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…)
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 with 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.
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.