Noam Chomsky on Animals and Responsibilities

[Note: The following comments are based solely on the two 3-minute video segments linked below. Professor Chomsky has since replied that he has written a lot more on the subject of animal rights; that he does consider that animals have rights (though not the same ones as humans), and that he has supported animal rights movements for years. He considers species-destruction to be the most severe attack on animal rights by far, and one in which we are all complicit in our daily habits and decisions (travel, heating, etc.); it is accordingly one of his highest priorities. Professor Chomsky also points out that some animals are afforded some legal protection (e.g. in animal experimentation). But the animal slaughter that concerns Professor Chomsky most appears to be natural environment destruction rather than the suffering and slaughter of animals bred for that purpose. Though not a vegan, Professor Chomsky is opposed to factory farming.]

Noam Chomsky is a scholar and an ethical thinker for whom I (and countless others) have boundless admiration and respect. He is in many respects the moral conscience of our planet and our age.

Although Professor Chomsky has sympathy for the cause of animal suffering, it is not his highest priority (and he stresses that we are constantly having to make decisions about moral priorities throughout our lives).

Perhaps because he assigns them a lower priority or urgency, however, some of the details of Professor Chomsky’s views on the animal question do not seem to have undergone as deep and rigorous an analysis as his views on the ethical questions to which he assigns a higher priority:

“Rights” & Responsibilities. Professor Chomsky states (as have others), that in order to have certain “rights,” an individual must also have responsibilities — and animals do not have responsibilities.

It is certainly true that animals do not (and cannot) have responsibilities. Not even a trained seeing-eye dog can be literally said to have responsibilities.

It is not clear, however, whether what we mean by having “rights” — either in law or in ordinary language — necessarily entails anything about having (or being capable of having) responsibilities (although in practice the two are often linked).

Professor Chomsky himself gives an example: human infants. (Professor Chomsky admits — without further comment — that according rights to human infants even though they have no responsibilities is “speciesist.” The same point could be made about the rights of the severely handicapped.)

Harming Animals. But this semiological concern need not deter us. It is not substantive. We can refrain from using the word “rights” at all here, and speak only of the responsibilities (obligations) of humans:

We can agree to make it illegal for a human to harm another sentient (feeling) being intentionally except if it is necessary for the survival or health of a human.

(This would be much the same as making it illegal to kill someone, exculpable only if it was necessary for defence.) For animals, this would not yet be ideal, but it would be a night-to-day improvement over their lot today.

This also covers the (trivial) case of insects (which many others, too, have invoked as a kind of reductio ad absurdum of the notion of animal rights): It’s alright to kill mosquitos or flies to protect people from bites or health hazards. Yet harming even insects wantonly or for pleasure can and should be unlawful too, and there is nothing absurd or ridiculous about that.

“Personhood”. Professor Chomsky does not discuss this topic in these 2 videos, but similar semiological points have been raised about attempts to accord animals the status of “persons” under the law. Yes, describing animals as persons is at odds with what we mean by “person” in ordinary language. But the law often uses words differently; for example, a corporation is a “person” (with rights and responsibilities) under the law.

Again, however, nothing substantive is at issue. Animals would gain the same legal protection if we agreed to make it illegal for a human to harm another sentient (feeling) being intentionally except if it is necessary for the survival or health of a human. Both “rights” and “personhood” can be left unmentioned if it causes confusion or opposition.

Decisions. As to personal choices: A lion has no choice about being a carnivore. It cannot survive or be healthy without eating other sentient (feeling) beings. Human beings (being omnivores) can. And they can choose not to eat animals, just as they have chosen not to murder, rape, have slaves, or subjugate women — and have accordingly outlawed it.

In most of the US and Europe today, it is feasible and easy to be a vegan, and not consume animal products. (The “opportunity costs” are small, and vanish once one has been doing it for a while.) Choosing not to eat meat at all is not like choosing to renounce all automated transport in order not to add to one’s carbon footprint.

Priorities. Last point: Although individuals can indeed decide their own moral priorities, it is nevertheless a fact that humans are now protected by law from being harmed by humans, but animals are not; only some special kinds of harm to animals under special conditions (such as laboratory experimentation) have some restrictions on them (minimal ones, minimally monitored or enforced).

The number of animals killed by humans every year exceeds the total number of humans killed by humans in all wars since the beginning of humanity. To my mind, that makes the protection of animals the most pressing moral priority of all.

2 Replies to “Noam Chomsky on Animals and Responsibilities”

  1. Please refer to my comments on the YouTube site underneath this video where I’ve reviewed in detail Prof. Chomsky’s statements about animal rights. I think Mr. Harnad is way too generous in ascribing to Mr. Chomsky an earnest concern about animal rights that is hardly apparent in the video. Mr. Chomsky appears, if anything, to have never given the matter any serious thought. Some of what he says is illogical and it seems as though much of what he is saying is being made up as he goes along. I also keep noticing an undeserved and unseemly difference towards [“deference”? ed.] Mr. Chomsky by interviewers and YouTube commentators beneath his videos. Even though he is mythologized by some as a sort of eminence grise of the Left it should not get him off of the hook with respect to animal rights, an issue he has never apparently thought about or taken seriously.

    1. “Get him off the hook”?

      I am an animal rights activist and vegan, and I believe animal rights should have the highest priority in ethics (humans too being animals). But I don’t think that that cause is well-served by deprecating the work of lifelong ethical activists with different priorities: such people are all too rare, and, at the level of Noam Chomsky’s dedication and depth, virtually nonexistent.

      Please post the URL of your comment (just the URL), if you wish. It is too much to ask the reader to search through hundreds of youtube comments to find yours (and it is not even clear which of the two videos’ comments you are referring to). — ed.

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