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Whale Rights

Posted by tinako on March 16, 2012

A recent article in The Economist, “Whales are people, too,”  explores a proposal discussed at the AAAS that whales (which includes dolphins) should have rights.  There’s a lot here to celebrate for anyone in favor of animal rights, but a closer look suggests a point is being missed:

The proposition that whales have rights is founded on the idea that they have a high degree of intelligence, and also have self-awareness of the sort that humans do.

A high degree of intelligence seems to be defined later in the article as having a particular type of nerve cell which “in humans is associated with higher cognitive functions such as abstract reasoning.”  Let’s look at the logic here.    Abstract reasoning  and self-awareness means they deserve rights.  Or later on they mention their complex social cultures.  So complex social cultures equals  rights.

I’m reminded of Peter Singer’s response to this sort of reasoning in Animal Liberation.  He has a very nuanced approach that doesn’t lend itself to summing up, but basically the idea is that for any trait we say is necessary to have basic rights, there are members of our own species that do not have these traits [p.19].

To apply to the example in this article, there are people, such as the severely disabled or the senile, who do not have abstract reasoning or self-awareness, nor do they actively participate in culture.  So by the reasoning given in the article, they don’t have rights?  Thomas Jefferson said, “But whatever be their degree of talent it is no measure of their rights. Because Sir Isaac Newton was superior to others in understanding, he was not therefore lord of the person or property of others. [*]”  Singer says the same thing: “There is no logically compelling reason for assuming that a factual difference in ability between two people justifies any difference in the amount of consideration we give to their needs and interests” [pp.4-5].

My problem with the approach discussed by the AAAS is that it doles out rights piecemeal, little by little, to other species, pretending to use scientific reasoning as a basis for causing or not causing suffering to others, while not applying this reasoning to our own species.  It’s not that I want to strip the rights of some humans, I just want to expose the illogic of it, that somehow our species is exempt from having to pass some sort of IQ test before we can ethically do whatever we want to a fellow creature.   They have to be provably smart, but we just have to be homo sapiens.  It’s still not fair.

At the end of the article, Peter Singer is referenced, with his “proposal that human rights be extended to the great apes.”  This is The Great Ape Project, but it certainly ignores his full opinion as expressed in his book.  Chapter 1 is titled “All Animals Are Equal.”  He doesn’t mean that they are equivalent, but that they deserve equal consideration: “Equality is a moral idea, not an assertion of fact” [p.4].  The animals he uses as examples include mice, dogs and pigs.  But Singer recognized that granting rights to apes is more winnable than granting them to lab mice.  Given Singer’s commitment to animals, his pragmatism is certainly forgivable.  But is the AAAS’ animal choice pragmatic or self-serving?  It may be sensible to promote whale rights in a country that doesn’t eat them, but where are the primates?  Call me cynical, but are they missing from this discussion, even though they certainly pass those tests, because the AAAS members want to continue using primates in labs?

I get it.  I’m all in favor of granting rights to whales, and glad to see The Economist reporting on this.  What I’m not in favor of is pretending that it’s logical to continue withholding rights from other animals.

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One Response to “Whale Rights”

  1. I think you’re right. I don’t require that humans be able to “positively” determine self-awareness in another species in order to offer that species the same respect I offer humans. There are no qualifications to obtain, no tests to pass. Respect, A.K.A “rights,” is not something earned after a license is obtained, it is part and parcel of our very existence.

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