More on “Are Animals People”?

My column on Seed this week has attracted some attention across the web. The most interesting comment may have come from DrugMonkey, who simply linked to his 2008 post critical of the idea that animals can have “insight.”

Now, in my column, I’m not actually asking whether animals have “insight” — I’m asking whether they should be treated as “persons.” Arguably, there’s a difference. Does being a person require insight?

I’m not sure I want to get into the semantics of all this, but I did offer this response to the DrugMonkey post:

Good post. I tend to fall on your side of this argument. I still think there’s an issue there in terms of how “human-ly”/”humanely” we treat animals. But I agree that there’s a pretty big gap between human and animal “insight.”

To which DrugMonkey replied:

Dave, what “issue”? And what principles and or facts (or I should say “facts”) do we use to inform our answers to such issues? What abuses of scientific knowledge do we put up with, or commit, to provide seemingly objective cover for our subjective beliefs?

The issue as I was trying to put it in my brief comment is the question when we cross the line between merely treating animals humanely and offering them all the same rights we offer humans. In my book, that comes down to the motivations we have for offering rights to anyone.

Even DrugMonkey would agree that a newborn infant has less “insight” than an adult chimp. Why does the child have rights the chimp doesn’t have? At first glance, it’s either because of the potential of becoming a fully functional adult or the property rights of the parent. Arguably it’s not the latter because even parents don’t have the right to abuse their children. Even with parental consent, you couldn’t subject a baby to the treatments we routinely administer to lab animals.

But it’s not the former, either. Even humans with lower IQs than chimps have rights the chimps don’t have.

Apparently just possessing human DNA qualifies you for “human rights.” But not all of them. Minors don’t have voting rights or property rights. Mentally impaired adults can’t drive, or in some cases, even leave their detention facilities treatment centers. Even so, we don’t force mentally impaired people into potentially deadly experiments against their will.

A friend of mine who’s active in the fight against animal rights extremists has argued that if we didn’t have animals to experiment on, in certain cases it would be justified to use mentally impaired humans. It’s distasteful, but from a philosophical perspective, it’s hard to argue with.

The question then becomes: At what point in terms of mental ability does it make sense to treat an animal like a person? Have any animals crossed that line? DrugMonkey argues that since no animals have ever shown true human insight, there is no such case.

To me, the problem is a little more complicated. The general consensus in America seems to be that some animals, which have more advanced cognitive abilities, do deserve some of the privileges we give humans. We don’t euthanize chimps when they’re too old for the circus or scientific study: we put them in retirement homes. SeaWorld decided not to euthanize Tilikum, but a lion that attacked its trainer would probably have been put to death.

I’m not saying these decisions are correct–what I’m saying is that it’s difficult to determine exactly where to draw the line. Maybe chimp retirement homes are a pointless indulgence. Maybe it’s wrong to keep any chimps or cetaceans in captivity except where they could be used for research that saves human lives.

To answer DrugMonkey’s question, I don’t believe we should put up with any distortions of science in support of these arguments. But even if everyone agrees on the science, I’d argue that where to draw the line on the ethical treatment of animals is still not easy.

If you asked me my opinion, I’d have to say the chimp retirement homes are indeed a pointless indulgence. Some of these chimps are treated better than humans in many parts of the world—I’d say our dollars would be better spent helping people, not chimps. But that’s just my opinion. It doesn’t mean it’s not a debatable question.

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7 Responses to More on “Are Animals People”?

  1. DrugMonkey says:

    At what point in terms of mental ability does it make sense to treat an animal like a person? DrugMonkey argues that since no animals have ever shown true human insight, there is no such case.

    This is an unfortunate characterization of my position. I have not in fact offered much of an answer to this question and I doubt very much that my definition would rest on a single trait (unless perhaps it were the scifi third-party-awareness version of sentience). I focus on the character of the behavioral evidence that is brought to bear on the inferences about *cognitive constructs* such as “insight”.

    But even if everyone agrees on the science, I’d argue that where to draw the line on the ethical treatment of animals is still not easy.

    I agree with you. Which is why it is so much better to at least get the distractions (distortions of the evidence) out of the way. So that we can focus on the real issues.

    I’d have to say the chimp retirement homes are indeed a pointless indulgence.

    Not necessarily pointless. You touch here, almost, on the key. Which is that we act humanely for *ourselves*. These hand wringing considerations are a human trait- amplified to cartoonish excess like many of our brain-associated traits. Yet another area in which we share common roots with other animals…and yet we’ve taken it to such extremes that it leaves us in a rather unique position relative to all other animals.

  2. DrugMonkey says:

    We don’t euthanize chimps when they’re too old for the circus or scientific study: we put them in retirement homes. SeaWorld decided not to euthanize Tilikum, but a lion that attacked its trainer would probably have been put to death.

    See what you did there?

    (hint: Chimps that attacked and severely mutilated St. James Davis and Charla Nash, respectively, were indeed put to death)

  3. Like anything in science (except for dead and not dead; pregnant and not pregnant), I don’t think that there truly exist categories that can separate different groups of animals, at least when it comes to cognition.

    I think we draw arbitrary lines to accord with our own human sense of morality or justice. We readily cut the antennas off of ants, and amputate them below the knees to see how they navigate about the world. These ants spontaneously do trigonometry in 3D space, a feat which most humans can’t figure out until high school math class. Why is this okay, but keeping monkeys or dolphins in captivity not okay? Maybe its simply because ants don’t have faces. Maybe its because dolphins always appear to be smiling. In any case, I think there’s much less of human morality at stake in ant limb amputation. But I think its an arbitrary distinction.

    I think the main problem is with applying our own moral conventions onto other species. Like Carl Zimmer taught us, duck vaginas evolved the way they are because most incidences of duck intercourse are forced – enough that it exerted enough evolutionary pressure to cause morphological changes in the organization of the female reproductive system. Groups of 2-3 male dolphins will often keep a female effectively hostage for days at a time in order to rape her. As I’ve mentioned in my dolphin piece, some species of dolphin routinely kill the infants of other dolphin species. If dolphins are given the legal protection of “personhood”, does that mean they should be subject to the same laws prohibiting rape and murder? Of course not. It wouldn’t make sense to apply our moral conventions to them.

    Flip the issue on its head: I don’t think we build homes for aging chimpanzees because it is best for THEM, I think we do it because it addresses issues surrounding our own guilt when it comes to parading animals around circus tents. I think it makes us feel more morally justified.

    So, why should human-like insight be the metric we use to decide which non-human animals get protected by law? Why not rhesus monkey-like insight? Or zebrafish-like insight? Or human-like theory of mind? And what of the great variation in insight within the human population itself? Which human should define the prototypical instance of human-like insight?

    I think some distinctions need to be made – I just think we need to realize that those distinctions are somewhat arbitrary.

  4. dave says:

    DrugMonkey: I agree, “argues” was an unfortunate word choice — sorry about that.

    Good point about the chimps that were put to death after attacking humans. I think that relates to our irrationality about capital punishment. Wealthy people who murder as “crimes of passion” are rarely put to death. But “no good” gang-bangers (who often are people of color) who kill “respectable citizens” are. Similarly we execute the “bad” chimps and put the “good” ones (who probably behave less like real chimps in the wild) in fancy retirement homes.

    Jason: Agreed. These distinctions are in many ways arbitrary — it seems like it’s okay to amputate ant legs but not chimp legs (or even dog legs) in the name of “science.” But there’s no real rationality to our thoughts about this. What about frogs or mice?

  5. I think it comes down to the role which any given animal plays in culture. Which, of course, makes it very culture-specific.

    I would guess that in America, very few would have big problems with using cows for science since we eat them; in India, it would be sacreligious. In the West, we shudder at the thought of using dogs for experimentation because we invite them into our homes to live with us as part of the family; in South Korea, where they are part of the diet, I think it wouldn’t be problematic.

    Hmm. I think now you’ve inspired me to write my own blog post about this. Coming soon!

  6. DrugMonkey says:

    it seems like it’s okay to amputate ant legs but not chimp legs

    Exactly. We are in the realm of what feels, arbitrarily and subjectively, like the right thing to do to us as individuals. At best, we have a sort of majority rule establishing public policy. And as for many issues, freakishly extreme views on the very fringes of the distribution rarely rule the day.

    These chimp attack cases are really quite good ethical case studies. In each case, some limited number of individuals on the scene of the attack had firearms and therefore the capability of intervening with little threat to self. Just like the sort of boy and puppy in the flood example raised by the animal rights philosopher at Janet’s AiE&S blog. The AR equivalency doctrine probably calls for those actors to let the rare, imprisoned, species-endangered chimps engaging in circumstantially understandable species-typical behavior to kill the common, unendangered, semi-involved party human. Yet those actors chose to shoot the chimps so as to have a chance of saving those severely-injured humans’ lives.

  7. Amy Animal says:

    I wonder how much of this debate is truly based on ethics/reasoning and how much has to do with our own biological imperatives.

    Our natural tendency to wish to ensure the survival of our genes means that we are more likely to want to protect the lives of those creatures that are most like us or remind us of ourselves.

    So we are more concerned about the well-being of monkeys and cetaceans because they either remind us of ourselves in appearance or behavior.

    We justify this by saying that there is an ethical reason for our decison.

    We say that animals that have human-like qualities of cognition, self-awareness, “insight”, etc. are the animals that should have rights.

    But there is no explanation for why having these qualities should give an animal rights, other than that all humans have rights and those qualities make them something like humans.

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