Culture War Correspondence: Are Animals People Too?

GORDON: Ladies, gentlemen, and yes, even dolphins and certain species of ape- we’re considering bestowing upon you honorary personhood, despite the poo flinging.

The topic of the day is animal rights- how far is not enough?

EVAN: This topic was brought up by reader/friend Stew, presumably due to recent happenings regarding legal action taken to protect the rights of animals with higher-order cognitive abilities [great apes, certain cetaceans, elephants, African grey parrots].

Not animal rights, though. Actual human rights.

GORDON: Exactly how that’d work with free speech is kinda lost on me, though we’d be able to apply bear arms in a new sense.

And before everyone jumps on me for using that pun, hear me out-

We’re happy to bestow these rights on animals with high reasoning abilities- but would they do the same for us? I don’t want to play devil’s advocate right out of the gate, but there seems to be a fundamental difference in human understanding of rights and the views of dolphins and monkeys, both of whom not only kill without much thought or grief, but have been recorded performing sexual attacks (ok, not dolphins, it turns out) and flippin’ genocide on members of their own species.

Yep, genocide.

EVAN: Ah, I really like the direction you’re taking here. Basically these animals don’t have the fundamental morality structures that we do. If we treat them like human beings should we then be expecting them to conform to the same standards people are?

I’m going to assume that your answer to that is a resounding “No” given your references to rape and violence in these higher-order cognitive abilitied animals.

GORDON: Don’t get me wrong- I think there should definitely be a standard at which we treat all living things, and I don’t believe society very frequently is held to that standard, but human rights? That seems to cheapen the freedoms and obligations we as humans are tied to and creates a false context for these higher-functioning species. While we’re on that, where exactly IS the line for higher functionality anyways?

EVAN: Eh, I’m no biologist but I’m going to assume the ability to use advanced logic and reasoning coupled with, as the article I linked far above says, the ability to “have a concept of their personal past and future.”

GORDON: I don’t think that’s quite as straightforward as it sounds. I mean, let’s talk about dogs for a second here. They might suck at comprehending time, but dogs do have a basic knowledge of their past and would appear to have at least some comprehension of their own demise as it nears. But dogs are definitely lower on the list than primates, dolphins, octopi, or even certain kinds of birds. Do we include ’em or do they not make the cut? Or if we do include ’em, do we go by species, with poodles and collies at the top and dalmatians at the bottom? What if I’m the owner of a particularly stupid canine?


Even if we accept the whole “human rights for non-humans” bit, I think the actual application makes it a nightmare.

EVAN: I think for the sake of this discussion we should take it at face value and assume that the animals I listed all make the cut.

That being said, Stew asked the great question “What are the ramifications?” If we grant these animals [and these animals alone] “human” rights, how does that change everything?

I think one huge issue that it creates is whether or not we can keep African grey parrots as pets. I mean, isn’t that more or less tantamount to slavery?

I’m not sure how to classify this…

GORDON: Not to beat a dead horse (which I don’t believe is socially acceptable now, even without animal-human-rights) but we’re not the only species to have instituted the practice of slavery. Ants enslave other ants and herd aphids like cattle. I want to answer that question you asked, but it’s hard not to return to this point.

But yeah, the argument could be made that domestication is a form of Stockholm syndrome- though at this point, I can’t imagine that releasing cattle into the wild would do wonders for ’em. We should also consider these sin-against-nature species we’ve invented who simply cannot exist without us- what are we to do with them?

EVAN: Well, keep in mind that we’re still solely talking about the species I listed. Among which pretty much all have been kept as pets or for entertainment, whether in zoos or reservations.

GORDON: Well, that’s also tricky because these things are debatable in and of themselves. As far as pets go, we seem to gravitate towards the lower-functioning animals: dogs, cats, and birds. I’d argue that these animals demonstrate affection for humans which, while never especially complex or deep, does seem to stand against the whole idea of “captivity”.

Other species, like octopi, demonstrate intelligence but not a whole lot of emotion. Now that could be our lack of research, but regardless, we don’t seem to keep many high-intelligence animals as pets. In fact, the only places where we do practice this are zoos and places like SeaWorld, which I’d argue are morally reprehensible, even without animal rights.

EVAN: I guess what I’m getting at is this: if we begin to more or less treat these animals like humans, can we do anything to them? I’m not talking just putting them in cages, I’m talking steps taken to ensure their survival as a species, etc.

“It’s for their own good” is an argument I know has been repeated throughout history regarding indigenous people groups.

GORDON: Again, a tricky question- we could argue the efficacy and morality of intervening to “save” endangered species in general.

It always strikes me as ironic how the arguments made by the self-proclaimed defenders of animal rights often come off as being rooted in a deeply anthropocentric (human centered) philosophy. We, as a species, are meant to grant rights to animals that animals would not (or cannot) grant to each other. I’m not sure how we could hold the idea of “human-rights-for-animals” and not be damned either way. Leave the animals alone, and they’ll keep on slaughtering each other- possibly with greater ferocity than before. Step in, and we’re forced to micromanage entire species- deciding from on-high who gets to eat what and when. There’s just no winning here.

EVAN: I do want to point out that it’s often not other animals that we’re protecting species from, but from our having intervened in the first place, whether by shrinking their habitats or overhunting or polluting, etc.

You have a point in saying that we’re taking charge, but for the most part it’s mostly us making up for our own mistakes.

But here, you know vastly more about human rights than me, so let’s consider what expectations we would have of a “human” African grey parrot. Not just how we’re expected to treat it, but what we in turn hold it responsible for.

GORDON: If we’re really and truly serious about this, then I’d say we’d have to look at the average intelligence of the species and find an equivalency level among humans to establish our expectations. A poodle, for example, is said to have cognitive and reasoning abilities on par with a toddler. I’m no expert on the development of the prefrontal cortex of African grey parrots, but I’m guessing they’re at least twice as smart as a poodle, so we’ll call it 6 years old. I have all the social and moral expectations of a parrot that I do of a six-year-old human.

EVAN: So we’re treating them as humans, just as juvenile ones?

GORDON: I don’t know that I’ve ever seen any species function on a level higher than that. Just as we don’t hold kids responsible for the junk they do, I don’t imagine we could hold a parrot responsible for biting someone or a gorilla responsible for ripping the arms off of another gorilla.

EVAN: I don’t think . . . that’s how gorillas work. As far as treating them like children, though, I think that’s a good place to be. Keeping in line with most governments this would prevent them from being able to vote or being tried in a court of law, which is perfectly reasonable, I think.

GORDON: We don’t typically put down toddlers who kill, hurt, or maim other toddlers though. I’m not so sure I’d be okay with a homicidal baboon wandering free…

EVAN: I mean, we wouldn’t do that to toddlers who did those things to anyone, which I think is the real factor here. If these animals want to hurt each other than by all means, I think we should allow them to govern themselves. It’s when they attack us that we face a serious problem.

We can’t try them in a court of law, going by your ruling them as children, so what do we do? Just imprison them?

GORDON: I don’t think we should do anything with ’em (except shoot ’em, if we’re facing immediate danger). We’ve spent a lot of time touching on intelligence in this post, but we seem to forget instinct as well. The dolphin is hardwired to guzzle down fish when it can. The ape is hardwired to behave exactly as an ape does. Perhaps evolution will change this, but until that time, I just don’t believe the comparison can be drawn at all. I cannot give human rights to something that isn’t human. Respect, yes. A degree of decency, yes. Equality? No.

EVAN: And I think you pretty much speak for both of us on the matter. At this point in time animals just aren’t on our level, and applying human rights to them just creates a myriad of complications.

Let’s respect and try to, at a bare minimum, avoid driving them to extinction. Any more than that and we’re soon discussing whether or not they should have the right to vote, and that feels like a waste of time.

GORDON: And so, to all our readers, I bid you a goodnight. And in case evolution does make an unexpected leap, I’d like to say that (1) the scientific community owes Dr. Stephen Jay Gould an apology and that (2) I for one welcome our insect overlords.

I hope to be spared a life of toil in their underground sugar-caves.

EVAN: Ants outweigh the planet, so I’m giving them the advantage as well. Thanks for reading, everyone, and tune back in next month for more Culture War Correspondence [more on that in a blog news post come Friday]!

2 responses to “Culture War Correspondence: Are Animals People Too?

  1. Great discussion, but one point seems to have been a bit confused (probably because it is, itself, rather confusing): The main debate going on right now isn’t so much about granting “human” rights to higher functioning animals. It’s about legal recognition of “personhood.” Distinguishing the two is pretty difficult, but my understanding of it is that personhood is “lesser” than humanity, in as much as it doesn’t come with an obligation to include all persons in our society on an equal level (thank goodness). The advocates I’m familiar with simply want us to legally recognize the self-interest of some of these species. This doesn’t make the implications that much easier to tease out, but I think it’s a little bit… safer?

  2. Would recognizing personhood put these creatures on the same level as corporations, legally speaking?

    In this case, does this mean potential future elections could wind up being funded by dolphins?

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