Animal rights is a catchphrase akin to human rights. It involves, however, a few pitfalls. First, animals exist only as a concept. Otherwise, they are cuddly cats, curly dogs, cute monkeys. A rat and a puppy are both animals but our emotional reaction to them is so different that we cannot really lump them together. Moreover: what rights are we talking about? The right to life? The right to be free of pain? The right to food? Except the right to free speech – all the other rights could be relevant to animals. But when we say animals, what we really mean is non-human organism.
This is such a wide definition that it easily pertains to potential aliens. Will we witness an Alien Rights movement soon? so, we are forced to narrow our field to non-human organisms which remind us of humans and, thus, provoke empathy in us. Yet, this is a dangerous and not very practical test: too many people love snakes, for instance and deeply empathize with them. Will we agree to the assertion (which will, probably, be avidly supported by these people) that snakes have rights – or should we confine our grace to organisms with nervous systems (=which, presumably, can feel pain).
Even better is the criterion : whatever we cannot communicate with and is alive is a rights-holder. Historically, philosophers like Kant (and Descartes, and Malebranche and even Aquinas) did not favour the idea of animal rights. They said that animals are the organic equivalents of machines, moved by coarse instincts, unable to experience pain (though their behaviour sometimes might deceive us into erroneously believing that they do). Thus, any moral obligation that we have towards animals is a derivative of a primary obligation towards our fellow humans (the morally significant ones and only ones).
These are the indirect moral obligations theories. For instance: it is wrong to torture animals because it desensitizes us to human suffering and makes us more prone to using violence towards humans. Malebranche augmented this rational line of thinking by proving that animals cannot suffer pain because they do not descend from Adam and all the pain and suffering in the world are the result of his sins. But how can we say whether another Being is suffering pain or not? The answer is based on empathy. If the other Being is like us – than surely he has the same experiences and, therefore, deserves our pity.
The Jewish Talmud says: “Do not do unto thy friend that which is hated by you”. An analysis of this sentence renders it less altruistic than it first sounds. The reader is encouraged to refrain from doing only things that he himself finds hateful (SS men, for instance, did not find killing Jews hateful). In this sense, it is morally relativistic. The individual is the source of moral authority and is allowed to spin his own moral system, independent of others. The emphasis is on action: not to DO. Refraining from doing, inaction, is not censored or advocated against.
Finally, the sentence establishes an exclusive moral club (very similar to later day social contractarianism) of the reader and his friend(s). It is to his friends that the reader is encouraged not to do evil. He is exempt from applying the same standard, however lax, to others. Even a broader interpretation of the word “friend” would read: “someone like you” and will substantially exclude strangers. Empathy as a differentiating principle is wrong because it is structural: if X looks like me, resembles me, behaves like me – than he must be like me in other, more profound and deep set ways.
But this is a faulty method used to prove identity. Any novice in mathematics knows that similarity is never identity. Structurally and behaviourally monkeys, dogs and dolphins are very much like us. It is a question of quantity, not quality, that is used to determine the answers to the questions: is this animal worthy of holding rights, is it a morally significant Being. A human resembles us more than a monkey does, and, therefore, passed the critical phase and deserves to live and to do so pain-free and happy.
The quantitative test is coupled with an examination of the ability to communicate (manipulate vocal-verbal-written symbols within structured symbol systems). But that we use the same symbols – does not guarantee that we attach to them the same cognitive interpretation and the same emotional baggage. The symbols could be identical – the meanings disparate. This century witnessed an in-depth exposition of the frailty of our assumptions regarding the monovalence of symbol systems and of our ability to exactly map meanings.
This is so much dependent upon historical, cultural, personal contexts – that there is no saying that two people mean the same when they say a simple word like “red” (not to mention more complex ones like “love” or “I”). In other words : that another organism looks like us, behaves like us and talks like us is no guarantee that he is like us. This is the subject of the famous Turing-Church Test (see one of my next articles for a deeper analysis): there is no effective way to distinguish a machine from a human being because we have to absolutely rely on structural and symbolic clues.
To say that something does not experience pain cannot be rigorously defended. Pain is a subjective experience. There is no way to prove or to disprove that someone is or is not in pain. Here, we can rely only on the subject’s reports. Moreover, even if we had an analgometer (pain gauge), there would have been no way to show that the phenomenon that activates the meter is one and the same SUBJECTIVELY (=that it is experienced in the same way by all the subjects examined.
Even more down to earth questions regarding pain are impossible to answer: what is the connection between the piercing needle and the pain REPORTED (no way to prove or know that it is really felt) by the pierced subject and between these two and the electrochemical patterns of activity in the brain? a correlation between them can be established – but is correlation an identity or even indicative of the existence of a causative process? Put differently: can we prove that the brain waves experiences by the subject when he reports pain – ARE that pain?
Or that they CAUSED the pain (or that the pain caused them – but then what caused the pain)? If we neutralize the pain (by administering a non-harmful medication) is it moral to stick needles into someone just for the fun of it? Is the very act of sticking needles into someone immoral – or is it immoral because of the pain associated with it (statistically)? Are all the three components (needle sticking, a sensation of pain, brain activity) morally equivalent? If so, is it as immoral to generate the brain activity (without inducing any sensation of pain)? If they are not morally equivalent – why not?
They are, after all, different facets of pain – shouldn’t we condemn all pain? Or should one aspect of pain (the report of the subject attributing to himself pain) be accorded a privileged treatment and position? We have to admit that the subject’s report is the weakest link in the chain. It is not scientifically verifiable. And if we cling to this descriptive-behavioural-phenomenological definition of pain than animals qualify as much as humans do. They also exhibit all the behaviours normally attributable in humans to pain and they also report it (though they do tend to use a more limited vocabulary).
Pain is a value judgement and the reaction to it is culturally dependent. In some cases, it can be perceived as positive, be sought after. How would we judge animal rights in such historical and cultural contexts? Are there any “universal” values or does it really all depend on interpretation? If we, humans, cannot agree and separate the objective from the subjective, the rational from the cultural – what gives us the right to decide for other organisms (without getting their approval)? We have no way of knowing: maybe pigs prefer to get slaughtered.
In the Aztec cultures, being chosen as a sacrifice to the Gods was a high honour and to be chosen was a burning desire. We cannot decide right and wrong, good and evil for those with whom communication is barred. We can direct our questions only at ourselves. Is it UNIVERSALLY and ABSOLUTELY moral to kill, to torture, to pain? The answer seems obvious and it automatically applies to animals. Is it absolutely and universally moral to destroy? No and this answer applies to buildings and to natural treasures.
We should clearly define the exceptions: it is permissible to kill and to inflict pain in order to prevent a (quantitatively or qualitatively) greater evil, to protect life, to enhance them and when no reasonable and feasible alternative is available. The chain of food in nature is morally neutral and so are death and disease. Any act which is intended to sustain life of a higher order (and a higher order in life) – is morally positive or, at least neutral. Nature decreed so. Animals do it animals – but they optimize their consumption and avoid waste and unnecessary pains.
Waste and pain are morally wrong. This is not a question of hierarchy of more or less important Beings (this is the fallacy of anthropomorphesizing Nature). It is just like this. The distinction between what is (essentially) US – and what just looks and behaves like us (but is NOT us) is false, superfluous and superficial. Sociobiology is blurring the lines and Quantum Mechanics (and its main interpretations) has taught us that we have to stick to appearances. We can say nothing about what the world really IS. If things look the same and behave the same, we better assume that they are the same.
The attempt to say that moral responsibility is reserved to the human species is self defeating: if so, definitely we have a moral obligation towards the weaker and meeker – if not so, what right do we have to decide who shall live and who shall die (in pain)? The “fact” that species do not interbreed (which in itself is not true – viruses infiltrate our genetic material constantly and we all saw mules) – “proves” that species are different, say some. This is a false premise mixed with curious blindness: true, interbreeding is rare but who can deny that most of the genetic material is common to us and to mites?