Tuesday, 15 July 2008

SubHuman Rights and the Judgement of History

From the New York Times :
If you caught your son burning ants with a magnifying glass, would it bother you less than if you found him torturing a mouse with a soldering iron? How about a snake? How about his sister?
Such apparently unrelated questions arise in the aftermath of the vote of the environment committee of the Spanish Parliament last month to grant limited rights to our closest biological relatives, the great apes — chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans.

The committee would bind Spain to the principles of the Great Ape Project, which points to apes’ human qualities, including the ability to feel fear and happiness, create tools, use languages, remember the past and plan the future. The project’s directors, Peter Singer, the Princeton ethicist, and Paola Cavalieri, an Italian philosopher, regard apes as part of a “community of equals” with humans.

If the bill passes — the news agency Reuters predicts it will — it would become illegal in Spain to kill apes except in self-defense. Torture, including in medical experiments, and arbitrary imprisonment, including for circuses or films, would be forbidden.

The 300 apes in Spanish zoos would not be freed, but better conditions would be mandated.

What’s intriguing about the committee’s action is that it juxtaposes two sliding scales that are normally not allowed to slide against each other: how much kinship humans feel for which animals, and just which “human rights” each human deserves.

We like to think of these as absolutes: that there are distinct lines between humans and animals, and that certain “human” rights are unalienable. But we’re kidding ourselves.

In an interview, Mr. Singer described just such calculations behind the Great Ape Project: he left out lesser apes like gibbons because scientific evidence of human qualities is weaker, and he demanded only rights that he felt all humans were usually offered, such as freedom from torture — rather than, say, rights to education or medical care.
I've blogged about this before, at Kissin' Cousins and SubHuman Rights, and The Ethical Treatment of Animals.

Since I wrote the post on Ethical Treatment of Animals, quoting extensively from my Master's thesis on Ethics and Computing, my thoughts on the subject have, if anything, become more concrete. I stand by what I said then, and do so with even more conviction now.

It's not so much that the Great Apes are our kin. I would feel the same way for any entity which invented and used tools, formed their own schools to teach their children, kept pets, performed religious ceremonies, and created new words in a complex language to deal with new concepts. All of which various Great Apes have done, some demonstrably in the wild with no human intervention.

Because they are our close kin, it is easier to make a case for basic SubHuman rights for the Great Apes. Starting with the right not to be casually murdered. But the case is no easier than the case for Abolition of slavery round the turn of the 18th century, when natural philosophers disagreed on the extent to which Africans should be considered human - the equal of "people" anyway, meaning white Europeans. It wasn't just the difference in appearance, it was the difference in behaviour. Things we now know are the product of environment rather than inherent characteristics, but they didn't know that then.

SubHumans are by no means our equals in most respects. But they are in some important ones. From the viewpoint of intellect and emotional sentience, they are even more human than many damaged humans, the kind of entity any one of us could end up being as the result of illness, accident, or stroke. Rather than regurgitate all I said in the previous posts though, I'd ask you to just read them.

I admit that the sudden loss of many of my own human rights in various parts of the world in 2005 has hardened my attitude a bit, but only a bit.

With the archiving of this blog under the Australian National Library's PANDORA system, the odds have greatly increased that some future data archaeologist will one day have a look at these words of mine. They may not, of course, for the growth of information in the coming centuries will exceed my limited imagination. The only thing going for me is that I'm a relatively early, primitive, and therefore rare source compared to even the late 21st century explosion of information, let alone the supernova of the 22nd.

I wonder how they'll see me? I read some of the Ancient Greek philosophers of over 2000 years ago, at least in translation, and although there are certain jarring differences regarding Gods, Olympus etc, I can get inside their heads and identify with them. The same goes for writers of later times, from the 6th century to the 16th, and beyond. Some of their conjectures about the future seem enormously perceptive; others seem quaint. And some seem both, like the illustration on the right. Mr. A. Merger Hogg is taking a few days' much-needed rest at his country home dated 1903. Anyone who's taken a laptop and mobile phone on vacation with them can identify with it. It's from Paleo-Future by the way, a blog about predictions from the past.

I'm 50 years old, which may not seem like much, but in my day an age, few live to 100. People die, genuinely, no resuscitation possible, from the most trivial of causes, such as heart attack, bacterial infection, or cancer. It's as different a world from that of just a century or two hence as the 1300s are from here, where infant mortality greatly exceeded 50%, and people were old at 30.

I console myself with the fact that the hypothetical future reader (Hi, Future Reader!!) will no doubt seem as backwards and technologically primitive to someone a hundred years up the timeline as I am to them. Hi to both of you, anyway, I might even be a distant ancestor. Whether I am or not, we are all part of the human, and sometimes, subhuman family.

What I fear is that history will judge me harshly. For I don't have the excuse that I can't see that subhumans shouldn't be accorded basic rights. Yet I do nothing of any consequence to ameliorate the situation, merely write about it. I'm like those from the 18th century who I judge harshly, those whose intellect and conscience told them that slavery was wrong, yet didn't speak up loudly enough to have it abolished.

None of us get a User Manual on life. And to my judges, I plead guilty, and throw myself on the mercy of the court. With one observation - that in centuries to come, some of their moral views will be seen as equally flawed. Meanwhile, in my own niche in spacetime, I'll renew my efforts to see the Great Ape Declaration adopted. No matter where in time or space, we do what we can.

Even if my words get consigned to History's grand bit-bucket, lost in the mists of time, unread, I'll do this. Not so others will have a good opinion of me, but because I want to have a good opinion of myself. Sometimes conscience doesn't make cowards of us all, but if not heroines, at least people who get off their duffs and do something.


Battybattybats said...

I don't agree with Singer on a number of issues, utilitarianism in general has a heap of things I disagree with.

However none of that has anything to do with this.

It's a matter of simple reason. We either abandon the notion of rights altogether or we must extend some of them to the great apes, just like we do for young children and those who are brain damaged.

Lucrece said...

I don't follow. How are cancer, bacterial infections, and heart attack trivial causes of death?

Zoe Brain said...

Lucrece - because in a few hundred years time, they will be like dropsy, rabies, the pox and the Black Death - things that used to slay millions, but now are rare or treatable.

Nica said...

And what if you got your hands on a Tardis once again, Zoe? Would that change things?

Penny for your thoughts.


Lloyd Flack said...

But the question that has not been posed is "Are rights the best way of framing the moral principles involved in our dealings with non-human animals?".

With most animals I would suggest that it is best to frame the principles involved as the obligation to avoid unnecessary cruelty.

Rights are ways of describing the moral boundaries of some social actions and possibly inactions. The question that needs to be asked is are they applicable to beings that will never be part of our societies. This not saying that you can do whatever you want with them, just that rights may be a poor framework for the moral principles involved. I'm not certain that rights is even a good framework for describing moral obligations towards infants and toddlers. Children, yes, a subset of an adults rights is involved. Describing a principle in terms of another's rights can end up with avoiding our obligations.

There is a good case for treating great apes as the moral equivalents of toddlers but there is an important difference, they won't advance beyond that stage.

Lucrece said...

Thanks for the clarification, Zoe.