Book Review: “Putting Humans First”

While animal rights is still chic among Hollywood celebrities and certain academic circles, to Tibor Machan in his book Putting Humans First: Why We Are Nature’s Favorite the idea that animals as on par with and deserving the same rights as humans as ridiculous. Only beings capable of deliberation and choice (i.e. reason) deserve rights, he says, since rights involve a sphere of influence where someone has freedom to act.

The most fundamental objection to the notion that animals have rights is that only human beings have the requisite moral nature for ascribing to them basic rights. However closely humans and lower animals resemble each other, human beings alone possess the capacity for free choice and the responsibility to act ethically. (page 10).

The book is the result of a culmination of essays Machan did over the years while working as a philosophy professor at Chapman University in Orange County, California. While it is written in a personal and at times pugnacious style, ultimately, Putting Humans First at times is like an open letter to environmentalists attempting to convince them that their stance on animal rights is foolish. In the first chapter, Machan establishes the doctrine of natural rights and how it applies in instances of times when humans are attacked by animals. One example Machan uses is a news item at the time of writing his book of a shark biting off a boys’s arm and that there are many animal rights proponents (not all) who strongly disagree that a park ranger had the right to defend the boy over the shark’s life. He also give an overview of animal rights philosophy and points out the contradictory logic of authors like Peter Singer.

In the book’s second chapter, Machan makes the case for speciesism which elevates humans above all other beings, respectfully. He draws the distinction between how humans value life and in nature and the importance of being human while contrasting animal rights philosopher Bernard Rollin and contrasting it with Darwinian evolutionary theory. The weakest part of Putting Humans First is Tibor Machan’s attempt in chapter 3 to make A Sound Environmentalism. He attempts to improve the philosophy making a libertarian case for property rights. He tries demonstrate how it leads to cleaner water and air contrasting private property ownership with communal ownership of the means of production and how communal ownership makes things worse off.

He ends his book with his forth chapter making the case to put humans first. Describing that not all humans value themselves and how having reverence for something (like an animal actually) over human existence demeans life overall. He then goes into why life is good for humans and makes the case for optimism overall despite environmentalist doomsayers. My only objection to Dr. Machan’s book is his attempt to improve environmentalism. The movement based on the philosophy is based on is completely anti-life as indicated by PETA’s hostility to using animals in laboratory medical testing. Rather than attempting to improve a morally bankrupt philosophy, it would have been better for Machan to defend capitalism or, at the very least, defend property rights over environmentalism.

None the less, despite the obvious flaw of trying to improve environmentalism, Putting Humans First is a good attempt to give philosophical answers to proponents of animal rights. The book demonstrates Dr. Machan’s breadth of knowledge on the philosophical underpinnings of animal rights and he does a decent job of pointing out the errors while making the case that humans are nature’s favored species. I doubt it will change the minds of environmentalists despite it being a de-facto open letter to them. However, for people looking for a book that makes counter arguments to people like Peter Singer and potentially arm themselves with philosophical or practical arguments other than what is on this website or written by Dr. Edwin Locke, this book will satisfy.