). He makes clear, though, that he rejects the extreme view that animals have equal moral weight to human beings. Human beings, he contends, have greater value than animals: hence they need not be treated as our equals.

He advances an impressive argument in support of his premise about value. Human beings, unlike animals, have free will. By "free will," Machan understands what is often termed "strong" free will: our free choices are not determined by causes outside of ourselves. If we have free will, then we can introduce new values into the world. Are we not then of higher value than those who cannot perform this remarkable feat? "Why would the emergence of a moral dimension—one that involves the choosing capacity of the agent—elevate the being with such agency in the eyes of any reasonable evaluator? For one thing, beings that lack a rational faculty also lack the capacity to contribute creatively to the values in nature. By contrast, human beings can create value, as a matter of our initiative, not merely exhibit it" (p. 36).

On what grounds does Machan claim that we have free will? Here again he deploys an interesting argument. To deny free will involves a self-contradiction. Determinists who challenge freedom of the will must claim that argument supports their view: otherwise, their claim is groundless. But how can we understand arguments, unless we are free to think? "[W]e typically distinguish between prejudice and objective judgment in the context of scientific and judicial work, but such a distinction does not make sense if our minds are determined, even just ‘softly,’ to see things in certain ways and we have no self-control over whether and how they work" (p. 46).

I do not think that this argument succeeds. We are not free to accept or reject the truth as we please: quite the contrary, to grasp that certain premises validly imply a conclusion is to see that one cannot both accept all the premises and reject the conclusion. Once, e.g., you see how the axiom of action implies that a person always chooses his most highly valued alternative, you are not free to accept the axiom and believe that you can sometimes choose what you do not most highly value. What exactly is the supposed link between being able to reason and having strong free will?1

Further, it does not at once follow that if human beings can, through free will, create new value, they are therefore more valuable than animals. Humans have a valuable property that animals do not, but perhaps animals have greater value in other respects.

Once more, though, let us grant Machan his conclusion. (I think that he is in fact correct.) Human beings, who have free will, are more valuable than animals. What follows about our duties to animals? Our author maintains that if "perchance, the development of some human potentialities requires the use of animals, even inflicting suffering on them, that may well be exactly what makes such use morally proper and unobjectionable" (p. 20).

But from "human beings are more valuable than animals," I do not see that anything significant follows about how animals are to be treated. Granted further premises, such as, "a more valuable species can use a less valuable species as a means to flourish," matters change: but these premises require support.

Has not Machan provided just the needed support? "The broadest moral standards set the terms for the less fundamental standards, and these broadest standards are set by the requirements of our most basic moral task, namely, to succeed as human beings—to survive and flourish" (p. 49).

Here Machan is certainly right. If one accepts ethical egoism, then any duties we have to animals assume at best an entirely subordinate place. Indeed, the problem for him now is a different one. If my aim should be to promote my own flourishing, why need I have the slightest concern for animals? Machan, with commendable kindness, opposes cruelty to animals: "One would damage one’s character by being cruel, wasteful, or callous toward animals, given that they can experience pain, which is certainly a bad thing for them" (p. 21). I do not see why, on an egoist view, our actions toward animals need have any effects at all on our characters.

But is ethical egoism correct? To judge Machan’s case for it, readers must consult his other books, Individuals and Their Rights foremost among them; and I do not propose to address the issue here. Rather, I wish to call attention to a different point. Ethical egoism neither follows from nor entails the view that human beings rank higher in an objective hierarchy of values than do animals. One can be in full accord with Machan that humans outrank animals but reject ethical egoism. One can also be an ethical egoist without assuming anything at all about a value hierarchy. One can of course consistently embrace both egoism and the value hierarchy, as Machan does.

In this engaging book, Machan discusses another issue of vital importance: environmentalism. He points out that some environmentalists hate human beings: "There are some prominently featured and respectably published environmentalists, such as David M. Garaber, a scientist with the National Park Service, who . . . say such things as ‘Until such time as Homo sapiens should decide to rejoin nature, some of us can only hope for the right virus to come along’" (p. 126).

It makes little sense to give credence to the views of such misanthropes about alleged threats to the earth. Their warnings of danger, one suspects, merely express their own contempt for humanity. So far as genuine issues that involve the environment are concerned, Machan emphasizes that in a system of private property rights, people have a strong motive to use resources wisely. The point has been familiar since Garrett Hardin’s famous essay "The Tragedy of the Commons," but Machan finds a much earlier precedent for the essential issue. Aristotle noted long ago that under common ownership, no one has clear responsibility to act: "For that which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it. Every one thinks chiefly of his own, hardly at all of the common interest; and only when he himself is concerned as an individual" (p. 73, quoting Aristotle, Politics).

Machan’s grounding as a philosopher emerges to excellent effect in another point he makes. Many economists have emphasized the virtues of the free market in coping with environmental problems, but their own position is flawed. They are concerned only with economic efficiency: "Many free-market advocates favor a social cost-benefit approach here based on the utilitarian idea that what ultimately matters is the achievement of some state of collective satisfaction. But that is not the approach that flows from the idea that individuals have natural negative rights to life, liberty, and property" (p. 67).

Supporters of a free society owe Tibor Machan a debt of gratitude for the principled philosophical defense of liberty found in his many books and articles. Putting Humans First is a fine example of his work, up to the usual standard of this prolific author.

1Elizabeth Anscombe’s "A Reply to Mr. C.S. Lewis’s Argument that ‘Naturalism’ is Self-Refuting" is a classic discussion of a related argument. See her Metaphysics and the Philosophy of Mind (University of Minnesota Press, 1981), pp. 224–32.


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