Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Bill of Rights for Bonzo

Sunday's New York Times contained a piece on the "rights" and "humanity" of apes. On Monday, Adam Cohen wrote an op-ed favorably disposed to the notion that all apes are, if not equal, at least roughly comparable. Writing in Slate, Will Saletan addresses the notion that apes are not entitled to human rights because they have no souls:

Secular humanists reject this dogma. We understand that there's something wonderful and uniquely worthy of respect in the power, richness, and subtlety of the human mind. But to us, the soul doesn't explain these wonders. It describes them. That's one reason why the destruction of human embryos doesn't torment us the way it torments pro-lifers. We don't believe in ensoulment at conception. We believe in the gradual development of mental capacities.

This puts us in an awkward position. We call ourselves egalitarians, yet we deny the equality of conceived humans. We believe that a woman deserves more respect than a fetus. A 26-week fetus deserves more respect than a 12-week fetus. A 12-week fetus deserves more consideration than a zygote. We discriminate according to ability.

This is also why ape rights appeals to us. It's not a claim of equality among all animals. It's a claim that apes resemble us in ways that insects don't. It's a kind of discrimination. Cohen observes that Peter Singer, the philosopher behind the ape rights movement, believes that "species should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis."

Saletan gets at the crux of a much larger problem. Once you reject "the dogma," you need some other foundation for human rights and equality. You need some other way to decide who is in and who is out. This applies not only to animal rights and abortion, but to questions of euthanasia and, increasing, biomedical research. People who were able to dismiss embryos created for research as clumps of cells may have greater difficulties if the science leads to things like fetal farming or even the creation of insentient humans for organ harvesting.

Saletan is willing to face the implications of his anthropology:

We've already established that you accept this principle if, like me, you discriminate among preborn humans based on degree of development. And if you accept that humans and apes gradually evolved from common ancestors, then you'd also probably discriminate among born humans based on degree of evolution.

Why should this be troubling? I suspect that it is the lingering pull of the dogma.

H/T: Rob Vischer.


William Tyroler said...

Rights for Bonzo? Or for Cornelius? Or, to press the matter more acutely, Idoya:

Monkey’s Thoughts Control Robot

If Idoya could talk, she would have plenty to boast about.

On Thursday, the 12-pound, 32-inch monkey made a 200-pound, 5-foot humanoid robot walk on a treadmill using only her brain activity.

She was in North Carolina, and the robot was in Japan.

And if monkeys indeed are capable of thought why shouldn't we see them as "roughly comparable" and thus entitled to roughly comparable human rights?

Great post, in my opinion, for whatever it's worth.

Anonymous said...

So primates should have rights.
But babies are murdered by the thousands on a daily basis in the U.S. and in fact "we the people" pay Planned Parenthood (read-Death Hut) more than $300,000,000.00 in tax money.
We have lost our way. Babies are slaughtered and monkeys get rights.
This is worse than a Kurt Vonnegut novel.
Soylent green is people!!!!

Rick Esenberg said...

Brother Tyroler

Thanks. I am inclined to Professor Vischer's view of the matter. There are things about apes that suggest they not be treated cavalierly. The same applies, I think, to dogs who are, in many ways, more capable of what we value in ourselves than apes.

What I can't warm to is the idea that this is about competence. I prefer to think that apes and dogs and other animals imperfectly reflect in some way the image of God that we find in humans and, because of which, regard humans - all humans - as possessing an innate dignity apart from competence.

Anonymous said...

Is the “lingering pull of the dogma” a product of indoctrination?

Display Name said...

I was talking with a bonobo the other day, and he pretty much thought that his deity had made bonobos in her image, too. He was Lutheran, though, so what does he know?