Randy McDonald (rfmcdpei) wrote,
Randy McDonald

[BLOG-LIKE POSTING] Are animal and human rights the same thing?

Partly inspired by my recent encounter with Temple Grandin (1, 2, 3), I've begun to wonder about the relationship of animal rights to human rights. To me, it comes down to empathy: When we discover that cuttlefish communicate abstract concepts using their chromatophores, that African grey parrots can spell and carry on a conversation, that killer whales are capable of gratuitous coordinated cruelty, and that elephants can paint very well indeed, it becomes difficult to justify their gratuitous exclusion from the community of sentient animals. If these bright animals can think about themselves and their environment in ways comparable with those of humans,

In November, I made the conventional enough argument that, in the modern world, people see other people who deliberately lack empathy as evil because this lack is willed, that it is a conscious denial of the self-evident truth that other people are as complex as oneself. If only out of self-interest, it's a good idea to engage in the Golden Rule. Because non-humans obviously don't share the same characteristics of body or mind as most human beings, the Golden Rule doesn't immediately seem relevant. This is where in-depth and creative researches of the sort described by Grandin come in, demonstrating either the similarity of certain sorts of minds to humans' own or the rationality of animals' actions in their own mental contexts. This isn't quite the same thing as the human tendency to recognize pandas as cute, for instance, and to devote resources and importance to ensuring the survival of the panda that are out of all proportion to the actual ecological importance of the panda, although it does have to be said that pandas' triggering of so many positive feelings in human beings is another sort of resonance: Their morphology might not be human, but it is cute and something we'd like to keep around.

I wonder if it could be said that, in the countries of the First World, the concept of animal rights is granted greater validity than that of human rights. Many of the same people who would support the passage of laws against the mistreatment of pets are the same people who wouldn't have a problem with mistreating human beings belonging to outgroups. Hitler did love his dog Blondie, after all. That said, there does seem to be a growing recognition that respect for other individuals, human or non-, is of a piece. After all, serial killers are known for their frequent cruelty to animals. Is it possible to be truly committed to the basic precepts of human rights and to neglect animals, at least animals of comparable mind? The reverse question can also be posed. I suspect that the answer to both is "no," that empathy is at the root of both concepts of rights such that they are inseparable. It may be as impossible to use self-consistent reasoning in supporting the one and opposing the other, at least as impossible as reconciling Alain Finkielkraut's belief in 2000 that empathy is necessary in the 21st century and his statements in 2005 that unhappy people of immigrant stock in France should go back to their ancestors' homelands on the grounds of a common logic. In certain critical respects, the cuttlefish is indeed us.
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