Responding to a "Review"


That venerable magazine, Publishers Weekly, ran a review of my book, Putting Humans First: Why We Are Nature's Favorite (Rowman & Littlefield, 2004). It is a mean-minded short little thing that looks to me was meant to bury the book, especially since published it in full next to where the work is described.

Here is what Publishers Weekly said: 'This cranky manifesto opposes the excesses of animal-rights ideologues with an equally doctrinaire libertarianism. Countering animal-rights stalwarts like Tom Regan and Peter Singer, philosophy professor Machan contends that, as the only beings with the capacity for moral choice, only humans can have rights; 'wondrous humanity' should therefore stop worrying about 'speciesism' and enjoy guilt-free dominion. Machan scores some points on the concept of animal rights (what framework, he wonders, can encompass the rights of both zebras and the lions who feed on them?), but the link to his laissez-faire politics is murky, and his 'private property rights approach to managing environmental problems' seems highly inadequate. Shrugging that he is 'not sure' about anti-cruelty laws, he hardly mentions industrial livestock rearing or the other institutionalized abuses of animals that have fueled the animal-rights movement. Larger problems like pollution and ecological degradation are a 'tragedy of the commons' best handled by privatization of the public realm and perhaps lots of litigation; private landowners, he assumes, will be faithful stewards of their earth, while polluters will answer in court to those whose property or bodies have been damaged by them. Since Machan doesn't explain how to privatize the upper atmosphere, he allows that there may be a problem with ozone depletion, but he's satisfied to wait for more research. In Machan's exuberant call for individuals to do as they please with their animals, their land and their SUVs, the rights of property seem to overshadow those of humans, let alone animals.'

OK, so what is cranky about the book? Beats me'that is just a bit of gratuitous slam, unrelated to the work itself. Indeed, the book is written in a charitable tone as it addresses animal rights-liberation activists and environmentalists. Yes, it is critical but hardly 'irritable, grouchy, touchy, cross, peevish, or cantankerous.'

Is the book 'doctrinaire' libertarian? If by this we are to understand that the book contains a principled position favoring individual rights as the central guide to public policy, especially when it comes to the environment, yes, that's so. Why is that 'doctrinaire'?

My dictionary states this means 'determined to use a particular theory or method and refusing to accept that there might be a better approach.' By that interpretation what I write in the book is anything but doctrinaire since I never, ever deny that 'there might be a better approach' to libertarianism. Of course there might be'the real question is, of course, whether there is. And I do not believe there is. But neither does the reviewer believe there is a 'better approach' to reviewing my book, so it seems, then, that the review is doctrinaire'and so must be anything anyone ever says about anything.

The silliest part of this 'review' comes where we are told that 'In Machan's exuberant call for individuals to do as they please with their animals, their land and their SUVs, the rights of property seem to overshadow those of humans, let alone animals.' First, I do not 'call for individuals to do as they please with their animals,' quite the contrary'I oppose wanton cruelty to animals and state that I would even trespass to prevent someone from practicing such cruelty. Second, there is no such thing as 'the rights of property.' Property has no rights, individual human beings do. Yes, the property rights of people should 'overshadow''meaning trump'public policies that violate them, and nothing in the review suggests there is anything amiss with that idea.

Ordinarily one should reply to reviews in a scholarly forum, but what PW and offer is mainly an attack without any chance of anyone else saying anything else about the book on a very influential site. So, I am making a small effort to counter the likely impact and hope readers will look at the work rather than take such a slapdash 'review' to heart.

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Tibor R. Machan's picture
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Tibor Machan is a professor of business ethics and Western Civilization at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., and recent author of Neither Left Nor Right: Selected Columns (Hoover Institution Press, 2004).  He is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.