Jul 152002

There have been a couple interesting comments on animal rights, so I wanted to move them up and devote another post to it. Susanna Cornett writes:

Your argument doesn’t really advance anything. Some of the arguments in favor of Singer (see Jason Rylander’s, linked on my page) point out specifically that some animals appear to make moral choices — i.e. choices based on what’s “right” vs what’s “expedient” or safest for them. Often it’s associated with protecting someone/thing they have a connection to, which arguably could be instinct, but then you’d face the argument that perhaps the same behaviors are instinct on the human level too.

You skid perilously close to Singer on your discussion of humans with less sentience (the young and mentally disabled) by basically saying they do have fewer rights. Well, yes and no. They have narrow ranges of “permission” to do things in our society, but no less rights in the basic shelter-food-protection triad. Less sentient humans can’t be used for experimentation, for example, while animals can.

Jason Rylander does indeed assert (casually, and without evidence) that some animals are moral agents. However, this takes him off of Singer’s turf and on to mine. Singer draws the line at sentience because if he gets into an argument over whether animals are moral agents he’s going to lose. Stephen Wise, PETA’s latest pinup boy, whom Rylander cites favorably, is no more reasonable than Singer, only more slippery. He won’t say exactly what’s required for rights, so he talks around the point about shared DNA and “sense of self” and “cognition” and “deception” and many other characteristics that were once supposed, somewhere, by someone, to distinguish humans from animals. Many red herrings don’t add up to an argument.

A few hundred years ago everyone thought animals were moral agents, which is why dogs were hanged for killing cattle, and then no one did, and now some of us do again. But if we confine ourselves to the evidence we find that it’s pretty sketchy. The WaPo story on Wise that Rylander cites recycles this chestnut about Koko the signing gorilla. It is the only piece of evidence in the story that animals can distinguish right from wrong, and it deserves to be quoted in full:

Wise reports this conversation from the day after Koko bit a caretaker, and her trainer asked what she had done.

“Wrong wrong,” Koko signed with her large dark fingers.

“What wrong?” her trainer signed back.

“Bite,” signed Koko. “Sorry bite scratch.”

“Why bite?”

“Because mad,” signed Koko.

“Why mad?”

Koko signed, “Don’t know.”

Before I give the great apes their Emancipation Proclamation I’m going to need a little more than this.

And I may “skid perilously close to Singer” by maintaining what is obvious, that children and mental defectives have fewer rights than normal adults, but hey, it’s a controlled skid. My disagreement with Susanna stems from a different understanding of what rights are. Her reference to the “shelter-food-protection triad” pinpoints the difficulty. These are goods, acquired by labor, not rights. A right is a sphere of action within which the reasoning individual is permitted to act unmolested. The Declaration of Independence guarantees the right to pursue happiness, not to acquire it. It seems apparent that the sphere of action is smaller, and thus the rights fewer, in the special cases of minors and morons.

Susanna does not object to my argument against animal cruelty laws (although she has defended them), but Norman Kabir does:

In the same argument you state that we are entitled to “rights” (very vague statement that you implicitly substitute with “law”) due to our moral agency. That moral agency separates us from other living things. And in turn gives us the right to torture or destroy them for any reasons we deem fit.

You don’t find it ironic that you use “moral agency” as a tool to sanction the infliction of pain and death on other lifeforms?

Oh right, property rights. I paid someone for it. That makes it ok. Who even needs moral agency when one can furnish a receipt?

Very principled indeed.

I trust I’ve cleared up some of my alleged vagueness about rights. But I deny that humans have “the right to torture or destroy [animals] for any reasons we deem fit.” I deplore pointless animal torture, who doesn’t? But it doesn’t matter to the animal whether it’s tortured in some vital experiment or because some sadistic creep likes to watch innocent creatures suffer. And it is very difficult to write a law against animal cruelty that will permit the former and forbid the latter. Such laws will inevitably used to harass medical researchers; indeed, they already are. If Norman, who supports medical research on animals, can figure a way out of this dilemma, I’ll be happy to hear it.

  4 Responses to “Talk to the Animals”

  1. "If Norman, who supports medical research on animals, can figure a way out of this dilemma, I’ll be happy to hear it."

    Sure. It’s called peer-review. Why is it difficult to write a law that proscribes unecessary animal torture and death? We already have such laws that address clinical testing of drugs on humans.

    Scientific peers are far more qualified to gauge the proposed benefits and costs of live animal experiments. It would be very easy to establish guidelines and procedures that ensure pain and suffering are kept to a minimum.

    We had such internally imposed guidelines when I was involved with artificial organ development. And contrary to the incessant whining by industry, these guidelines did not hinder science.

    There will be times when experiments on chimpanzees may be necessary. But one should first establish the need before indulging expediency.

  2. I sense some confusion here between being a moral agent and having rights. Moral agents are held accountable for acts they should have known are morally wrong. Only humans are moral agents, and we exclude infants, the mentally defective and the insane. Humans are moral agents because we humans say so, not because we have any special set of qualities. When the intelligent aliens land we will have to decide whether they are moral agents, but so far we reserve this status to ourselves.

    Rights are another matter. We may choose to extend rights (again we make our own rules) to other than moral agents, or to withhold them from moral agents, as we deem fit. (And no, Aaron, rights are not just freedom of action in some sphere, e.g., the right to a Miranda warning.) If Singer and others can convince the rest of us that animals have a right not to be eaten, then the animals will have that right. They ask what characteristics earn a creature rights, e.g., does it feel pain, and this is a good tactic, but in the end we humans construct morality, including rights, we do not discover some pre-existing set of moral rules.

  3. Norman: Oh great. A committee — appointed by whom? empowered to do what? — that’s going to decide, in advance, on the potential value of some animal experiment. This’ll do wonders for free inquiry. I don’t quite understand the nature of the “internally imposed guidelines” under which you worked when you did medical research, but what you’re proposing here doesn’t sound too internal to me.

    Dad: if humans are moral agents not because they are choosing, reasoning beings, but because “we say so,” on what basis, exactly, do you propose to decide whether to grant rights to your hypothetical intelligent aliens? Doesn’t the very fact that you propose them as “intelligent” smoke you out as not quite the thoroughgoing moral subjectivist you fancy yourself to be?

    If you want to say that rights are not freedom of action in some sphere then Miranda is a poor example. Miranda is a restriction on the monopoly of force; it is part of a whole series of such restrictions, beginning with habeas corpus, that instruct the government that it can’t restrain its citizens arbitrarily. All such restrictions on the force monopoly are essentially enlargements of the free sphere of action.

    The “right” to counsel would have been a better illustration for your purposes. I don’t believe there is any such a thing, however, because that implies a claim on someone else’s services and thus is not universalizable.

  4. […] Animal rights. I got in a lather here and here about how moral agency distinguishes humans, who have rights, from animals, who don’t. I must have understood “moral agency” then; I don’t now. Agency and rights, I am sure, are constructs. They come in handy, to be sure. We need good alpha approximations to adjudicate claims that would otherwise get too messy. I’m still all for rights, but I won’t get all ontological about them the way I once did. […]

 Leave a Reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>