Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Rights of Humans and Other Living Things

A recent article in the New York Times, "Animal Studies Cross Campus to Lecture Hall," raises the oft-considered issue of animal rights.  The philosopher Peter Singer has been a leader in the "animal rights" world and has argued that those animals who are sentient beings have a right not to be eaten, or killed for their skin or fur, nor used in experimentation.  The article points to Singer's questioning "how humans could exclude animals from moral consideration, how they could justify causing animals pain."  We have become increasingly aware of animals as thinking, emotional, sensitive creatures, many of whom seem to exhibit caring and moral behavior towards members of their herd, flock, pack, etc.

Does the fact that a living thing exhibits a form of moral behavior automatically grant that creature an unquestioned right to life?  Does the fact that a living thing exhibits sentient behavior automatically grant that creature an unquestioned right to life?  Should rights be granted to living things even if those things have no understanding of these rights nor any obligations to extend such rights to other things?  Do trees have a right not to be cut down?  Do flowers have a right not to be picked?   Are all living things to be given "unalienable rights?"

Or should we determine that living things that are human beings are ex parte and deserving of special rights because of their species - rights that are not to be conferred on other living things.  Would it be fair to argue that an animal that has a right not to be killed should also have a moral obligation to refrain from killing?  If an animal attacks and kills another animal does that animal have a right to a fair trial?  Does a sentient, caring, loving service dog have a greater right to life than a non-sentient newborn with major abnormalities that would forever limit his abilities to sustain a  sentient or normal existence?

I would argue that we humans are ex parte.  Not a religious argument, but an evolutionary one.  We are unique in the world.  Morality, which humans understand to a degree infinitesimally greater than any other living thing could understand, confers on humans a special niche.  Even the most severely limited human, who is non-sentient, whether newly born or in the depths of old-age related severe dementia, has a greater right to life than the kindest and most caring of any other living thing.  Human beings are very special living things and have "unalienable" rights that do not devolve to other living things.  Other living things have only the rights we humans grant them, for they are unable to understand rights and obligations at any meaningful level of development.

Sure, we absolutely should be kind and attentive to other living things.  But the argument that they have rights in any way equivalent to those of the most non-sentient, most damaged human animal is not a consideration.

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