Wednesday, 19 September 2007

Can Animals Have Human Rights?

The question seems absurd until you realise that it is an ill-conceived way of putting a deeper point that is harder to refute: what makes human beings so special that they – and they alone among the animals – warrant the protection that flows from being entitled to rights? The usual stock answers to this are not as satisfactory as maybe once they were. First we used to say that humans as possessors of a soul were uniquely special and therefore entitled to things in a way non-humans were not. But the soul idea has taken a bit of a battering of late, and many people who believe in human rights feel they can commit themselves in this way even though they don’t think they have a soul lurking within them.

Often these are the people who turn to the rationality of man/woman as the reason for the uniqueness of this category of animal: unlike the rest of the living things on the planet, we humans can plan our actions, reflect on our life goals and how to achieve them, and generally behave in a thoughtful as well as a feeling way. In other words we have autonomy and as autonomous beings we have an interest in freedom which is nothing like (being far superior than) what other animals can possibly enjoy. This is good so far as it goes but doesn’t deal with two facts. First, many humans are not capable of enjoying their autonomy in this way and yet despite this (perhaps even especially because of this), we persist in thinking of them as human. Second, some non-human animals (eg whales, great apes, but there are others) do show evidence of this kind of personhood, so if this is the criteria that determines which animals have rights, should they not join the human category as rights-holders?

So how do we avoid saying that (certain) animals have rights? Maybe we should not try to. Perhaps there is another narrative under the surface of the religious and rational stories which have linked humans (and humans alone) so indelibly to rights in the past: both faith and reason have been concerned to produce ethical frameworks for good living, and a measure of goodness has in each case being the way we have treated the vulnerable and the weak. Traditionally these have been the human vulnerable and the human weak, but there is no necessary reason why we should allow this species-categorisation unnecessarily to limit our subject. If that is right, then we can talk of supporting the idea of rights for animals as a way of expressing our desire to protect animals from the horrors done to them by the abuse of human power.

Three glosses on this are necessary I think. First, not all animals would enjoy rights in the same way or to the same degree, and certainly the rights aimed at the human animal would not translate automatically to the rest of the animals. It would depend on capacities to feel pain and to engage in rudimentary conscious engagement with the world, in other words (to adapt a phrase while reminding us of the potential exploitation in it) it should be ‘horses for courses’. Second, since many human rights are already susceptible to exceptions based on the greater good of humankind, there should be do difficulty in developing exceptions with regard to particular categories of animals (in the interests of the animals) so as to avoid absurdity. And thirdly, again as is the case with the more ambitious human rights, to frame a right here is not, in the absence of direct enforceable unequivocal legislation, to insist on its immediate application: we can declare and agree animal rights as goals in the way that we already have decided that humans should have a right to food or to shelter: the fact that many don’t is a cause for concern not a basis for refutation.

These thoughts have been provoked by an excellent conference run by Professor Andrew Linzey’s Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics at Keble College Oxford on 18 September. What do you think? Are there gaps in the argument, places where the thesis can be tightened? Or have I got the argument completely wrong? . Is this the right approach for those concerned about animal welfare to take?


Unknown said...

I have just stumbled across this site today. It is funny that you raise this as it has been something I have recently been thinking about also.

I have just begun reading John Searle's book 'Mind' and he mentions in it Descartes' theory that animals did possess consciousness. Searle refutes this by referring to neurobiology and the fact that the causal structure between stimuli and behaviour in animals is broadly similar to that of humans. I find this argument interesting - Searle says the jury may still be out on whether, say, termites possess consciouness but perhaps neurobiology could demonstrate this conclusively in the future.

On my part, I wonder if we actually need to provide proof of neurobiology or consciousness in animals in order to assign rights to them.

Practically every pet owner I have observed refers to their pet in a very strange way: they talk about their pet 'knowing' something, they say that their pet is sad, bored or happy, even complex emotions like shame or love are attributed to animals. These are characteristics which are very much human in nature. This, to me, seems to confer some animals with a level of mental complexity that could not be supported by current scientific data.

But perhaps the question of whether the animal in question actually possesses these characteristics is irrelevant? By virtue of the fact that we, as humans, attribute these characteristics to animals might just confer them with those characteristics. These animals would now 'possess' human characteristics. This would in turn lead to the consideration of certain matters: if I recognise that they have characteristics which I share (I imagine that the recognition would only arise from seeing a similarity between the animal and oneself), must I then desire that they be treated in a manner similar to how I would desire to be treated (ie. the categorical imperative)?

I am thinking aloud here so you'll have to excuse me if there arer some gaps. Still, a very interesting and complicated area.

I missed your speech to the ATGWU on Monday past (24th). Do you have any other speaking engagements in Dublin coming up over the next couple of months?

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Masalabou said...

Interesting post.

Seeing a chicken being killed in Kolkata forced me to look at the issue of the reality and hence morality of eating meat which, despite being a meat eater, I can't really justify.

This took me on to question my faith itself - for killing so we can eat meat leads you onto the question how exactly are we different to other animals? Why are we special? Could religion be an evolutionary tool to give us something to keep us living so we can pass on those genes?

I think we are no different from other animals - worse, I argue because we rear animals for planned slaughter, whereas they get hungry and hunt on instinct (I suppose some do planning, squirrels for instance...)

Here's the link, what do you think?

Masalabou said...

I think one of the flaws of the whole human rights concept is that it is pretty arbitrary. You can see this as you are looking at the potential 'human' rights of the animal when these are not generally given to the unborn human. Presumably human rights lawyers put the rights of the mother over the child? Why are the doctors legally permitted to abort a 32 week old foetus? (The story is that it was the healthy twin they aborted, but if it had been the sick twin as planned, then I don't think the story would be in the press today - but would it not be the same violation of human rights either way? How can you not be human in the womb despite being past the age of viability and human 10 minutes later?)

BTW you have a junk comment above my two!
Ok, that's all my comments for today.

Thanks for writing your blog, it's nice to have an expert writing in such a way accessible to the public and available for comment.