The concept of animals rights is often ignored by libertarians but libertarian principles often point towards a duty to respect both human’s and animal’s rights.
When people think of libertarianism, seldom do they think of a political philosophy that supports strong legal protections for animals. On the contrary, libertarians are notorious for either their indifference to the interests of animals or their hostility toward animal rights.
Robert Nozick, the patron saint of modern‐day American libertarianism, stands as an exception to this rule. In Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Nozick says that, in his view, “the extra benefits Americans today can gain from eating animals do not justify doing it” (p. 38). Nozick conceded that some of the interests of some animals outweigh some of the interests of humans. Of course, Nozick did not advocate for the use of state coercion to stop people from eating animals. But should he have?
I am of the mind that securing political protections for animals is, at the very least consistent with libertarianism and is very likely an entailment of libertarian commitments. One can take two routes to arrive at this conclusion, both of which I will outline and defend here, and both of which complement one another nicely. One argumentative strategy involves delineating enforceable duties that we, humans, have to those animals who are importantly dependent upon us. The other involves extending certain rights to all sentient animals––not just humans. Before laying out these arguments, however, I must establish that we have reasons to entertain the idea that animals deserve to be protected by the state at all. From here on out, I will use the term “political protection” to mean protection offered by the state to certain individuals using its coercive power.
Non‐rational Humans, Rational Nonhumans, and Other Animals
Some will insist that animals are ineligible for political protection because, well, they’re not human. But what is it about being human that makes only humans worthy of protection? Perhaps it is that humans are rational creatures. We can think abstractly and reason our way into action. However, this explanation for what makes humans uniquely worthy of political protection precludes the inclusion of non‐rational humans in matters of politics. If rationality is what determines whether an individual should be protected by the state, then we would be forbidden from making laws that safeguard the interests of children and people with certain cognitive impairments. Not to mention that talk of rationality has historically been used to subjugate and oppress women and minorities in the past, so we should be at least wary of it.
But don’t we, rational humans, care intensely for children and people with cognitive impairments in ways that we do not about animals? Maybe generally speaking. But some people, perhaps even many, care more about their dog than about some stranger’s child. And if it is intense care that undergirds eligibility for political protection, this would mean that animals people care for should be eligible for political protection in the same way that, say, children are.
Perhaps what makes non‐rational humans worthy of political protection that animals are not is that they are members of the species marked by cognitive capacities needed to justify political protection. This reasoning, however, is deeply flawed. That I am a member of the sex overrepresented in STEM careers does not mean I, a philosopher, should be paid the salary of a man in STEM. Similarly, extending political protections to children and humans with cognitive impairments solely because they are members of the “same club” that rational humans are members of makes a serious argumentative mistake.
Finally, someone may claim that non‐rational humans are owed political protection not because they have certain capacities, but simply because they are homo sapiens. This is a bizarre line to take. There are two reasons for this. The first has to do with the fact that this prerequisite for political protection may exclude some individuals who are worthy of it. Imagine that we encounter some intelligent life from another planet. Members of this extraterrestrial species are like humans in every relevant respect except that they do not have human DNA. Should the state allow these extraterrestrials to be beaten and killed by humans with impunity because they lack human DNA? I think not.
Secondly, if we say that only those with human DNA should have their interests protected by the government, what’s to stop us from saying that only those with Y chromosomes or those who produce a given amount of melanin should? (Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?). In any case, using genetic characteristics as the basis for extending political protections to individuals is both arbitrary and prejudicial.
Since all of the surveyed attempts to exclude animals from any sort of political consideration do not succeed, I maintain that animals can and should be protected by the state. Of course, some anarchist libertarians would reject that the state has the authority to do anything, let alone protect animals. And there are some libertarians would insist that children, humans with cognitive impairments, and animals all fall outside of the scope of political consideration. But neither of these groups can be convinced of the conclusion I have reached, so I will not try to convince them.
Assuming that I have convinced you, however, that animals are eligible for political protection, how might we go about understanding, from a libertarian perspective, what the state can and should do to protect them?
The Rights Approach
If there’s one phrase that sums up what lies at the core of libertarianism, it is “live and let live.” In other words, I can do whatever I please so long as I do not stand in the way of you doing whatever you please, and vice versa. I should be able to live my life, and you yours. This is because you and I have rights to life, liberty, and property.
Libertarians largely conceive of rights as negative. That is to say; rights place constraints on the ways others can act and do not obligate others to provide for us. My right to life insures me against others murdering me but does not entitle me to others keeping me alive. My right to property prevents others from stealing what I already have but does not entitle me to the property of others. And so on.
While libertarians can have genuine disagreements about what it is that grounds these rights, I do not think it is far‐fetched to say that the recognition and enforcement of rights are important because they play a role in an individual’s ability to pursue their own projects. When others are forbidden from standing in my way or taking what rightfully belongs to me away from me, I am at liberty to do what matters to me. I can deepen my relationships with loved ones, pursue a career of my choosing, and spend my free time being as productive or as idle as I wish. The recognition and enforcement of my rights allow my life to be mine, and no one else’s.
However, humans are not the only beings who are interested in pursuing their projects free from the interference of other humans. Many animals are, too. In particular, animals that have desires, an emotional life, and can experience pain and pleasure. A wild horse may seek to deepen her affection for her newborn foal and might want little more than to run around freely and to their hearts’ content. For this to happen, though, humans must not swoop in and do what humans often do to animals leading their lives. Humans often view animals not as beings that want to lead their own lives but as property that they can domesticate, brutalize, slaughter, and dispose of at will.
Tom Regan, the father of the contemporary animal rights movement, argued that many animals have the rights to not be harmed and not treated as if they existed as resources for others. For Regan, the reasons we have to think that non‐rational humans have certain claims against us are likewise reasons we have to believe that many non‐rational animals do. Both groups have lives that matter from their point of view and projects they wish to pursue.
Despite their many ideological differences, both Regan and Nozick frame the rights of individuals as negative. For Regan, the rights of animals forbid humans from slaughtering, hunting, torturing, confining, and testing on animals. For Nozick, the rights of humans forbid humans from murdering, physically inflicting pain upon, and stealing from others. We may debate about the extent of rights in the cases of both humans and animals. (Do humans have the right to sell themselves into slavery? Do some animals have rights to their territories?). Nevertheless, it is plausible that animals, like non‐rational humans, have certain rights that can only be enforced and respected by humans. Moreover, the enforcement and recognition of these rights only require that humans let animals be in the same ways that the enforcement and recognition of human rights only require that humans let other humans be. This does not mean that humans can never defend themselves against the threats that animals sometimes pose. Indeed, we acknowledge that respecting the rights of other humans is consistent with aggressing against them in self‐defense, so the same idea would apply to respecting the rights of animals.
Does abstaining from interfering in the lives of animals exhaust our political obligations to them on a tenable libertarian view, though?
The Dependency Approach
Imagine that you are on a stroll in the park one morning and happen across a small child drowning in a relatively shallow pond. It would come at little cost for you to jump in and save her. Should you be punished by the state if you do not? Most libertarians would answer in the negative. While it is undoubtedly good to do things that benefit others a great deal at little cost to you, the state should not punish you for not doing so.
The answer to this question, I think, should change once the scenario changes in one crucial way. Imagine that, instead of happening upon a child, you are teaching her how to swim. You decide to toss her into the pond, thinking that she will keep herself afloat, but she starts drowning. It would come at little cost for you to jump in and save her. Should you be punished by the state if you do not? Seeing as how your actions led to her compromised situation, it appears that you owe her assistance. In other words, the child has been made dependent upon you by your willing in such a way that you can be held responsible for failing to help her out of the water when she is drowning.
This general principle can also be used to explain why non‐rational humans are typically entitled to more than just noninterference from other humans. Very few libertarians will argue that we owe someone with severe intellectual disabilities nothing but noninterference. Without the help and care of responsible adults, she may die. Someone with this sort of condition is brought into this world in a needy, dependent state. Whoever assumes responsibility for her can and should be held responsible, in a court of law, for failing to care for and assist her in relevant ways. For that matter, all children are born needy. However, many of them grow out of their dependence on their parents and are able to support themselves. Still, some do not, and these individuals are owed care and assistance throughout their lifetimes.
Humans bring many animals into existence who are deeply and importantly dependent on us. Think of domesticated cats and dogs, farmed animals, and animals raised in captivity. The way these animals depend on us makes it possible and likely that we have obligations to them that can be enforced using the coercive power of the state. For example, we might be held responsible for starving a household cat or trapping a dog in a car in 100‐degree weather. The extent of our enforceable obligations to dependent animals is an open question. Anyhow, it is very likely that some such obligations exist.
Someone may be particularly taken by the rights approach and accept that factory farming should be abolished, sport hunting and trapping should be outlawed, and testing on animals for cosmetic or medical purposes should be prohibited, consistent with broadly libertarian commitments. On the other hand, someone may be convinced by the dependency approach and decide that anti‐cruelty statutes and animal welfare regulations should be strengthened a great deal. Or, hopefully, you will find both approaches compelling and acknowledge that most animals have rights against us interfering with them while some animals have rights to our care and assistance.
It is likely that many libertarians will read this and think that I could not possibly be one of them. That I am just an animal rights crank in freedom-lover’s clothing. But I truly do love freedom. So much so that I want people to respect the freedoms even of those who have historically been denied exercising them. Libertarianism has been, is, and should be an emancipatory project, and extending its scope to include animals is the next battle that must be won.
Milburn, J. (2017). Robert Nozick on nonhuman animals: Rights, value and the meaning of life, in Garmendia, G. & Woodhall, A. (eds.) Ethical and political approaches to nonhuman animal issues: Towards an undivided future, Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 97–120.
Nozick, R. (1974). Anarchy, State, and Utopia. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Regan, T. (2004 ). The Case for Animal Rights. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.