Recently, the question of whether horse riding was vegan came up. I gave my take on it, namely that we have a duty to any animal companion to keep them fit, healthy and mentally stimulated. I explained that while riding might not cause suffering, it was exploitative as it was using a horse for human ends and that if horses can be kept healthy, happy and fit without sitting on their backs and kicking them about, we have a duty to use non-ridden methods.
The question of what would happen to horses if humans stopped using for their own ends came up. The challenge was thus - modern horses are not wild nor fully-natural, like their pony ancestors. They have been created by humans to fulfil certain roles. Does that not then give humans certain rights over them? What role would horses play in society if humans were not allowed to use them? Would they not simply be disposed off and don't humans have a right to do that, if they see fit?
This aroused some interesting questions about our rights and duties towards those beings that we have created or are responsible for.
From our perspective, creation does not afford the creator rights over the created. Do we accept that human parents have rights over their children? No. They have the right to make certain decisions on behalf of their children if their children are not able to do so (perhaps due to age or some relevant disability) and they have the right to share their moral, political and social views with their children, but they do not have rights to enslave their children, harm their children, or kill their children. They also have duties to their children - until the children are able to fend for themselves, they have a duty to provide suitable food, water, shelter, protection and care. It is their responsibility to ensure their child grows up healthy and the rights parents have to educate, restrict and punish their children are ways protecting their children and fulfilling their responsibilities to them. These rights are not ways of using the child as a means to an end, but of developing the child as an end in its own right. Laws and social conventions further extend the rights of the child to medical care, education and recreation, and parents have a duty to provide access to these. Being a creator is not enough to give someone rights over the created.
On the other hand, we can consider an artist who creates a wonderful sculpture or an engineer who creates a powerful computer program. These people clearly have a right to use, display, sell or destroy their creation as long as they are the legal owners of it. Why do they have rights over their creations? It is not simply because they are the creator - indeed, being the creator seems barely relevant. If the sculpture is sold to a collector, the artist's rights over it are removed. His rights are rights of ownership, not creation. By being the creator he is simply (usually) the first owner of the object. What are the differences between these objects and the child that mean we talk about ownership and rights in the former case, but duties and responsibilities in the latter case? In the former case, the subjects are inanimate and not sentient. They cannot be harmed, abused, made to suffer or scared. They can be destroyed but not killed. They have no opinions or feelings, no preferences or interests. They have no minds. Children do. We protect and nurture children and we own objects, using them as we see fit for our benefit.
How does this apply to non-human animals? Humans have legal rights over animals and the right to own animals. In this sense, we treat animals more like objects than children, despite animals having more in common with children than objects. Our power over animals is recognised and protected. Humans use and exploit animals every day, using them as tools, as a means to our ends. In this sense, the owner of a horse has the right to beat it, kick it, hit it, enslave it, harm it or kill it. They have the right to treat it as a property object. Interestingly, there are legal limits on how we may treat animals we own, in recognition of the animals capacity for suffering and it's ability to possess interests. Scientists, law makers and everyday folk understand that animals have minds capable of feelings and preferences, and as a result we are compelled to treat them with a degree of respect (whatever that means).
We are very ready to see them as sentient beings. When we want to views animals as companions, as friends, as comrades and colleagues, we appeal to the fact they are someones we can communicate with, relate to and share experiences with. However, once they become a burden on our finances and time, or when we perceive a greater use for them as commodities, we appeal to their status as somethings to justify treating them in certain ways. We see little contradiction in talking to our horse, patting it, reassuring it and giving it treats one moment, and then selling it, forcibly impregnating it or having it destroyed once it has outstayed it's usefulness to us. And sadly, when we do see the contradiction, we justify it on the basis that the law is on our side, that the animals don't know they're being exploited or that it's natural for animals to eat each other, so it must be fine for us to treat them as a means to our ends.
So what rights might we have over animals? We are physically able to use animals. We are strong and cunning enough to capture them, enslave them, train them and kill them. 'Might-is-right'. Who is going to stop us? We are also legally protected in our use of animals, as long as we abide by certain legal stipulations (usually related to the unspeak 'unnecessary harm' and 'humane') that exist in some jurisdictions. In this sense, we have the right to use them. The third sense is that we have as much right to live and prosper as any other species, and it may be argued that some cases may require the use of animals to prevent humans from suffering ill health or dying. In this sense, we have a right to use animals because we have a right to survive. None of these forms of right seem to capture the essence of a true, natural right. We can do what is right for us, and what no-one can prevent us from doing. However, when we talk of the freedom of speech or the right to defend ourselves, we don't just mean that we have a legal right, or a right by virtue of our power. If a human is treated as property we don't sit back and muse that it's tough luck for them as they were not fortunate to live in a nation with anti-slavery laws or because they were not strong or quick witted enough to elude their captors. We object to what happens to them on the basis that it is morally wrong to treat humans in these ways, even if there are no laws protecting them, even if they are not strong enough to protect themselves and even if their captors would benefit greatly from enslaving them. If a man needs to feed his family, we don't accept his right to capture and sell (or even kill) another human to obtain food. There are just some things that humans don't (or shouldn't) do to each other, even if it is legal, they have the power and they get great benefit from doing so.
But why not? Our use of animals is defended on the basis that we don't owe animals anything, that we can't form contracts with them, that we get great benefit from using them, that it is natural for animals to kill and eat each other. However, when we defend human rights, we're not simply stating the opposite side of those coins. We don't defend human rights because we feel we owe them something, because we can form contracts with them, because we don't get benefit from using them and because it's not natural to kill them. Quite aside from the fact that some of us would (and do) get great benefit from exploiting other humans and that we've killing each other since there was a 'we' to do the killing, these reasons are not only flawed, they're outright irrelevant. Humans have rights because the way they are treated by other humans affects them - because they can be harmed, scared, deprived, stressed or upset. Their sentience is a sufficient reason to give them basic rights. We might not give a child the right to vote or a blind person the right to drive a car, but we still give them the right not to be used as a means to an end. Humans are ends in their own right and belong to no-one other than themselves. Why do we not apply the same argument to animals? Not giving animals the most basic right not to be used as a means to our ends is deeply inconsistent when all the arguments for giving animals rights are the very reasons we have already accepted human rights. It comes down to something very simple - they're not our species. Why does that matter? An African is not from my country, does that mean I can murder him? My next-door neighbour is not from my family, does that mean I can murder her? Species is an easy line to draw but not a line that is morally relevant, any more than nationality, race or ancestry. In defending human rights we are quick to pick up on our similarities to other humans. In rejecting animal rights, we are quick to pick up on our differences to other animals.