Do animals have the same rights as humans? This is the basic questions facing a U.S. appeals court in New York.
In case you have not been following this amazing story, The Conversation has a good summary.
A US appeals court is currently hearing the case of a chimpanzee named Tommy and is to decide if he has the right to bodily integrity and liberty, just like a person. The case, brought by the Nonhuman Rights Project, which is concerned about Tommy’s living conditions, is hugely significant.
The questions debated in this New York court have implications beyond the question of whether former circus animal Tommy should be moved from the shed in which he is held captive to a chimp sanctuary with conditions more conducive to his well-being. What is really being considered is whether human rights can transcend the species divide.
At first, this question might seem extremely odd. After all, isn’t the very point of human rights that they belong only to humans? Surely the clue is in the name. But names can limit our moral imaginations, often with terrible results. Before the idea of human rights was established in the aftermath of the horrors of World War II, there was the older idea of the rights of man. When it was argued that these rights excluded half the human population, defenders of the status quo pointed out that the clue was in the name.
In the same way, the question of whether human rights can transcend the species divide is simply a way of asking who we include when we talk about basic rights. Nobody now regards the old limits of sex, race, nationality, religion and property ownership as justifiable reasons for excluding others from basic rights. But is species?
Tom Regan made a case for animals rights in his 1989 book, The Case for Animal Rights, in which his basic idea is that anything that “is the subject of a life” has certain specific rights, regardless of the quality of that life:
Inherent value, then, belongs equally to those who are the experiencing subjects of a life. Whether it belongs to others — to rocks and rivers, trees and glaciers, for example — we do not know and may never know. But neither do we need to know, if we are to make the case for animal rights. We do not need to know, for example, how many people are eligible to vote in the next presidential election before we can know whether I am. Similarly, we do not need to know how many individuals have inherent value before we can know that some do. When it comes to the case for animal rights, then, what we need to know is whether the animals that, in our culture, are routinely eaten, hunted, and used in our laboratories, for example, are like us in being subjects of a life. And we do know this. We do know that many — literally, billions and billions — of these animals are the go subjects of a life in the sense explained and so have inherent value if we do. And since, in order to arrive at the best theory of our duties to one another, we must recognize our equal inherent value as individuals, reason — not sentiment, not emotion — reason compels us to recognize the equal inherent value of these animals and, with this, their equal right to be treated with respect.
To anyone who thinks this is a silly argument, Regan and others would say that there was a time when women, blacks and the mentally ill were believed to have less rights than a healthy human white male. Society changed that view over time. Are we now at the start of another point in ethical evolution where we extend basic rights to non-human species? We have already done so in laws against animal cruelty, but the current activists want to go much farther, granting not just “defensive” rights (i.e., the right not to be abused) but also broader claims to identity before a court and in society as a whole. I have to admit I seldom thought about this issue until this case, and now I think it’s a fascinating question.