Like the issues of gay rights and abortion rights, the rhetoric that generally attends 'discussion' of so-called "animal rights" can tend to produce copious amounts of heat and very little light. On the one side are the animal rights activists who sometimes say and do things that strike us as mad, or just plain silly. To cite just two example, there is Matthew's supporters in Austria who contend that everyone has a right to a fair trial, even chimps. And of course the notoriously zany Leona Helmsley who, upon her death, left her dog some 12 million dollars and directed that that her vast estate (estimated in the billions of dollars) be used to care for dogs.
On the other side are the opponents of animal rights, some of whom are Christians, of course. They argue that God gave us 'dominion' over the animals, and that, I take it, is somehow supposed to mean that we can treat non-human animals anyway we like, thank you very much. There is also the argument that if we grant (say) chimps rights what's to prevent us from extending rights to earth worms and gnats? Moreover, extending rights to chimps, dogs, earth worms and gnats has the effect of diminishing the significance and value of peculiarly human life. Or so the argument goes.
In a NY Times Editorial a couple of days ago, Adam Cohen introduces a very sensible voice into the discussion. Essentially, he suggests the reverse of this last charge. He writes:
Critics object that recognizing rights for apes would diminish human beings. But it seems more likely that showing respect for apes would elevate humans at the same time.
American law is becoming increasingly cruel. The Supreme Court recently ruled that states are not obliged to administer lethal injections in ways that avoid unnecessary risk that inmates will suffer great pain. If apes are given the right to humane treatment, it just might become harder to deny that same right to their human cousins.
For what it's worth, here's what I think, as a Christian. We human beings are of a piece with the rest of the natural world. Indeed we are animals, human animals. So that animals should enjoy a conscious life ought not to worry us since we ourselves enjoy a conscious life. Conscious lives come on a continuum, of course. The conscious life of gorillas, who seem to feel emotions and to understand and utilize language to communicate with humans, is more complex than the mental life of a dog; but, dogs too seem obviously to enjoy a robust conscious life. At the far end of the contimuum are those animals that are also persons, their conscious lives have a complexity sufficient for producing what I, following Lynne Baker, call a first-person perspective. So far as we can tell, in the natural world a first-person perspective is had only by humans.
There are two issues relevant to the discussion of extending rights to non-human animals that I want to discuss very briefly. First, I think Cohen is correct. Our practices toward non-human animals are character-forming, they shape the kind of people we become. Compassionate treatment of all living things, other things being equal, will tend to produce compassionate people. Treat non-human animals with compassion and you are likely to treat humans compassionately too, other things being equal.
Second, is extending rights to non-human individuals really that crazy of an idea? We extend rights of various sorts already to collectives such as corporations and groups. And rights, like conscious lives, come on a continuum. The sorts of rights that non-human animals may have coming to them in virtue of being created by God will be different than the sorts of rights persons have in virtue of being created in the image of God. Granted, there are difficult issues in the neighborhood; but, really, is the very idea of extending a right to an existence free of torture and exploitation to a non-human animal with a sufficiently well developed central nervous system that is capable of experiencing pleasure and pain really that crazy?