What are rights?

In his Introduction to Animal Rights, Gary Francione tells us, “There is a great deal of confusion surrounding the concept of rights.”

Something that Gary doesn’t really clear up.

He says that:

a right is a particular way of protecting interests. To say that an interest is protected by a right is to say that the interest is protected against being ignored or violated simply because this will benefit someone else. We can think of a right of any sort as a fence or a wall that surrounds an interest and upon which hangs a “no trespass” sign that forbids entry, even if it would be beneficial to the person seeking that entry.

In giving this ‘general-purpose’ view of rights, Gary doesn’t say whether rights are valid or not, just that they’re ways of protecting interests.

But how are they protected? He doesn’t say. How do they gain their force? He doesn’t say.

In terms of animal rights, what sort of ‘protection’ do animal rights give animals? None that are enforceable.

In other words, if you think animal rights are a valid concept, Gary’s idea of them being a protective fence or wall is meaningless.

They offer no such guarantee of protection. Those who recognise them may act in line with them, but there is no ‘protection’ given by wider society.

Clearly Gary isn’t talking about legal rights, since other animals are used and slaughtered by the billion.

So that leaves moral rights. But again the question arises: How are these moral rights protected?

There is no invisible fence or wall around animals protecting them.

So what Gary appears to really mean by protection is a moral justification of protection, not some kind of legal or invisible fence or wall.

Bearing this in mind, Gary tells us:

If we do not recognize that a human has the right not to be treated exclusively as a means to the end of another, then any other right that we may grant her, such as a right of free speech, or of liberty, or to vote or own property, is completely meaningless. To put the matter more simply, if I can enslave you and kill you at will, then any other right you may have will not be of much use to you. We may not agree about what other rights humans have, but in order for humans to have any rights at all, they must have the basic right not to be treated as things.

While this is mostly true, this doesn’t get at the heart of the issue.

The first principle of Gary’s Abolitionist Approach to Animal Rights says, in part, that, “all sentient beings, human or nonhuman, have one right—the basic right not to be treated as the property of others.”

Yet to be able to have things or property, first you have to have life. Without life, no things or property are possible.

Property implements rights, but the source of rights is life. As Ayn Rand sets out in her essay Man’s Rights:

The right to life is the source of all rights—and the right to property is their only implementation. Without property rights, no other rights are possible. Since man has to sustain his life by his own effort, the man who has no right to the product of his effort has no means to sustain his life. The man who produces while others dispose of his product, is a slave.

So Gary’s claim that sentient beings have a right not to be property is indirect, and doesn’t get to the core of rights.

What about his obviously false claim that rights offer protection?

Moral rights are conditions necessary to protect individuals—not forms of protection themselves.

If people recognise moral rights, they may institute law to protect them, but then it’s the law and enforcement of it that works to protect rights, not the rights themselves.

This is the reason Jeremy Bentham called rights “nonsense on stilts”: because he thought they had no force, and were vague abstractions.

The value of rights, however, lies outside enforcement, in making clear the basic requirements that allow beings to advance their lives.

As the Ayn Rand quote above says, the source of all rights is life. The ability to act freely follows from this, provided individuals don’t cause others serious harm.

This subsequent right excludes slavery and despotic rule, since forcing people to act against their will compels them to act against both their bodies and minds, potentially damaging both, so harming their lives.