Human Rights vs. Animal Rights

Published September 1, 2004

Putting Humans First: Why We Are Nature’s Favorites
by Tibor R. Machan
($19.95 cloth, 144 pages, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2004; ISBN: 074253345X)

It is unfortunate that writers too often believe they get paid by the word. As a result, we end up with not only overly long books, but bad overly long books. Excessive verbiage often confuses rather than clarifies.

Of course, those of you who have read my book reviews might accuse me of the same failing. Admittedly, my approach is to overwhelm my readers with an amount of information that will cause them to buy the book I review or dissuade them from buying it. At the very least, I aim to impart much of the message of the book, in case readers ignore my advice.

Imparting the total message of Putting Humans First is extremely difficult: Its density of thoughtful content defies its brief narrative.

Putting Humans First is the only book I have encountered that views today’s environmental movement from a historical and philosophical perspective and convincingly argues why we have been on the wrong track. Machan then lays out a simple blueprint for man’s future interaction with the planet and animal kingdom.

Putting Humans First should become the gold standard for warm and friendly human beings endeavoring to understand and explain why, though we may love animals and nature, they are intrinsically inferior to humans. They warrant “rights” only as we humans define them.

A Logical Argument

Author Dr. Tibor Machan, who is emeritus professor of philosophy at Auburn University, presents an irrefutable argument that will arm with unbeatable ammunition anyone inclined to debate this topic.

Machan develops his argument in a logical manner. He describes most warm, fuzzy members of the animal kingdom as being driven by uncontrollable instinct that is often brutal to their own young, not to mention competing animal families. The phrase “dog eat dog” may no longer be accurate with respect to domestic pets, but it most assuredly applies in the wild with other mammals. Machan vividly describes unambiguous situations where an animal’s life must be sacrificed to save a human. Then he points out that “animal activists” and many “eco-activists” are not persuaded by this argument because they truly hate people.

He explains how public policy has already subjugated human rights to animal rights through the Endangered Species Act and wetlands legislation, which stifle human progress and property rights.

He then offers a lengthy philosophical argument, of which Plato and Aristotle would be proud, to explain why humans warrant extensive individual rights but animals only modest rights. He supports, as do I, the prevention of cruelty to animals, though neither of us defines as “cruelty” the humane ending of an animal’s life for medical and nutritional purposes.

Machan defines the flaws of environmental activism with skill equal to his assault on animal rights activists. Any student of recent history knows collectivist political economies have failed everywhere in the world they have been attempted–China, USSR, Cuba, and East Germany to name but a few modern examples. Machan traces strong warning against collectivist societies from Aristotle and Plato thousands of years ago to Ludwig von Mises early in the twentieth century and Garrett Hardin more recently still.

For those of you who may make the mistake of not investing the time and money to spend a few hours with this book, let me share with you what Aristotle said in the 4th Century B.C. and what Garrett Hardin said in 1968.


“That all persons call the same thing mine in the sense in which each does so may be a fine thing, but it is impracticable; or if the words are taken in the other sense, such a unity in no way conduces to harmony. And there is another objection to the proposal. 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 is himself concerned as an individual. For besides other consideration, everybody is more inclined to neglect the duty which he expects another to fulfill; as in families, many attendants are often less useful than a few.” (Politics 1262a30 37)


“Picture a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. Such an arrangement may work reasonably satisfactorily for centuries because tribal wars, poaching, and disease keep the numbers of both man and beast well below the carrying capacity of the land. Finally, however, comes the day of reckoning–that is the day when the long desired goal of social stability becomes a reality. At this point, the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.” (Science December 13, 1968)

Addressing the Tragedy

The main thing we need to solve the tragedy of the commons, Machan says, “is a theory of justice fully informed by Aristotle and Hardin’s recognition of the problem.” He says libertarianism is the only such theory currently afoot, but he worries over its inability to become mainstream.

Machan points out that each succeeding generation spawns an intellectual elite convinced “they can make collectivism work,” regardless of past failures. He brilliantly portrays today’s radical environmentalism as a variant of socialism, in turn a variant of collectivism–the theory that the individual counts for nothing when compared to some greater collective whole, whether the state or mother nature. “Yesterday it was socialism, today it is environmentalism,” Machan writes.

Though a philosopher by trade, Machan proves to a be a strong proponent of free markets, private property, and the rule of law. While we know this to be capitalism by definition, he proves its effectiveness as a mathematician might prove an equation in differential calculus. He writes,

“Governments use force to accomplish their goals. But force, unless used in self-defense–as the military is supposed to use it–wreaks havoc in its path, even when the ostensible results seem to be grand. And nowhere is this more evident than in environmental matters. When the laws and public policy favor the system of eminent domain and the use of publicly owned lands and waters for whatever happens to be in quasi-democratic demand, the usual result is akin to a zero-sum game: the favored policy wins, the disfavored one loses. By contrast, in the free market, there are many disparate demands that get satisfied to a greater or lesser extent. This has vital implication for environmental policy.”

Machan concludes there is evidence for the environmental benefits of free markets all around us but, perhaps most clearly, in the contrast between what Soviet-style socialist central planning has done to the environment in eastern Europe and the comparatively less-harmful results arising from the far more capitalist, free market, private property-based system of the West.

There are gems of wisdom on nearly every page of this wonderfully short book. I will conclude with this one.

“Environmentalists need to be more optimistic about the prospects of managing environmental problems in a legal framework of individual liberty. What many in the environmental movement fail to realize (or perhaps admit to) is that the environmental problems that can be clearly identified rather than merely speculated about are generated by the tragedy of the commons. They are not generated by the privatization of resources or by the implementation of the principles that prohibit dumping and other kinds of trespassing, principles derived from an individual conception of justice and public policy.”

Jay Lehr ([email protected]) is science director for The Heartland Institute.