Wednesday, March 03, 2004

Animal Rights - Where to Draw the Line?

Something that's always bugged me about the animal rights movement has been the question of how one decides which animals have what rights. It's one thing to say we ought to show some concern for the well-being of fellow anthropoids, who at least are closely related to us and recognizably share quite a great deal with us in terms of behavior and cognition, but it's something else altogether to insist that such concern must be extended not just to other mammals like rats, but also to chickens, ducks and beyond.

If chickens have rights that need respecting, why not lizards, frogs and salmon? But to avoid being chordatocentric, we really ought to extend our sympathies to the poor crustaceans and insects as well; cockroaches want to live too, don't they? Having gone this far, we ought to strive to avoid bilateriaism, and grant the inviolable rights of all of Earth's creatures to the pursuit of life, liberty and reproductive success, whether they be sponges, jellyfish, or humble apicomplexa like Plasmodium and Toxoplasma; to be fair-minded, we must condemn the scourge of antibacterial poisons on poor little pathogens who are only trying to quietly go about their natural business!

To be candid, I don't see that the notion of animals as being creatures endowed with "rights" makes any sense whatsoever. When I see people going on about animal rights, all I see is an over-extension of the inbuilt human capacity for empathy, towards creatures for which it has no useful role to play. To the extent that I can feel concern for the well-being of other animals, I'll admit that I can only do so for fellow mammals - call me a "mammalist", and rather than recoil from the charge, I will wear it with pride - but even here, my concern stems more from a certain sentimentality on my part than from any recognition that a cow or a hamster has any "rights" I am morally obliged to recognize. The apes (and in decreasing order of concern, the monkeys and the prosimians) are the only non-human creatures I could possibly conceive any sort of moral concern about, and only because of the likelihood that they harbor some analogue, however feeble, of the sorts of feelings that push us towards a concept of natural rights as such; even monkeys seem to have a definite sense of "fairness", and watching a male orangutan playing with its child, it is possible to see some resemblance to the sort of parent-child bonding we take for granted in our own species. Beyond all this, there is also a selfish motive behind my particular concern for the primates - if we are ever to fully understand where we came from and why we are the way we are, the preservation of our fellow primates will be essential in achieving these goals.