Animal Rights, Part 2

Do animals have rights? If so, what are those rights, and how do they differ from humans? Should a lake trout have the same rights as a dairy cow as a chimpanzee? I mentioned in my previous blog that Christians have found difficulty assigning rights to animals, though many offer reasons with which I disagree. Secularists like Peter Singer (who, as a utilitarian that eschews such language, uses the notion of “rights” only to be a part of the dialogue) and Tom Regan (who considers “normal mammalian animals aged one or more” as possessors of the same intrinsic rights as humans) mount strong offensives in the battle for animal rights. While some of their more “out-there” ideas are met with skepticism by even their supporters, I am convinced that their deeper arguments are winning in the court of popular opinion. Why is this?
Singer’s approach addresses animal PAIN. This issue troubled C.S. Lewis and can bring us to tears in effective television advertisements for the Humane Society of the United States. We hate pain, and we especially hate it when the victims are so innocent. Regan looks at animals as “subjects-of-a-life;” animals have psychological capacities for desires, memories, and other “human” characteristics. Urbanized Western culture, as it becomes more removed from animals as food (I still hold that the beef I buy in shrink-wrap from the grocery is somehow picked from a “meat tree”), associates animals with pets or even the animated animals of film. Never mind that these animals are essentially humans in all but physical form.
I just returned from the World Veterinary Dermatology Congress (yes, there is such an event) in Vancouver. A Swiss veterinarian noted that skin allergies are often more pronounced in North American dogs because there is a more innate neurosis in these pets, creating more reactivity to allergens. They itch more obsessively. Her comment that “these dogs are basically treated as human toddlers” reflects on the humanization that we instill on, AND IN, our pets. It is little wonder that appeals from a utilitarian like Singer that tug at our dislike of all pain, animal or human, and a deontologist like Regan, that says that “higher” animals are really quite like us psychologically, can hold such sway.
I like the rebuttals of people like the University of Michigan’s Carl Cohen, who cuts through much of the intellectual and emotional fog to say that animals are intrinsically different from humans on the basis of personhood, and for whom the idea of rights makes no sense. Rights are of no use to animals because they inhabit a different moral sphere. “To say that rats have rights is to apply the world of rats a concept that makes very good sense when applied to humans, but makes no sense at all when applied to rats.”
In a practical sense, extending the same rights to animals as we extend to humans diminishes both. It means that animal husbandry cannot legitimately exist and that a cougar that attacks a hiker ought to defend her actions in court. Even the efforts of extraordinarily bright and sensitive Christian theologians to use the language of “limited rights” are probably misplaced. I am a proponent of assigning a strong moral status to the animals God has created; I don’t find the language of rights terribly helpful in doing so.

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Jon Holmlund, M.D.

The March-April 2012 edition of the Hastings Center Report had a 2-page update entitled, “A Status Elevation for Great Apes.” It discussed the Great Ape Protection Act (pending in Congress) as well as a recent Institute of Medicine committee report recommending greatly restricting research on chimpanzees (the only great apes currently used in research in the US). Francis Collins, the NIH head, issued a statement supporting the IOM report. If the upshot is to consider seriously according animals a higher moral status than they currently have, particularly vis-a-vis research, and setting boundaries around experimentation on them, that seems agreeable on… Read more »