Am I my brother’s zookeeper or just a drinking buddy?

I want to tie together two seemingly disparate stories in this post, so I hope you will bear with me.

The first story concerns a recent conversation I had with friends.

I am currently on a writing retreat in California, enjoying a respite from Toronto winter weather while I get back to working on a memoir about my journey from fundamentalist Baptist minister to atheist/naturalist.

On Sunday night, four of my friends/colleagues got together for dinner at a stylish bar called Yard House (which claims to have the world’s largest selection of draft beer – I’d love to know how you would go about proving that. And I think our Toronto establishment, The Bier Market, could give them a good run for their money. But, I digress…)

Yardhouse at Irvine Spectrum

Yardhouse at Irvine Spectrum

As we were deciding what to order, I, the sole vegan in the group, was asked the usual question, “Is there anything here that you can eat?” On this occasion, this caring question somehow kicked off a discussion about animal rights. I really don’t remember exactly how we got into it…

At one point in our “discussion” (if my friends are reading, they will be smiling with how I just dignified the description of our conversation!) I was trying to get them to articulate the basis on which they believe all humans should be granted rights. The question I asked – which I repeated several times, each time with more volume, intensity, and frustration! – was this, “What is the basis on which we grant rights to humans that would include all members of our species — babies, the severely mentally challenged, those suffering from Alzheimer’s, blacks, whites, Asians, the rich, the poor?”

My frustration came out of my perception that for some reason, my friends kept wanting to answer the question, “Why do humans have rights and not other animals?” Each time they would give me an answer (which always boiled down to “Because we’re human and they’re not”) I would respond, “That’s not what I’m asking!!!”

I’m not sure why there was this disconnect. (Part of me wants to believe that it’s because they knew where this was heading and didn’t want to have to deal with the implications of the answer – but that’s a very convenient interpretation for me!) I guess I wasn’t asking the question clearly. Eventually, we moved on to less contentious conversation.

What I was trying to get at in asking my question in the manner I did was this: it seems to me, the only real criterion sufficient to grant all humans rights – apart from the religious dogma that all humans are made in God’s image, whatever that means –  is that we are sentient beings (sentience is simply the ability to feel things). Attempts to link human rights to cognitive capacity of some kind ultimately fail to protect everyone.

For example, if we try to argue that rights are related to the cognitive capacity of self-consciousness that allows one to be aware of one’s circumstances and have a stake in them, then infants, the severely mentally challenged and Alzheimer’s patients would not qualify. In a somewhat related vein, the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights gives as its basis for declaring the rights of all humans the idea that , “All human beings are…  endowed universal-declaration-of-human-rightswith reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” But clearly, as indicated above, not all humans are endowed with reason. And some humans seem to genuinely lack a conscience (we call them sociopaths).

So, if cognitive capacities fail to include everyone, what other criterion exists that would suggest that all humans worthy of the basic rights of life and liberty?

I believe that the only logical, defensible criterion is that of sentience.

All humans have the capacity to sense pain and pleasure. And it is that capacity that gives them a moral right to life and liberty. Apart from the empirically unprovable metaphysical statement that humans possess some divinely granted “spiritual” status, the only criterion that I can think of that can cover ALL humans and that is logically and psychologically defensible is sentience.

Now, if this is granted as a sufficient and necessary criterion for human rights, we are then forced to ask, “Are humans the only animals that are sentient?” And the answer to that is clearly, “No.”

And that brings up the question of the logical disparity between saying that humans deserve rights but other animals do not (to claim that humans deserve rights simply because we are human is the same as saying that whites deserve rights that blacks do not simply because they are white. The logic is the same).

So, that’s my first story.

The second story I want to discuss is one that I read about today on a couple of different online newspaper sites. It concerns a chimpanzee named Santino at a zoo in Furuvik, Sweden.

Why is Santino special? According to The Guardian,

Santino, a 31-year-old male… may be the first animal to exhibit an unambiguous ability to plan for the future, a behaviour many scientists argue is unique to humans. Forward planning takes considerable cognitive skills, because it requires an animal to envisage future events it will have to deal with.

What exactly was Santino doing to merit such a claim?

When visitors would arrive to view him, Santino would throw stones at them trying to get them to go away.

Santino the chimp with a stone in his hand

Santino the chimp with a stone in his hand

The “planning for the future” piece was demonstrated by the fact that in the early mornings, when the zoo was still closed, Santino would go out to the protective moat surrounding his island, looking for more stones  which he would then groups into piles, thus resupplying his ammunition. He also was observed thumping concrete walls in order to shake off small clumps that he would then break into smaller disks, creating even more ammo. Even more telling, Santino’s piles were only located on the quarter of the island’s shore that faced the spectators.

The zoo responded by warning visitors when Santino was becoming agitated and by erecting a protective wall to try to keep his missiles from hitting anyone.

Cognitive scientist Mathias Osvath, led the study of Santino’s behaviour. Ovath believes that Santino’s behaviour reveals complex forward planning aimed at trying to get onlookers to move along.

“Forward planning like this is supposed to be uniquely human; it implies a consciousness that is very special, that you can close your eyes you can see this inner world,” he said. “Many apes throw objects, but the novelty with Santino is that he makes caches of these missiles while he is fully calm and only throws them much later on. “We are not alone in the world within. There are other creatures who have this special consciousness that is said to be uniquely human.”

So, here’s my point. For those who do try to posit the uniqueness of human cognition and consciousness as the grounds for human rights, the fact is that there are many animals who seem to demonstrate a significant degree of intelligence (consider, as another example, the remarkable story of Alex the Parrot) and even self-awareness – often more than some members of the human community.

Evolution gives us the fact of common descent, the evidence is in both the fossil record and our own DNA. Evolution teaches us that the line between species is fuzzy at best. As Darwin said 150 years ago, our differences from other animals are those of degree, not kind. The more we learn about the inner life of animals the more we are realizing that the degree of difference is far less than we once imagined. It is for this reason that Spain has passed legislation granting rights to other primates.

So, while I believe that sentience is the only solid ground for human rights, even if we posit certain cognitive abilities as the ground for those rights, we are still drawn by logic to the conclusion that other animals also deserve the right to life and liberty.

So, I should not be my brother’s zookeeper, but I am happy to be his drinking buddy. My two stories coalesce.



Filed under animal rights, Athesim, humanism, politics, religion, science, skepticism, social commentary, veganism

5 responses to “Am I my brother’s zookeeper or just a drinking buddy?

  1. Well My vegan phreak of a phriend. You have got my entire family thinking of animals differently, well not only differently but consciously. I raise a glass to you. Although the glass will not be filled with Guinness, as it is not vegan. Apparently it contains fish cells that they add during the final fermentation process. Go here for more appropriate beers:

    Scott you continue to rock my world and impact me in ways that you may never know (unless I tell you) ….rock on!

  2. Jim

    Scott, we will need another round of beers to discuss this one. I have a different view.

    I see sentience as an “okay” method of differentiating who gets “human” rights and who doesn’t. A far better, and less ambiguous method, of defining this is by looking for creatures with human DNA. Human DNA = Human rights. There is no “moral” reason for this outside of our own biological imperative of self-interest.

    I see our biological imperative as granting us priorities over who has “rights” and who doesn’t. These rights emanate outward from the individual human. I see them as concentric circles, with ourselves in the center.

    As an individual, we have the goal of surviving and finding a mate. Next, our goal is to create and protect our offspring. Next, our family, then friends, because they will help our offspring find a mate, etc. Next, our society as a whole, because they help us survive and thrive in our environment. Next, other species, because they help our society thrive in its environment.

    In order to save our society, we would destroy another species (or another society). In order to save our family, we would reject, or even destroy, our society. In order to save family, we would reject or destroy our friends. Our sense of individuality might even lead us to destroy our family to protect ourselves, but that would differ from person to person.

  3. theformerfundie

    Hi Jim. Another round of beers is always welcome, even with no issue to discuss!

    I have a few responses to your perspective on human rights.

    First, I think we have to be careful of confusing “is” with “ought” when discussing ethical issues. I think a biological imperative is often an insufficient, and frequently dangerous, grounds for ethical decision making.

    For example, a good case can be made for the fact that many males have a testosterone-enhanced biological drive towards fighting when wronged (just watch a hockey game for evidence of that). But, the vast majority of us would agree today that fighting is generally an inappropriate response to dispute resolution in our society.


    Because our moral conscience (informed by both empathy and rationality) has determined that this “biological imperative” is one that we should sublimate for the sake of societal well being and protection of its individual members. The same could be said of many other “innate” human drives and tendencies (particularly the many manifestations of “might makes right.”)

    We have evolved culturally over the centuries and have decided that in many cases, a “biological imperative” is an insufficient basis for moral guidance. So if biology is not morality, then on what basis do we determine the issue of rights? I would still argue that, ultimately, what has guided our decision making on this topic is a recognition that all humans are sentient–even when this basis has not been made explicit in people’s thinking. And once sentience is acknowledged as its basis, the arbitrariness of restricting rights to humans becomes apparent.

    Second, and somewhat similarly to my first point, selecting human DNA as the criteria for deciding who gets right seems quite arbitrary to me. Using such “DNA logic” alone, you could argue that the white version of human DNA (the mutation that creates white skin involves a change of just one letter of DNA code out of the 3.1 billion letters in the human genome) should be where we cut off the granting of rights as this will help white society prosper.

    DNA is not static so why should we use a particular version of DNA as the basis for rights. If we continue to develop and mutations in our DNA evolves us into two distinct species, would one have rights and not the other? On what basis would we say yes? On what basis would we say no?

    Can we really ignore the fact that we share more than 98% of our DNA with bonobos and chimpanzees (in 2003, researchers at Wayne State University in Detroit found that 99.4% of the most critical DNA sites are identical in human and chimp genes, prompting the lead researcher, Morris Goodman, to declare that chimps and humans should be brought together under the same umbrella genus, Homo).

    Now that the Neanderthal genome is being unraveled, we will soon now exactly how much we share in common with this now extinct cousin. At what point would we say, had they survived, they too deserve rights.

    Where is the cut off point for which genome deserves rights?

    I don’t see how using DNA provides a sufficient criteria for determining an ethical issue such as rights.

    Third, the delineation of classes and species is often an arbitrary activity. This is why there are so many arguments between taxonomists. Taxonomical classifications are often as much a political issue as a scientific one.

    Furthermore, who says that rights should be granted at the level of species anyways? Why not at the level of Genus? Or Order? Or Family? Or Class? Or Phylum?

    If we are looking for a logical, rational criteria to determine around whom we draw the circle of rights, I still think that sentience is the criteria that makes the most sense.

    Fourth, as you indicated, no species evolves in isolation. As the environmental crisis creeps into more public awareness, people are starting to realize that the well being of an entire ecosystem is necessary for the continuity of particular sub-components of that system. Humans don’t exist in a vacuum and it is perhaps not only a moral issue, but one of “enlightened self interest” to consider that other species deserve the right to live their lives naturally.

  4. Pingback: Monkey Revolt - Part Deux « The Former Fundie’s Blog

  5. Jim

    Scott, good stuff! My position is tempered by two things. 1) I just had a debate with a Christian on a very similar topic (on my blog). He was a very sharp guy, and challenged me to find a basis for human rights that does not require some leap into abstract values that would equate my argument with his religious one. For that reason, I used the biological imperative. That being said, I think you are over-simplifying how I intended this term to be used.

    Yes you are right, that looking *purely* at our most base behavior, you would find violence and avarice–qualities we do not want as a society. However, the justice, kindness, temperance (hell, all of the fruits of the spirit) are ALSO part of our DNA! These traits exist in the human personality because nature favors those behaviors.

    Your argument about the volatility of DNA is a good one, so let’s simplify it to terms we are more likely to agree on.

    Regardless of the actual DNA code, I think we can both agree that DNA indicates to a species what is in its self-interest. Even if that species evolves, its DNA will STILL indicate what its self-interest is on the basis of its current environment. So maybe I shouldn’t base my argument on DNA per se, but on “Self-Interest.” As Eric Maisel states in his new book “The Atheist’s Way” (which I recommend, by the way), “… our best chance of survival is for members of our species to grow into a mature view of self-interest.” And later he defines self-interest as “that which favors society.” So rights should be conferred consciously on the basis of what favors our society. If we do it intelligently, rights won’t be conferred to only white people, or any sub-group. We all sink or swim together. After THAT is done, we might mature to the point where we confer rights on other species. But first things first.

    My argument is also tempered by another factor: “Will the argument succeed in today’s marketplace of ideas?” I think you formed your argument with the intent of expanding rights to mammals and other critters. I’m not opposed to this, but it requires a definition which may run into trouble if you were to try and enact it into law–partly for the reasons you’ve attacked my definition: it’s arbitrary! We touched on this briefly on Tuesday night, but now do you define sentience? If it is based on some specific adaptation in the nervous system, a Christian might ask “Why does this particular adaptation magically mean that a creature has rights?” So a shrew has rights, but a lizard doesn’t? Or does a lizard have sentience? Does a fish? If a fish does, does a jellyfish? If that doesn’t, then what is so special about an eel over a man-of-war? At some point you end up with a very scientifically specific but morally arbitrary dividing line. Congress won’t buy it, so even if you are right, it won’t become real. Also, religious people will reject it–saying that if your argument is morally arbitrary so why can’t we use THEIR morally arbitrary argument?


    You said, “chimps and humans should be brought together under the same umbrella genus, Homo. ”

    Hey, quit calling me a Homo!

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