Rights

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Just as in my own will-to-live there is a yearning for more life, and for that mysterious exaltation of the will which is called pleasure, and terror in face of annihilation and that injury to the will to live which is called pain; so the same obtains in all the will-to-live around me, equally whether it can express itself to my comprehension or whether it remains unvoiced. Ethics thus consists in this, that I experience the necessity of practising the same reverence for life toward all will-to-live, as toward my own. Therein, I have already the needed fundamental principle of morality. It is good to maintain and cherish life; it is evil to destroy and to check life.

Albert Schweitzer, Civilisation and Ethics

Definitions

Morality: principles relating to right and wrong; ‘the golden rule’ doing as you would be done by

Ethics: behaviour relating to morality.

Sentience: self-awareness of sensations and feelings, without mental perception

Intelligence: to perceive meaning; ability to choose, deduce or discern

The fundamental difference between animals and humans is the cerebral cortex. Our ability to rationalise, intellectualise and abstract make us unique as a species. That is not to say that other animals are unable to do so, but that humans abilities at these skills are far and beyond any other species capabilities. When an animal is suffers abuse at the hands of a human, it feels pain, they respond with anger, fear or depression. Humans on the other hand are able to give this pain meaning through art, music, poetry and story-telling. When animals are confronted with a problem, they have only limited responses available. When humans have a problem, they can modify their environment, invent complex tools and seek novel solutions that are denied most other animals.

When society has a problem with people, they turn to politicians for help. When society has a problem with animals, they turn to veterinarians for advice. We are the custodians of animal’s welfare. We implement society’s laws for the ethical treatment of animals, ensuring they are kept disease-free, housed humanely and, where necessary, killed painlessly. That animals outnumber humans on this planet ten to one does not make it a daunting problem. Since animals cannot vote, form unions, institute sanctions, go on strike or revolt, they cannot question our human assertions of what is right or wrong for them. As we shall see in this chapter, all animals are equal under the law, but as George Orwell once wrote in Animal Farm, some are more equal than others.

If human society was a utopia, oppression of individuals and races, or persecution of religious and minority groups would not occur. Against this backdrop of human disagreements, we cannot expect animal rights to be immune to partiality. Laws alone cannot prevent discrimination or segregation or abuse of humans. All we can do is police those laws, make punitive actions against the transgressors and compensate the victims. Many animal-rights activists argue that in the same vein that Germany repaid the Jews and Allies in war retribution, humans will one day have to compensate all the animals who are presently subjugated, experimented on, enslaved and disenfranchised by us. I hope this day never comes, for it would bankrupt not only our economy but also our most basic Christian tenet that humans are given ‘dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’ World banks would crumble, stock markets would plummet and there’d be a rain of bodies plunging from wall street offices. Somewhere between a utopia of ‘animals roaming free’ and feeding the starving nations of the world, we can find a point of compromise. The word ‘dominion’ was actually a translation of the Hebrew word ‘stewardship’ and I think this may be a word given to more responsibility on animal’s behalf; of minimising harm to them while using them for keeping humans alive and healthy.

The moral imperative

‘If emotion without reason is blind, then reason without emotion is impotent.’ (Peter Singer)

Animals don’t talk much. When they do complain about something it is, in human terms, a fairly limited repertoire. They can growl, bark, hiss, snarl, bite, scratch or kick. In our arrogance, we’d never expect an animal to jump up onto a dinner table unless we were absolutely certain it could hold its own in a conversation. What is clear about animal communication is that we can never understand it by simply waiting for a book on animal grammar to appear. There will never be a universal translator that’s going to appear magically out of nowhere. Only by lowering our eyes and ears to their level can we begin to decipher what animals are trying to communicate. At the ground level, from an animal’s eye-view of the world, their languages have a lexicon that runs to as many pages as any Collins dictionary.

Our observation of animals as objects of study undoubtedly began in prehistoric times. The first recorded attempt involving the use of live animals for research was by Ersistratis in Alexandria in 300BC. Since then, animal experimentation was undertaken ad hoc, unrestricted by legal considerations until the last century[1]. Recent surveys suggest that the majority of the public is willing to accept the use of animals in research if high standards of welfare and effective regulation are in place[2]. The use of animals for research and teaching has now become an issue of great concern in the United States. In contrast to the legislative systems in Britain, Scandinavia and many European countries, American scientists can pursue research projects with relative freedom. Recent activities in the United States may effect this practice and future animal experimentation may be subject to restriction and control by legislation. Events leading to this possibility are similar in many ways to those in 19th century Britain prior to the passage of the Cruelty to Animals Act in 1876 (which licensed scientists, regulated experimentation and carried out inspections). The immediate effect of this act was to decrease the number of scientists who could conduct experiments on live vertebrate animals in Great Britain and hence the number of experiments and animals. Yet, antivivisection activity in Britain did not decrease but continued toward its goal of abolishing all research with animals. By 1882, the medical scientific community established the Association for the Advancement of Medicine by Research, which began to advise the Home Secretary on licensing scientists. Although the first Humane Society was established in 1866 in the United States, it was not until the end of the nineteenth century (when scientific disciplines were necessary for the education of physicians) that protests against the use of animals for experimentation became organised.

Legislation in Britain, Scandinavia and in many European countries appears to be efficient and effective because of the relatively small number of research institutions and scientists in those countries. American scientists are facing three possibilities: mandatory regulation (legislation), self-regulation, or some combination of both. Self-regulation of animal experimentation appears to be the optimal choice. It would reflect the success of animal protection groups in raising the consciousness and concerns of scientists about the humane treatment of experimental animals. It would also reduce the numbers of animals used for experimentation, any unnecessary duplication of experiments, and minimise pain and distress. Although scientists are proceeding toward programs of self-regulation, this scientific approach will not entirely satisfy the animal protection groups. Scientists are concerned with the moral and ethical responsibility for the humane treatment of animals in experimentation, whereas animal protection groups believe that animals have a right to a comfortable life, which does not only mean an absence of pain but also a positive social milieu[3].

When you examine the issue of right to life, it appears self-evident that there is considerable plasticity when it comes to morality between humans and animals. In most countries, it is legal to kill an animal for food, providing the animal is humanely killed. Yet in most western societies, it is illegal to kill a domestic pet for food (such as a cat or dog) as these are afforded a different status to domestic cattle, pigs and sheep which are reared specifically for food production. In Asian traditions however, consuming cats, dogs and other pets is morally satisfactory because of an inherent cultural perspective. What is legal to consume therefore depends on our point of reference culturally or geographically. If we argue that how we treat animals and humans is derived from the value of their lives (which is a function of the quality of their lives, which in turn is a function of the richness of their lives) we would have to therefore argue that humans with a low quality of life should be chosen as experimental subjects over animals with a higher quality of life[4]. Yet it is hard to imagine such moral arguments being exerted. Such morality would be nothing short of immorality.

What is also interesting is that gender appears to affect the moral argument as well. For example, women were more likely than men to support tenets of the animal protection movement[5]. Likewise, women were more likely than men to favour increased restrictions on animal use and are more concerned than men about the suffering of research animals. Women are more likely to make personal sacrifices such as giving up meat and medical benefits in an effort to protect animals and more likely than men to question the use of animals in research on scientific grounds. Men, on the other hand, tended to emphasise the potential benefits arising from the use of animals in research.

An estimated eight billion animals in the United States are born, confined, biologically manipulated, transported and ultimately slaughtered each year so that humans can consume them[6]. To do this, society assumes moral superiority over animals to justify such consumption. Such moral superiority permeates our philosophy, religion, science, and popular culture. We give ourselves as a species special cognitive property such as self-consciousness, which confers our unique moral standing. However, cognitive properties per se do not confer moral standing, and metaphysical personhood is not sufficient for either moral personhood or moral standing.

It is generally assumed that animals lack a relevant form of self-consciousness or its functional equivalent. But, if animals aren’t candidates for moral ‘personhood,’ some humans (such as infants and the intellectually disabled) may also fail to qualify, since they lack one or more of the conditions of moral personhood. Thus, if moral personhood were the sole basis of moral rights, then these humans would lack rights and precisely for the reasons that nonhuman animals would. The application of the ‘golden rule’ (do unto others) seems more applicable than arguing over notions of personhood. For example, Matavira, the founder of Jainism, has summed up a balance between humanism and sentiment for less rational living creatures as: ‘A man should wonder about treating all creatures as he himself would be treated’[7].

One aspect which is offered to substantiate an individual’s moral identity is to question their ability for self-awareness over time. That is, is the entity capable of self-comprehension about what it did yesterday and what it will do tomorrow? Certainly behaviourists will confirm that memory abilities in animals, though varying between species, is considerable. We only have to observe the migrational habits of geese, who cross thousands of kilometres each year to the same nesting grounds to confirm this. Also the migratory habits of seals, penguins, moose, deer, the spawning habits of salmon. The list is seemingly endless. This behaviour not only suggests an instinctual motivation to their migratory behaviour but also implies a profound knowledge of temporal mechanics (space and time); knowing about seasonal fluctuations in rainfall, temperature and pressure gradients, conceptualisation of ‘past, present and future’, and spatial geography. One could say there is an existence to their life over time; of having not only a biological but also a biographical life.

Another aspect of animal rights to consider regards the Aristotlean notion of ‘potential’. If, for an example, an embryo has the potential for human life, it should be respected. Aristotlean potentiality refers not to something (or someone) in the future, but to the inherent structure in the present. For example, the embryo can be viewed as a being already possessing the human nature and actively developing its potential for personhood[8]. Using this logic, we could say that human nature is not static and predetermined, but rather as a principle of ‘becoming.’ However, Aristotlean potential could be manipulated by saying that animals have an evolutionary potential for ‘becoming human.’ Were this true, a direct argument for moral and legal equality of nonhuman animals and humans would be incontrovertible.

Animal cloning is a new line of research that promises enormous clinical benefits to humans. Together with this emerging specialty, specific animal rights have evolved on the subject of cloning. Although novel in concept, ‘the principle of axiological anthropocentrism’ (PAA), do not significantly affect the ethical rights of cloned animals compared to non-cloned animals. They still determine that humans have pre-eminent moral significance. The best-known animal rights views (those of Singer and Regan) are consistent with the PAA, which denies cloned animals any ‘potential’ characteristics having ethical difference to non-cloned animals[9].

References

  1. Kumar V, Singh PN, & Mishra B. (2000). Animal experimentation: a rational approach towards drug development. Indian J Exp Biol 38(6):540-8
  2. Matfield M. (2002). Talk to the people. Trends Neurosci 25(3):166-7
  3. Sechzer JA. (1981). Historical issues concerning animal experimentation in the United States. Soc Sci Med 15F:13-7
  4. Frey RG. (1997). Moral community and animal research in medicine. Ethics Behav 7(2):123-36
  5. Eldridge JJ, & Gluck JP. (1996). Gender differences in attitudes toward animal research. Ethics Behav 6(3):239-56
  6. Mason, J., & Singer, P., (1990) Animal Factories. New York: Harmony Books
  7. Pralong, S. (1999) Minima Moralia: Is there an Ethics of the Open Society? In: Jarvie, I. and Pralong, S. (1999) Popper's Open Society After 50 years. Routledge, London
  8. Reichlin M. (1997) The argument from potential: a reappraisal. Bioethics 11(1):1-23
  9. Varner G. (1999) 'Should you clone your dog? An animal rights perspective on somacloning.' Animal Welfare 8(4):407-20