The ambiguity of animal rights

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For decades, the question "Should animal have rights?" has been examined from many different perspectives. People argue that animals do or do not have rights based on several factors, including whether animals can learn, can use language, are conscious, and are ethical being. Whether and which animals have rights depends on which characteristics are considered. While prominent spokespeople for animal liberation like Peter Singer, in his book "Animal Liberation", have explicitly defended the view that no other organisms beside human have any kind of moral standing; this position is not necessarily shared by all animal rights philosophers; Tom Regan, for example, in his essay "Religion and Animal Right", argue that non-sentient life forms may have inherent value which could be accounted for within a broader environmental ethic.

It is in the nature of animals to assert themselves in the animal world but this in itself has nothing to do with having rights. At a certain point in time, human conceive the notion of "rights" and it is human alone that employs such a concept. My point was that rights are just not the sort of things that animals other than people could have. Could animals be guilty, be blamed, feel regret, apologize or anything on that order? No, and why so? They are not moral agents like us, "unlike human beings, animals by their nature are not moral agents" (Mercer), not even the great apes. The rights human beings possess exist within the context of a moral community. Animals don't belong to a moral community; they "answer the call of the wild" (Mercer).

Animal rights advocates argue that significant distinction between human beings and non-human animals is a form of "speciesism" -- a mere prejudice that illegitimately privileges members of one's own species over members of other species. According to this theory, animals that display a certain level of relative physiological and psychological complexity (usually vertebrates, such as fish,reptiles, birds and mammals) have the same basic moral status as humans. Many rights advocates say animals that are competent in human language should have rights. For more than thirty years, scientists have studied the ability of great apes to use sign language. A gorilla named Koko is said to have a vocabulary of over one thousand signs. They understand two thousand spoken words and often invent signs for words that have not been taught. Some say that the only animals with rights are those that can learn and rationalize. In this light, many species are denied rights, including insect such as bugs, butterfly, and cockroach. Under this premise, however, great apes (chimpanzees, orangutans, and gorillas) would be granted rights. Proof of their intelligence lies in documentation that they use and make tools, live in complex societies, and treat illnesses with medicinal plants. Indeed, the international Great Ape Project contends that due to their humanlike abilities, great apes deserve the same rights to life and liberty that humans enjoy. In "The Soul of the Ape" Clive D.L. Wynne summarizes the results of one chimpanzee study, which he says: "The animal's vocabulary developed painfully slowly, and it never exceeded a couple of hundred signs" (about two weeks' work for a healthy two-year-old child). Dr. Wynne claims that, for instances in which a great ape forms a new combination of signs for a word it has not been taught, such as signing "water" and "bird", are rare and do not necessarily indicate a capacity for language. Instead, the animal may be signing for two things it sees, water and bird. In this view, advanced animals can imitate signs but cannot truly understand communication like humans do.

The theory that animals are mere automaton and have no more feeling than does a clock, was first articulated by the French philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650). In his book "Meditations", Descartes deduced that animals have no rights because they do not use language and are not conscious. Consciousness is defined as a state of being aware, especially of oneself, which may be characterized by emotion and thought. Sometimes referred to as sentience, it is important in the animal rights debate, "because species with no capacity for it lack that quality", says animal rights lawyer Steven M. Wise.

The unexamined cultural prejudices, embedded deep within animal rights thinking, carry political implications that are unavoidably elitist. A consistent animal rights stance would require many aboriginal peoples to abandon their sustainable livelihoods and life ways completely. Animal rights have no reasonable alternative to offer to communities like the Inuit, whose very existence in their ecological niche is predicated on hunting animals. An animal rights viewpoint can only look down disdainfully on those peasant societies in Latin America and elsewhere that depend on small-scale animal husbandry as an integral part of their diet; as well as pastoralists in Africa and Asia who rely centrally upon animals to maintain traditional subsistence economies that long predate the colonial imposition of capitalism. These are not matters of "taste" but of sustainability and survival because it's "depend on our ability to kill animals when they endanger us, eat them when we need food, run tests on them when we fight disease" (Brook 667). Forsaking such practices makes no ecological or social sense, and would be as same as eliminating these distinctive societies themselves. Overcoming those structures will require a revolutionary transformation, ethically as well as politically. This momentous historical goal can only be reached by a movement that reclaims, not rejects, the uniquely human capacity for freedom. In their present form, the philosophy and politics of animal rights cannot guide us toward this goal.

If animals have rights, it is sometimes asked, do we have obligations to police nature? To what extent should we intervene, if at all, in predator-prey relationships so ubiquitous in the wild? Is animal rights philosophy necessarily hostile to ecological concerns? What are the boundaries of our moral responsibility for others in general, including humans? It is clear that we should eliminate all intentional, avoidable, and unnecessary harm and violence against others and that we should reduce regrettable, but practically necessary harmful side-effects of our actions as much as possible; but what about our obligations to physically or militarily intervene to prevent the immoral actions of others? Is the behavior of true carnivores - who for all practical purposes need to kill to survive - immoral? Would the world be better off without true carnivores? These are all difficult questions. Like many questions regarding ethics and morals in all areas, these questions are about where lines should be drawn. These questions also bring up conflicts between holist and individualist ways of viewing ethics, which go to the root of ethical and moral foundations.

The animal rights people have a point of view, however. They oppose hunting, in all its forms and variations. They are right and have high principles. They oppose death, and against acts that lead to death. Under analysis, their views become questionable. They oppose use of animals for testing of medications and cosmetics, the raising and confining and use of animals in less than natural conditions, and the consumption of animals by mankind. These are high ideals, and I respect the fact that high ideals are necessary to change public opinion in the economy and culture. But we have to think for ourselves as mankind first before we can think for human. As I have stated above, nobody have real solution for what happened if we granted right to animal. I believe that the value system of any activist seeking to change societal and economic values must be examined in depth so that the general population can make an informed choice prior to making decisions that affect both the individual and his brethren at the local, national, and global scale.

Works Cited

  • Brook, Yaron. The Evil of Animal 'Right'. Reading Literature and Writing Argument: with additional research and documentation materials. Custom Edition for Oklahoma City Community College. Boston, MA: Pearson Custom Printing. 666-667.
  • Regan, Tom. Religion and Animal Right. Reading Literature and Writing Argument: with additional research and documentation materials. Custom Edition for Oklahoma City Community College. Boston, MA: Pearson Custom Printing. 687-697.
  • Wynne, Clive. The Soul of the Ape. New York, Modern Library.
  • Singer, Peter. Animal Liberation. New York, Harper Perennial.
  • Mercer, Ilana. No Right for Animal. (http://www.wnd.com/news/article.asp?ARTICLE_ID=35022)
  • Descartes, Rene. Meditations. (www.iep.utm.edu/d/descarte.htm)

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