The Rights of Animals

This essay has a total of 1796 words and 7 pages.

The Rights of Animals


Sam Vaknin's Psychology, Philosophy, Economics and Foreign Affairs Web Sites

Animal rights is a catchphrase akin to human rights. It involves, however, a few pitfalls.
First, animals exist only as a concept. Otherwise, they are cuddly cats, curly dogs, cute
monkeys. A rat and a puppy are both animals but our emotional reaction to them is so
different that we cannot really lump them together. Moreover: what rights are we talking
about? The right to life? The right to be free of pain? The right to food? Except the
right to free speech – all the other rights could be relevant to animals.


But when we say animals, what we really mean is non-human organism. This is such a wide
definition that it easily pertains to potential aliens. Will we witness an Alien Rights
movement soon? so, we are forced to narrow our field to non-human organisms which remind
us of humans and, thus, provoke empathy in us. Yet, this is a dangerous and not very
practical test: too many people love snakes, for instance and deeply empathize with them.
Will we agree to the assertion (which will, probably, be avidly supported by these people)
that snakes have rights – or should we confine our grace to organisms with nervous systems
(=which, presumably, can feel pain). Even better is the criterion : whatever we cannot
communicate with and is alive is a rights-holder.


Historically, philosophers like Kant (and Descartes, and Malebranche and even Aquinas) did
not favour the idea of animal rights. They said that animals are the organic equivalents
of machines, moved by coarse instincts, unable to experience pain (though their behaviour
sometimes might deceive us into erroneously believing that they do). Thus, any moral
obligation that we have towards animals is a derivative of a primary obligation towards
our fellow humans (the morally significant ones and only ones). These are the indirect
moral obligations theories. For instance: it is wrong to torture animals because it
desensitizes us to human suffering and makes us more prone to using violence towards
humans. Malebranche augmented this rational line of thinking by proving that animals
cannot suffer pain because they do not descend from Adam and all the pain and suffering in
the world are the result of his sins.


But how can we say whether another Being is suffering pain or not? The answer is based on
empathy. If the other Being is like us – than surely he has the same experiences and,
therefore, deserves our pity. The Jewish Talmud says: “Do not do unto thy friend that
which is hated by you”. An analysis of this sentence renders it less altruistic than it
first sounds. The reader is encouraged to refrain from doing only things that he himself
finds hateful (SS men, for instance, did not find killing Jews hateful). In this sense, it
is morally relativistic. The individual is the source of moral authority and is allowed to
spin his own moral system, independent of others. The emphasis is on action: not to DO.
Refraining from doing, inaction, is not censored or advocated against. Finally, the
sentence establishes an exclusive moral club (very similar to later day social
contractarianism) of the reader and his friend(s). It is to his friends that the reader is
encouraged not to do evil. He is exempt from applying the same standard, however lax, to
others. Even a broader interpretation of the word “friend” would read: “someone like you”
and will substantially exclude strangers.


Empathy as a differentiating principle is wrong because it is structural: if X looks like
me, resembles me, behaves like me – than he must be like me in other, more profound and
deep set ways. But this is a faulty method used to prove identity. Any novice in
mathematics knows that similarity is never identity. Structurally and behaviourally
monkeys, dogs and dolphins are very much like us. It is a question of quantity, not
quality, that is used to determine the answers to the questions: is this animal worthy of
holding rights, is it a morally significant Being. A human resembles us more than a monkey
does, and, therefore, passed the critical phase and deserves to live and to do so
pain-free and happy. The quantitative test is coupled with an examination of the ability
to communicate (manipulate vocal-verbal-written symbols within structured symbol systems).
But that we use the same symbols – does not guarantee that we attach to them the same
cognitive interpretation and the same emotional baggage. The symbols could be identical –
the meanings disparate. This century witnessed an in-depth exposition of the frailty of
our assumptions regarding the monovalence of symbol systems and of our ability to exactly
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