Consciousness and Conscience
January 27, 2018 8:11 PM   Subscribe

But even as Switzerland provides animals with increasing legal protections, some animal advocates say the rights currently afforded to animals don’t go far enough. […] Lauren Choplin of the non-profit Nonhuman Rights Project, which litigates for animals’ fundamental rights, told Quartz on Jan. 17, “in our view, the law hasn’t caught up to what we know about animal cognition, and it needs to.” Indeed, our evolving understanding of animal consciousness suggests that we have some uncomfortable philosophical and legal work ahead.

Richard Ryder: All beings that feel pain deserve human rights
The word speciesism came to me while I was lying in a bath in Oxford some 35 years ago. It was like racism or sexism - a prejudice based upon morally irrelevant physical differences. Since Darwin we have known we are human animals related to all the other animals through evolution; how, then, can we justify our almost total oppression of all the other species? All animal species can suffer pain and distress. Animals scream and writhe like us; their nervous systems are similar and contain the same biochemicals that we know are associated with the experience of pain in ourselves.
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Animal Cognition
The philosophical issues that relate to research on animal cognition can be categorized into three groups: foundational issues about whether non-human animals are the proper subject of psychological investigation; methodological issues about how to study animal minds; and more specific issues that arise from within the specific research programs.

While the study of animal cognition is largely an empirical endeavor, the practice of science in this area relies on theoretical arguments and assumptions — for example, on the nature of mind, communication, and rationality. If nonhuman animals don’t have beliefs, and if all cognitive systems have beliefs, then animals wouldn’t be the proper subjects of cognitive studies. If animals aren’t agents because their behavior isn’t caused by propositional attitudes, and if all cognitive systems are agents, we get the same conclusion. While there are arguments against animal minds, the cognitive scientists studying animals largely accept that animals are minded, cognitive systems. As demonstrated by the 2012 Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, many scientists also accept animal consciousness.
posted by Johnny Wallflower (17 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
It was once thought that babies can't feel pain, but I surprised after googling to find that "once thought" meant 2015.
posted by lagomorphius at 9:08 PM on January 27, 2018 [3 favorites]

All beings that feel pain deserve human rights

Human rights are about so much more than feeling pain.

Rights are a social construction, something we create as humans, and built on the basis of the needs and responsibilities we all have as humans, and on the basis of the relationships we share with one another. Tying human rights to the concept of "capacity for pain" diminishes their scope and weakens their efficacy.

The case for animal rights is usually advanced on a consequentialist basis (as it seems to be here), but the very concept of "rights" is already on shaky footing in that framework. If you are a pure utilitarian, what is the added value of talking about "rights" when you already have the concept of pain minimization, or pleasure maximization? For a consequentialist, rights only serve a heuristic function, being a basis for making moral judgments that tend to lead to good outcomes. But if this is the case, then "animal rights" must be constructed quite independently of human rights, as animals have very different needs than humans do.

The study of animal cognition reveals that yes, animals have certain complex cognitive abilities that resemble our own, but also that animal cognition is quite unlike human cognition in many ways. The experience of the world of an animal is shaped by its species' unique evolutionary history, ecological demands, and sensory apparatus, just as the human experience of the world is shaped by these. "Animal rights" as a set of heuristics for maximizing animal pleasure and minimizing animal pain is then very problematic, as we will need a different set of "animal rights" for every species, and will need to discover them through careful study of each species. And if this is what's necessary to have a concept of "animal rights", why bother, when we can instead simply focus on the question of animal welfare, which addresses the consequentialist's concerns directly?

The notion of human rights is more naturally considered within a deontic moral framework, and within this framework it's not so clear to me that animal rights follow from a recognition of animal consciousness and capacity for pain. After all, we don't consider humans who lack consciousness, for example due to being in a terminal vegetative state, to lack their human rights. Though we do recognize them as being in a distinct moral category, and we debate whether it is more ethical preserve their life with indefinitely extended medical care, or more ethical to preserve their dignity by allowing them to die. The difficulty of this moral debate is precisely because we recognize that these humans, who lack consciousness, still have certain rights, and it is not universally agreed how to respond to the ethical condition of vegetative humans which places certain of these rights in tension with each other. If human rights are fundamental rules about moral behavior, and these rights are not diminished by a lack of consciousness, then what is the argument for extending human rights to nonhuman animals on the basis of a recognition of their non-human consciousness?

I believe animal rights is a red herring. As someone who works with animals, and who loves my pets, and who is fascinated by the behavior of wild animals, I am extremely concerned with the question of animal welfare. And I believe that on the basis of our growing understanding of the nature animal cognition, we should be more aggressive in our assumptions about the requirements of animal welfare on the basis of what we know about human welfare. But human welfare and human rights are different ethical concerns, and I don't see the case for animal rights, as extended from human rights, on the basis of what we know about animal cognition and behavior.
posted by biogeo at 9:58 PM on January 27, 2018 [45 favorites]

I agree that protection for animal welfare is a better framework than animal rights.

Where people cannot exercise their rights through lack of mental capacity (children, the comatose or mentally ill), their rights are exercised by someone on their behalf - a parent, spouse, etc. With animals I think it is likely rights would in practice be asserted by animal welfare organisations, taking cases to court on behalf of animals who had no conception of what was happening.

What I fear is that this extension of the idea of rights being exercised on someone’s behalf would erode the important point that rights put me in charge. I might find that well-meaning people were becoming legally able to assert my rights for me in ways I would not necessarily have chosen. That would be a profoundly corrosive political development.
posted by Segundus at 10:16 PM on January 27, 2018 [5 favorites]

Biogeo, you are exactly correct that Kantian conceptions of rights and utilitarian notions are squarely at odds. In fact, John Stuart Mill said of natural rights that they are, “simple nonsense: natural and imprescriptible rights, rhetorical nonsense, — nonsense upon stilts”. Similarly, the argument seems to waver back and forth between non-human animals' cognition and their sentience, which are also two different things. Put simply, we can easily argue that other animals shouldn't be killed or otherwise exploited because they have interests rather than rights (tho they may have rights as well). I really can't understand how someone can prioritize his pure pleasure over the suffering of an animal but in a proper utilitarian moral calculus, all you have to do is derive sufficient pleasure to justify that suffering. The implications of this are pretty obvious and radical as it applies to non-human animals or slaves or the unborn or war or economic injustice.

But rights are also not pure fantasy or agreed-upon fictions as well: if that were true that would mean that (e.g.) a Chinese person literally has less rights than an American, which is patently absurd. Human rights are universal and inalienable—they are derived from our very nature as persons and endowed by God. Any relativistic view of rights means that they actually vanish if a majority refuse to acknowledge them, which is clearly not true.

We would all do well to recognize the continuity that humans have with other animals rather than contrast ourselves against them and additionally to use more humanizing language to keep from harming victims.
posted by koavf at 12:50 AM on January 28, 2018 [5 favorites]

In fact, John Stuart Mill said of natural rights that they are, “simple nonsense: natural and imprescriptible rights, rhetorical nonsense, — nonsense upon stilts”

That was Bentham’s quip, not Mill’s.
posted by Barack Spinoza at 2:06 AM on January 28, 2018 [3 favorites]

koav, where was the humazing language link supposed to go to? I’m interested!
posted by iamkimiam at 2:14 AM on January 28, 2018

Barack: Thanks! Of course, that was a stupid error of mine.

Kimian: It's an ISBN search for the second edition of Dehumanizing the Vulnerable. I didn't even realize the book was updated until I was writing that past comment. The first edition is excellent and challenges us to value all human life, including refugees, the unborn, criminals, women, the ill, and all other populations who have been dehumanized by language.
posted by koavf at 2:29 AM on January 28, 2018

koavf, I think you have to distinguish between (at least) two kinds of rights. There is the written, legal, contractual, constitutional sort, that can be conferred more or less arbitrarily. It’s perfectly sensible to say some people have less of those than other people.

Then there is the moral, universal, inalienable kind. Frankly, I believe those are just a grandiloquent and confusing way of talking about what’s right and what’s wrong, but they are at least different. If you want to say animals have these, I won’t really argue with your basic point. But the Nonhuman Rights Project is going to court to assert the rights of elephants, and that kind of legal right seems to me clearly the first kind, a kind animals can’t have.

If I can put one more point; you hope using human language for animals will improve our treatment of them. My reading of human nature suggests it will encourage us to treat people like beasts.
posted by Segundus at 6:05 AM on January 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

Thanks, koavf! Here's a link to Dehumanizing the Vulnerable page on Goodreads for anyone else who is interested too.
posted by iamkimiam at 9:51 AM on January 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

I've always wondered if the title of "Born Free" was a reference, sly or not, tying the story to Rousseau ("Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains.") Or maybe that's in the movie and I've forgotten.
posted by lagomorphius at 10:04 AM on January 28, 2018

We are measured in greatness not by how we treat those we think of as our equals or superiors but the more vulnerable.
posted by xarnop at 1:42 PM on January 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

To be sure, we can think of rights as legal fictions such as very fine and obscure patents which provide legal rights to sell products to a corporation or somesuch or the "right of way" when driving—these are obviously totally arbitrary and should meet some expedient need (we can't all drive on whichever side of the road we feel like and at any time without causing a lot of problems). But First Amendment-style rights—speech, press, assembly, religion, petition of government—are exactly the sort of universal and inalienable rights that animal rights advocates are appealing to, albeit in a philosophically-muddled and nonsensical fashion. Either way, the fact remains that there is no justification for how we treat non-human animals and eating them or wearing them for clothing outside of being stranded on a desert island or stumbling across a dead one and making use of it before the vultures do is wrong.
posted by koavf at 2:38 PM on January 28, 2018

But First Amendment-style rights—speech, press, assembly, religion, petition of government—are exactly the sort of universal and inalienable rights

Which kind of free speech is a universal right, German style free speech, or American style free speech? If Google purges my website from search results for some petty reason, are my natural rights being violated, or do rights only apply against entities that we have decided to call 'governments'?
posted by Pyry at 3:17 PM on January 28, 2018 [2 favorites]

Anyone who has power—sometimes that is governments and sometimes that is corporations and sometimes that is individuals.
posted by koavf at 11:16 PM on January 28, 2018

Many many smart sounding words can be used to attempt to justify cruelty. Of course we can find survival reasons to eat meat, however trying to use that to justify the level of abuse done against life on earth by human beings is not something anyone can argue. Or they can try, but think, when you reach through your mind to find whatever clever intelligent words to prove it's ok to harm above and way beyond what is needed your fellow beings on this earth, what are you using your intelligence to serve? May we use our intelligence to find new ways to ever bud in compassion for all life and learn new ways to have health and to flourish while treating our fellow beings better and better. May that be where our brilliance is put.
posted by xarnop at 5:32 AM on January 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

May we use our intelligence to find new ways to ever bud in compassion for all life and learn new ways to have health and to flourish while treating our fellow beings better and better.

Sounds like a good mantra for the pursuit of animal welfare to me.
posted by biogeo at 8:40 AM on February 3, 2018 [1 favorite]

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