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.