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Of Course Animals Have Emotions

Wesley J. Smith


I am always surprised when news stories breathlessly report that scientists have discovered new levels of animal emotions. Here’s a current example. Good grief, who anymore asserts that they don’t experience emotions?

Anyone who has owned a dog knows they have emotions and distinct personalities. Anyone watching a mother animal nurture her offspring knows they have emotions.

I once rode a horse that I just knew was pouting. When I asked the wrangler why, she told me that he was usually the lead horse on the ranch, but because I was renting him for a ride, he was behind and didn’t like it.

Headline! Animals feel emotions! Animals feel pain! Animals have intelligence!

And that is why we have animal welfare laws. We create rules for using and caring for animals precisely because we understand that they are not automatons as some thought hundreds of years ago. We have duties — animals don’t — and the obligation to treat animals humanely arises from our exceptional place in nature.

But these biological facts about animals are often misused to try to push us beyond our welfare duties and into according animals human-type rights. That is a bridge too far.

No animal has rights. None can ever be held morally accountable for their behavior or assumed to have responsibilities and duties toward us or other animals. And since they cannot — by their natures — engage in the symbiosis between rights and duties, they cannot be rights-bearers.

Humans, on the other hand, are inherently so capable. Sure, there are individuals who cannot access that fundamental aspect of our natures due to immaturity, illness, injury, or some other anomalous incapacity.

But that doesn’t mean all humans do not (or should not) have rights, because we are — as a species — capable of exercising both sides of the rights/duties equation.

In actuality, to assert that animals have rights — a concept they cannot comprehend — is really another way of saying we have duties toward them that are so self-sacrificial that we may not own them or use them for our own purposes regardless of benefit, no matter how humanely we treat them.

Ironically, animal rightists’ insistence that we engage in such radical and harmful (to us) self-sacrifice demonstrates the very human exceptionalism that they insistently deny.

Photo credit: jesskaywade, via Pixabay.

Cross-posted at The Corner.

Wesley J. Smith

Chair and Senior Fellow, Center on Human Exceptionalism
Wesley J. Smith is Chair and Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism. Wesley is a contributor to National Review and is the author of 14 books, in recent years focusing on human dignity, liberty, and equality. Wesley has been recognized as one of America’s premier public intellectuals on bioethics by National Journal and has been honored by the Human Life Foundation as a “Great Defender of Life” for his work against suicide and euthanasia. Wesley’s most recent book is Culture of Death: The Age of “Do Harm” Medicine, a warning about the dangers to patients of the modern bioethics movement.



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