Dec 8, 2006

Taking Animal Rights Seriously... well... sort of [LINK]

I've been thinking over a previous discussion about animal rights, trying to formulate a way to make the idea more coherent overall, but it always leads me to strange places. I believe any system of "rights" that doesn't recognize corresponding responsibilities is unworkable, for the simple reason that you can't simultaneously have a right to live and a right to murder. (And I'd consider a right to not be murdered fundamental to other rights; otherwise any right to public education or affordable health care would be kind of pointless. ;-) So here's my proposal for a test determining when it may be appropriate to take animal rights seriously: If a cat tries to prevent another cat from killing a mouse.

A valid objection: the cat may recognize its own rights, but not that of mice, much like we humans recognize our own rights but not that of cats or mice. Okay, then limit the question to higher primates and make it an intra-species problem. Like humans, apes occasionally display murderous behavior. I've heard that dominant males sometimes massacre the offspring of females they're appropriating, or even their own offspring if paternity is in doubt. After he does so, do any of the other apes express anything more than sadness or disapproval? Do they kill him, shun him, or punish him in any way that would express the idea that he had no right to do what he did? (That's not a rhetorical question, BTW.)

Another objection: What if the species doesn't display murderous behavior? I don't know, but let's assume dolphins fit the bill. Then how do we test whether members of that species deserve rights? That dolphins appear to respect each other's rights does not in itself imply consciousness of such rights. And it's important to establish consciousness, because otherwise lower species that for whatever reason happen to not kill each other would also qualify, and to secure their rights would trash the ecosystem and make everybody go extinct, likening ourselves to Gods of Terrifying Justice, don'cha know. Any workable system of animal rights would thus only allow a few higher mammals at the top of the food chain into the membership club.

Which is why I pose the scenario of the cat with moral qualms about killing mice. The test has to be more stringent than how members of species behave towards other members. I figure if species other than our own have developed a sufficient level of empathy and moral reasoning that they start to produce their own set of animal rights activists, the idea of animal rights might start to make sense.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

In reference to this statement : “I figure if species other than our own have developed a sufficient level of empathy and moral reasoning that they start to produce their own set of animal rights activists, the idea of animal rights might start to make sense.”

Cats are not intelligent enough to produce a crop of animal rights activists. If human beings all had the mental capacity of a severely mentally challenged person who could not grasp the concept of moral rights, would that mean that this hypothetical race of unintelligent people do not have moral rights? I don’t think one needs to be aware of moral rights to have them. Cats and other living creatures have evolved via the same process of natural selection that produced humans. If humans have moral rights, why do animals not have them?

The faulty logic of your argument is apparent if we rephrase it to say: “When retarded people develop a sufficient level of empathy and moral reasoning that they start to produce their own set of activists for the mentally challenged, then I will respect their rights.”

LetMeSpellItOutForYou said...

I don't think one needs to be aware of moral rights to have
them.
Then I don't understand why aphids should not possess rights
as well. For that matter, I don't understand why even minimal
consciousness is required. Plants are alive, so why don't they have
rights? If not awareness of rights, then what criteria is there? If
it's intelligence, then how do you measure it so as to set a
meaningful or even workable threshold?

Cats and other living creatures have evolved via the same process
of natural selection that produced humans. If humans have moral
rights, why do animals not have them?
For the same reason humans
don't have the capacity to engage in photosynthesis. Evolution
produces an astonishing variety of life forms with all sorts of
adaptive features.

...would that mean that this hypothetical race of unintelligent
people [who could not grasp the concept of moral rights] do not have
moral rights?
In a word, yes. If they can't conceive of rights,
they can't be held responsible when they fail to respect the supposed
rights of others.

I think the example of a species of "people" who are severely mentally
challenged is rather slippery. When you form a mental image of such a
person, you can't help but be reminded of the potential to be fully
human. But the example doesn't allow for that. Another way to phrase
the question is to try to imagine "people" who don't resemble "people"
in any meaningful way. "Mentally challenged" people are also objects
of special compassion, since by definition they are defective. Better
To frame the question in terms of an existing species working at full
capacity.

And your final paragraph illustrates another problem. First we started
out with a hypothetical "race" (species) of retarded people, but here
we have one member of a species denying rights to another. We don't do
that, and for good reason: systems that granted more rights to
artistocrats or denied them to blacks proved untenable. All human
beings are presumed to possess rights. To return to my original
point, I would consider recognizing the rights of all cats if
even one of them displayed concern over the impending death of
a mouse.