Tiger King: Libertarianism’s Grey Position On Animals

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The libertarian movement got a recent bump of publicity thanks largely to Netflix’s hit documentary show, Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness. The show features former Oklahoma Libertarian Party gubernatorial candidate Joe Maldonado-Passage, more commonly known as Joe Exotic.

While Exotic, the self-proclaimed “Tiger King”, definitely didn’t help libertarianism’s image, claiming in the first episode that there would be “a small Waco” if anyone tried to take his tigers, and that he’d shoot a person before shooting one of his cats, the documentary does beg the question of animal rights in a libertarian society.

Philosophy, specifically political philosophy, tends to focus so much on man that animals are often ignored. Libertarians are no exception, but there are several realities that would have to be addressed should a libertarian society ever materialize.

What Rights Do Animals Have?

Murray Rothbard was explicit in The Ethics of Liberty about the rights of animals:

“man is a rational and social animal. No other animals or beings possess this ability to reason […]. Thus, while natural rights […] are absolute, there is one sense in which they are relative: they are relative to the species man.”

Because animals don’t have this ability to reason, they can’t have the same rights as people. According to the author’s natural rights approach, a wolf cannot aggress against a sheep because that is its nature, and man cannot aggress against other animals.

This idea would make animals no better than objects to be owned, and what their owners decide for them would be moral. Following this logic, Tiger King Joe Exotic would not have been in the wrong for shooting those baby tigers which were a part of his charges, or breeding them to sell to private owners. I have a feeling that the former, at least, might make the average person a little queasy.

Other libertarians have claimed that this question of rights doesn’t matter. In a published debate for Reason, Michael Huemer, Colorado professor of philosophy stated that he is a vegetarian because of two principles: Causing pain is bad, and it is wrong to cause a large amount of pain for minor benefits. Whether or not one has “rights” doesn’t change these ideas.

“Whatever the situation may be as regards “rights” […] I do know that one should not cause vast pain and suffering for trivial reasons. Nothing about human intelligence explains why it would be acceptable to do that. Being capable of carrying out complex deductions, or grasping abstract objects, or regulating one’s behavior according to normative beliefs, does not somehow change that underlying truth.”

The Tiger King’s star certainly would have fallen under the category of causing a large amount of pain for a minor benefit — killing a young tiger because it was no longer useful for selling for selfies or the experience of petting them. If one believes that this is wrong, then animals do have some sort of rights.

Of course, this will be a grey area as people debate what rights animals have and how severely they should be enforced. Some animals are now so dependent on humans that inaction could be just as bad as purposive acts (the monkey gang wars from pandemic closure of an amusement park comes to mind). More debate on this topic is needed to illuminate the clear libertarian position.

Are Certain Animal Unable To Be Owned?

One of the shocking stats revealed in Tiger King was that it takes nearly $60,000-$70,000 to feed one tiger for a year. According to the Animal Legal Defense Fund, the cost and difficulty of caring for these animals creates inhumane living conditions. To top it off, big cats cannot be domesticated like a dog or house cat.

Libertarianism tends to default to absolute ability to own anything besides a person, because they have rights. Theoretically, anyone should be able to own a tank because simply having one doesn’t mean the person will use it for harm. The difference for animals is that a tank won’t run away if it escapes because of inadequate housing.

According to the Humane Society, from 1990-2012 there were 306 incidents with privately-owned big cats that resulted in 24 deaths and 244 injuries. The report states that captive big cats require the opportunity to display natural behaviors and being enclosed increases their stress and frustration levels. On top of this, these animals develop health conditions for the rest of their lives.

Following the non-aggression principle, it could be argued that private ownership of these tigers harms them because they cannot be domesticated and they should not be allowed to be property. The fact that animals are alive makes their status as property murkier than a military-grade rifle. A gun has no feelings, so the owner smashing it with a hammer does nothing, but an animal can feel pain and other emotions.

While Rothbard may have thought that the argument is simple — people have rights, animals do not — it clearly presents more questions after further consideraiton. If Tiger King and Joe Exotic have shown the world anything about libertarianism, it’s that there are a lot of questions surrounding the philosophy’s convergence of animal rights and property rights that need answering.

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Luke Henderson

Since joining the Libertarian Party in 2016, Luke Henderson has been active in the liberty movement through journalism and political activism. Luke is an educator, composer of fine art and electronic music, and also contributes to Think Liberty, Antiwar.com and the Libertarian Coalition.

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