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Animal Rights?A few days back a question was presented to us which we thought it was a no brainer, yet, it turned out not to be so simple. Talking with people we usually come across controversial topics where, as expected, our point of view is either:



The question that was presented to us is a simple one: should animals be used in research? Or, going to the root cause of the dilemma, do animals have rights? To answer this question there have been rivers of ink spilled and MegaCoulombs of electrons reorganized (if you are interested in the modern version of the old publishing metaphor).

A great deal of people have spent a great deal of time and money thinking about this issue without any clear outcome. The problem has been analyzed from a psychological, ethical, moral, religious, practical, scientific and any other “al” point of view you may care to mention. In turn, politicians perceiving as having a great opportunity to garnish votes, decided to place mild laws in place to protect “the wellbeing” of animals. Such laws range from limitations to the use of animals in research and conditions for such use, to “protection” against cruelty to prohibitions of owning and/or breeding certain species. Basically, a nonsensical mess without any proper and solid justification. What a surprise… NOT!

To make matters even more convoluted, complicated and messy, all kinds of sensationalist images and appeals to feelings are used by both factions. Right. Nice way to come to a clear answer…NOT!

For us, as Absolute Austro Libertarians the question is interesting in and by itself because it explores the limits of Libertarianism. However, this time we are going to take a broader approach and look at the problem from a pure Libertarian perspective, i.e. not even with a Master Contract at play.


If we are to analyze where rights come from, we must say that rights come from property. The initial property being our bodies. We are aware of ourselves and therefore we have a notion of ownership. Thus, we own our bodies. As we assert our right to our bodies, so does everybody else. Thus, we choose simple rules to deal with such properties in a manner that is conducive to achieve maximum freedom. Basically, we choose not to interfere with other peoples’ bodies in exchange for them doing the same with us. You don’t mess with our body and we won’t mess with yours. This is called “respecting other peoples’ rights” or setting up a contract for mutual coexistence.

Once we establish such contracts, we can then expand the rules to acquire other properties, the most famous rule being the rule of homesteading. If there is a property without owner, we can claim it as long as we actually use it.

However, the fact that we have such contracts does not give us rights. Contracts are simple means to maintain our rights to the maximum extent possible. Contracts come after the existence of rights. This distinction will become important as we cross over to analyze so-called “animal rights”.

The most basic origin of rights is self-awareness. Self-consciousness. We have rights because we understand what having rights mean. If we could not understand this concept, rights would be meaningless. If we would not have self-awareness, we would be unable to understand that we owe ourselves. We would act automatically based on instinct alone.


We know that animals exhibit “social” behavior. This is, they have certain rules that enable them to create societies in the same manner that humans do. Although it is true that their “society” is vastly different from ours (for the most part), all that this fact tells us is that they have a manner to create contracts among them for mutual benefit.

We also know that animals are territorial. Would this then imply that because of the homesteading principle they are capable of acquiring properties, thus implying that they have property rights and thus rights?

In a word?

And here is where the whole thing becomes interesting. As we mentioned before, the fact that contracts exist and the fact that territories are acquired does not necessarily mean that they have rights. Those kinds of behaviors can easily be simulated in software without the need for having an iota of life. Software can be programmed to do this automatically. Does this mean then that software has rights? Is there a “Software Liberation Front” in our future?

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

The key question is this: are animals self-aware? Are they self-conscious?

The problem with this question is not only that we don’t know, but we don’t even know how to measure it. But there may be another way.

What does it mean to be self-conscious? That we recognize ourselves as entities. But this recognition is internal. We typically don’t run around on a street screaming “I recognize myself”!!! If we would to do so, we would probably be taken to see a psychiatrist.

Yet, we do recognize ourselves. We do act instinctively but we also act thoughtfully. And therein lays the difference. Can animals act thoughtfully within this context of recognizing themselves?

We know that animals can solve complex problems. But this does not mean much because we routinely create software that does the same. The problem is that animals cannot tell us if they can recognize themselves. It is a problem of communication, not self-awareness. We don’t know because we can’t talk to them.

However, what if we could? Well, many such experiments have taken place, the most important ones with chimpanzees learning some type of language that we understand. And the outcome of such experiments may surprise you: chimps seem to be self-aware.

If this is indeed the case, then at least chimps, have rights.

But what about lesser animal forms?


And here is where an abstraction would serve us well. What is the difference between a chimp and a lower order or chimps? Or between a rat, an amoeba and a prion? The amount of information that they are able to process one way or another. In general terms we would say the number of neurons, but what if they don’t have neurons? Thus, we have to settle for a different (and universal) measurement.

From what we know in experiments with neural networks, the more complex a net, the higher the amount of information it is capable of processing and the more sophisticated its behavior becomes. The question is this: at which process capacity does a net becomes self-aware?

We don’t know, but we are fast approaching such capacity. Today most researchers believe that there is a smooth transition between no-self-awareness (or instinct) and self-awareness. Thus, if we create software sophisticated enough, chances are it will become self-aware!

And then what? Then, we will have software with rights because they will become aware that they own themselves because they can modify themselves. And so yes, in the future there may be a “Software Liberation Front”

And what has this to do with animals? If we follow the evolution of animals we can clearly see that they evolved from low-information-processing capacity entities to high-information-processing capacity entities. Thus, it is to be fully expected that some of them either crossed the self-awareness threshold or that they are close to it.

Note: please see the Glossary if you are unfamiliar with certain words.

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