Note to Cass Sunstein: Animals Don’t Have “Rights”

President Obama’s selection to head the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, Cass Sunstein, is running into a stiff headwind regarding some previous writings on the subject of animals’ rights.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) has blocked President Obama’s candidate for regulation czar, Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein, because Sunstein has argued that animals should have the right to sue humans in court.

Indeed, in his 2004 book, Animal Rights: Current Debates and New Directions, Sunstein wrote: “I will suggest that animals should be permitted to bring suit, with human beings as their representatives, to prevent violations of current law.

As strange as it may sound, I happen to agree with the intents and goals of what Sunstein is saying, at least in some circumstances, but the phrasing is simply all wrong. This may sound like nothing more than an exercise in semantics, but the distinction is an important one.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time working as a volunteer for couple of Humane Society animals shelters and various cat rescue operations. That’s why it often comes as a surprise to some of my friends when I begin complaining about the antics and occasional borderline terrorist operations of groups like PETA.

Don’t you care about animal rights?” they ask me? I’m sorry to say, the answer is no. Because when it comes to affairs of human courts of law, animals don’t actually have any sort of inherent “rights.” What they have are protections, and even those are strictly limited to the specific protections we choose to assign to them. To be sure, I tend to come down heavily on the side of all the protections we can reasonably afford for our animal friends. Pets and livestock are in their current conditions because of systems we designed, and I do not wish to see any of them put to any discomfort which can reasonably be avoided.

But make no mistake… in terms of human courts of law, we hold all the cards by virtue of the place we carved out at the top of the food chain by dint of our overly large, meat fueled brains. And while I don’t want to see chickens, cows and pigs suffer needlessly, they are still food.

A helpful analogy can be constructed if you ever take one of those eco-exploration trips to the Indonesian island of Komodo. Should you wander away alone into the bush unarmed and come across a Komodo dragon, you will quickly develop a new perspective on rights. In American courts, as a U.S. citizen, you have a plethora of inviolable rights and many avenues to exercise and ensure them. In the situation described above, your list of rights quickly shrinks down to:

- your right to run as quickly as you possibly can, or
- your right to hope that you’ve stumbled across an extremely elderly Komodo Dragon with advanced arthritis.

Failing either of those, your sole remaining right will be to be bitten by the dragon and, shortly thereafter, die an agonizing and fairly horrific death. And if you don’t have a support team around you, you will also be eaten.

All rights are circumstantial and can change depending on the time and the framework. Our animal friends, I’m sad to say, don’t actually have rights. They can certainly have energetic, well intentioned human defenders who can bring suit in court, but the animal is never going to be the plaintiff in a sane world.

UPDATE: Steve Benen doesn’t take time to focus on the animal “rights” aspect, but has some interesting thoughts on how and when holds should be placed on nominations.