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
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.