Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Monkey See Monkey Do

Spain has recently passed legislation granting legal rights to apes. Animal rights activists in Austria are taking legal action to have a chimp named Matthew declared a person. They have as yet been unsuccessful but are taking their case to the European Court of Human Rights in the hope of prevailing.

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?


The Vegucator said...

Many thanks for this stimulating post. Interestingly, the claim that the "first person perspective" is unique to human beings is being challenged by recent research on the inner lives of apes, elephants and dolphins. See, for instance, here:
Of course, the questions of whether animals deserve moral standing or have rights do not hinge on an animal's possession of a first person perspective, as there are any number of traits that fall short of "self-awareness" in the human sense (say, sentience, the ability to suffer, etc.) that could ground moral standing or rights. Nonetheless, it is intriguing that yet another characteristic that was once presumed to be unique to human beings is now in question. Like sentience, tool-use, empathy, risibility, language, and artistic expression before it, the first person perspective may be more widely instantiated than we first suspected. And on that note, check out this video of an elephant painting (or at least, appearing to paint) a self-portrait:

daniel said...

Hi Kevin. I haven't commented on your blog yet, but I've been following it since day one. I appreciate your thoughtfulness in treating this topic.

I think concerns over animal treatment are warranted, but I don't see the necessity of animal rights to ensure this. This is because a 'right' appears to include two assertions: (1) X is morally obliged to treat Y in a certain way, and (2) Y (or Y's agents) may legitimately use force to ensure X's cooperation.

Every person (and especially Christians) ought to recognize (1), I think, with respect to animals. Our very nature as human beings demands it, as Aristotle might say. But we can also grant (1) without asserting (2). So, I agree with Adam Cohen's description on the benefit of treating animals well -- our moral obligations to them are only natural! -- for, surely, human beings acting in concert with their nature will live the flourishing life.

Spain's recent legislation, however, bundles (1) and (2) together, which is where I think the problem lies. (1) treats animals as beneficiaries of moral obligations, but (2) treats animals as moral agents themselves. It presupposes that moral agency and moral obligations can be intelligibly applied to animals, which I'd dispute. And if -- that is, supposing I'm right -- animals simply lack the capacity to be a moral agents, then it's incoherent to act on their behalf as though they were.

So, I think that we are left with the term "animal rights" describing only how human beings interact with one another, with the "agents" of animals simply substituting their own moral agency for that of the animal's. Any force used on "behalf" of an animal is really just violence, and easily drags human beings back down from whatever elevated state they achieved by treating animals well in the first place.

Does that make any sense, or did I just employ the typical libertarian smoke-and-mirrors? Either way, keep up the good work!

- Daniel Coleman

The Vegucator said...

Whoops! The blog template apparently lopped off the two web-addresses that I referenced above. You can find the story on elephant self-awareness here, and the video of an elephant painting here.

Kevin Corcoran said...


I would distinguish self-awareness and a first-person perspective. I think you're right--lots of non-humans seem to enjoy self-awareness. But a first-perspective is the capacity to entertain such thoughts as these: I wonder if I will live long enough to see my children marry? I wonder how I will die? I don't think I will ever understand you. Etc. It's the presence of that second "I" that is indicative of a fpp.

I'm in principle open to non-humans enjoying such a capacity and so in principle open to there being non-human persons or, if you prefer, gersons, or dersons or chersons or whatever. But I'm not convinced that any non-human animals actually to possess it.

As you suggest, though, whether non-human animals deserve moral standing or have rights don't hinge on their possession of a fpp. There are lots of other features that moral standing might be grounded in.


First, congratulations! I hear a wee-little Coleman is in the oven.
Second, what you say does make sense. I guess I would respond this way. I would, I think, reject the claim that if x has a right to y, then x must be capable of using force against anyone denying her of y. I don't see why we should accept that. But, again, I agree with your main point that non-human animals are not agents and do not have moral obligations to us or to others. Seems to me that could be true and it also be true that they have rights. Waddaya think?

Juan Maiz said...

Hi Daniel,

I think you're wrong in your discution of animal rights and moral agency. No one argues that non-human animals are moral agents (See Regan's The Case For Animal Rights, or Francione's Introduction To Animal Rights). They're moral patients just like children, fetuses and severely mentally enfeebled humans.

Granting some rights to moral patients does not mean that this person is obligated to act reciprocally with moral agents.

Non-human animals needs basic rights because laws that focus in the treatment factor will always fail to make justice to them since everything we do to them is ok when "necessary". But who judges "necessity"? Our stomachs? If we're willing to use the term necessity in the same sense we would use in the treatment of other human (moral agents or patients) it is obvious that almost all the ways whe use animals - for food, clothes, companionship, entertainment or "science" - are not necessary. Hence animals are our property our interests including the most trivial (like eating ducks, wearing fur, hunting or testing shampoos) ones will always be considered more important than their most important interests (like living and being free). Therefore we need to grant all non-human sentient animals only one right: the right not to be our properties (or to be legally persons).

SFMatheson said...

Kevin: I don't disagree, in principle, with anything you say here, and I strongly agree that we don't have reason to assert that humans are altogether distinct from other animals with respect to most cognitive capacities. Moreover, I agree that even if we were to grant "rights" to some subset of non-human species, it would not follow that we would degrade humans in the process.

But I'm not so clear on how we avoid slippery-slope absurdities (in which, for example, we grant "rights" to mosquitoes) without exhaustive definition of the particular moral status of each of the various stages on the continuum to which you refer. So if we grant a subset of human rights to apes, and call them "ape rights," we'll find ourselves admitting that "ape rights" are equivalent to "dolphin rights" but not, say, to "dog rights." (Which, IMO, would be equivalent to "tapeworm rights," but I digress.) "Dog rights" would differ from "fish rights," perhaps, and yes, we'd eventually get to worms and gnats, and even to single-celled organisms and (why not?) plants.

My point is not to disparage your ideas; in fact, I think you're right that the granting of "rights" to non-humans could be a good thing. My point is that such moves come with some pretty significant expectations -- they require some real work, and there don't seem to be any rules for how to navigate the matrix of "rights" and "cognitive capabilities," never mind our underappreciated ignorance of the nature of both.

In other words, I think the slippery-slope objection is not as vacuous as it might at first appear.

daniel said...


There is, in fact, a child on the way. Terrifying stuff!

I must say that I agree with your rejection of the "must be capable of using force" premise; however, I do not think that I was asserting it. In my view, rights describe the conditions in which one is justified (or one's agent is justified) in using force against aggressors. Moral capacities are the precondition for rights, the ability to enforce them are a different matter.

Since animals cannot be moral agents, insofar as they lack the necessary capacities, I don't see how it's possible that they would have rights. For a human being who lacks the ability—financial, physical, whatever—to enforce her rights, another moral agent can legitimately act on her behalf.

Juan Maiz,

Thanks so much for your response. I'd question your premise that children, fetuses, or mentally enfeebled humans can be deemed equivalent to cows or dogs in terms of moral capacities.

I'm seeing a difference in kind between the human with reduced (or developing) mental capacities and, say, a dog or a goat. There's something wrong, or not-yet-fully-developed, with the human. However, there is nothing wrong with the animal; it's just got nowhere further to go.

Keep in mind that I'm not denying that there are moral obligations that we have towards animals. But I think declaring that they have legal rights clouds the issue (and is, ultimately, conceptually incoherent).

Kevin Corcoran said...


The notion of animal "rights" is only incoherent if we accept the premise that a necessary condition for enjoying them is possessing moral agency. I'm saying, why accept that premises? Would you say a 20 day old human embryo has "rights"?

I'm inclined to agree with you that "rights," are a legal construction. and the relevant categories here are obligations and duties, not rights. But talk of obligation and duties only works within in a shared moral or theological framework. It's the language rights that is required, I think, in a pluralistic, democratic environment.


daniel said...


I actually don't think rights are legal constructions, which may be where we disagree. If we simply assert that rights exist, it probably wouldn't make sense only to give them to human beings. But I don't buy that kind of positivism in legal theory.

Instead, I buy the basic perspective of Aristotelian natural-end ethics, which grounds the concept of rights in the pursuit of eudaimonia. Rights are a recognition of the interpersonal nature nature of flourishing, and in particular the autonomous nature of the flourishing of human persons. So they just can't apply to (other) animals.

If I'm wrong on human nature, then my account for rights will likewise fall apart. But I don't think that I'm starting with an arbitrary concept of "rights" and then figuring out how to let only human beings enjoy them.

Kevin Corcoran said...


If we have obligations to non-human animals, how is that different from saying that those non-human animals have rights? Perhaps you're thinking that we don't have obligations to n-h animals. We have an obligation to God to treat n-h animals a certain way. Something like that?

daniel said...


I guess I still think there's room for saying that we have moral obligations to n-h animals, even though I'm asserting that they have no rights. Even if we phrase it as having a moral obligation to God, neighbor, or ourselves to treat n-h animals a certain way, it's still clear that we're saying so because of the nature of animals.

So, the difference between rights and moral obligations in my view is that rights form the framework of law (i.e., legalized violence), while mere moral obligations do not. (Keeping in mind that all rights also entail moral obligations.)

So what is at stake with the ape in Spain is a question of justified violence, and I don't see warrant for that, given the ape's nature.

Does that make sense? I get the feeling you are at least *suspecting* libertarian smoke and mirrors. :)