Why should animals have rights? What, or who, decides which rights they have? Are they the same as human rights? I don’t know the answers to these questions. Neither am I sure what most actual moral, or political, philosophers have to say. But, I do know that despite being stumped here, I don’t act as if I’m stumped when I actually make my day-to-day choices. Indeed, tonight I plan on eating a paella, with chicken, pork, and shrimp. In other words, when I actually make my choices, I don’t particularly care whether animals have rights — if they do, I’m not going to respect them, anyways. But, should I?
It is the year 2170. Technology has advanced quite a bit, and we are able to travel long distances across space. An alien race we were previously unaware of comes into contact with some of human-occupied planets on the frontier of the Associated Federation, an extremely liberal society — a very decentralized political system — which originated on Earth. What these aliens are like matters a lot, because it determines how they will treat us.
Consider the relationship between the cow and the human. The former can resist against the latter. Getting kicked by a cow hurts. If she hits you in the right place, like your head, you can die. Still, we don’t often hear about cow rebellions in the animal farms. The costs of their enslavement are low enough to make that choice attractive. Even if killing them damages us emotionally, we have machines that do the killing for us — we can also allow certain people to specialize in those industries; maybe they aren’t as affected. (Besides, I’m not sure how relevant the “emotional damage” argument is, since our prehistoric predecessors didn’t seem to care too much about having to kill their prey with sharp spears or rocks.)
Neither can cows really communicate with us. Sure, the lone guy trying to tip cows in the field might get the message when one of them kicks him to the ground. Otherwise, it’s not as if the cow goes to the boss’ office in the barn, and bargains, “Hey look, man, I know my meat is pretty delicious. But, I have feelings too. So, how about this. You spare my life, I’ll chew some grass, and I’ll compensate you with my throw-up — because, that’s pretty much all I can offer you, other than my meat and milk.” So, there’s no process of rule-building between cows and humans. (Which is not the same thing as setting rules concerning cows between humans.)
Or, think about hunting game — specifically, large cats, like tigers, mountain lions, or lions. We do as much a we can to make it impossible for dangerous animals to attack humans. Those that do often pay with their lives. The standard is asymmetric, though, because hunting game is generally legal. Even poaching is met a by a different standard of justice — imprisonment or a fine.
The rules that constrain us against animals are asymmetric to those that constrain us against each other. Further, they are asymmetric between animals. I treat my dog Roxy almost as if she were human. I couldn’t give a shit what rights that cockroach has, I’m still going to spray zap it with a can of Raid. The rules we extend to animals depends on how they convenience and inconvenience us. “Animal rights” are arbitrary — there’s nothing universal about them.
What does this have to with aliens? Think about the relationship between animals and people. There seems to be a difference of magnitude, so to speak, between them. They can’t communicate clearly; there is a clear and dramatic asymmetry in technological capabilities, and therefore their abilities to defend themselves; et cetera. Now, let’s suppose that the new alien race is a magnitude above us. That really doesn’t bode well for the human race.
If we can’t bargain with aliens, either because we can’t produce enough value to sway them, or we simply can’t communicate with them, there’s a higher probability that they’re going to choose to either (a) enslave us or (b) “eradicate the human race.” This is especially true if we can’t defend ourselves against them very well. That is, if the costs to them are low enough to enslave us, and harvest us for our meats — cows are to humans, as humans are to aliens —, that is probably just what they’ll do. There is no universal moral code that “obligates” them to respect the “universal rights” we think we have. Those rights are just an illusion; they are a convenience we create to help establish order within human society. (Just like animal societies have rules to establish order between them — rules that humans don’t follow, and for the most part don’t even know.)
Aliens are going to do what is convenient for them, and they can do whatever they want if they are on top of the food chain. It doesn’t sound too good, right? I mean, what about our human rights? We’re protected by the non-aggression principle, right? If you ever find yourself pondering this issue at dinner, you can ask your filet mignon about what kind of “universal rights” it had, at least when it was still part of a live cow. (Or, if you’re a vegetarian, ask those plants your food comes from whether they felt it when they were cut down and sent to a factory for processing.)