Thursday, June 26, 2008

Human Rights for Great Apes?

I suspect most of you have heard the news that Spanish legislators are considering conferring certain rights on great apes (which, in common parlance, would include the two species of chimpanzees (common and bonobo), the various species or subspecies of gorilla, and the orangutans; whether the "lesser" great apes (gibbons and siamangs) are included, I don't know).

I'm also beginning to see various hoots and cries and expressions of amusement, astonishment, and incredulity about this Spanish venture, and I'm interested in the reaction of you folks.

One of the (more reasoned) criticisms that I've heard involves the supporters' argument that apes should be accorded rights, at least in part, because their DNA makes them "99.4% human." This figure, if it is the one being used (and it was the one used, IIRC, by the particular supporter I mention below), does sound overstated. Depending on which aspects of the genomes are being compared, for example, we may share with chimpanzees somewhere between 94% (taking into account gene duplications), 96% (the "official" 2005 Human Genome Project figure, which takes into account what are called "indels," insertions and deletions in otherwise-corresponding gene sequences), or 99% (an earlier figure, calculated prior to having the full transcripts of both the human and chimp genomes available) of our DNA with chimpanzees -- and less, presumably, by at least a little, with the other great apes.

I heard a BBC interview with one of the supporters of the Spanish legislation on NPR last night. While she did rely on (what sounded like the inaccurate, or at least outdated) percentage of genetic similarity between the other great apes and ourselves mentioned above -- and I would agree that establishing some sort of a percentage test or cut-off for the extension of "human" rights has various moral, practical, and philosophical problems -- she did make a different point, and the one that I mainly wish to discuss here: the legislation does not, she claims, confer legal "humanity" on great apes.

Instead, said she, it confers a limited sort of legal "person"-hood. Lest you now shake your head -- or expectorate, or however your cultural subset of apes expresses dubiety -- and cluck about "those darn lawyers," please first consider that there is some support for making the "human being"/"legal person" distinction: corporations, for example, are legal "persons" (they can sue and be sued; own, sell, and lease, etc., real and personal property...), but are clearly not human beings.

The nice lady gave an example of the kind of conundrum in which apes currently find themselves without "person"-hood protections. An aging chimp (let's say -- I forget the actual species) has been humanely cared for by an organization in Austria for many years. Now the organization has gone bankrupt and its assets -- including the chimp -- are being sold off, with at least the possibility that the chimp will wind up in the hands of less-than-ethical medical researchers (let's sidestep, for the moment, the question of whether it's ever justifiable to utilize great apes in medical testing by positing that there are such things as humane and ethical and well-regulated/ inspected medical research facilities...) or will simply fall out of adequate care altogether and wind up being a victim of (what we all might agree would be) abuse, neglect, or ...

Apparently there are donors willing to provide for the further care of this ape. But they can't just give the money to his current owner -- the bankrupt facility -- because that money would then fall into the hands of the creditors. And they can't give the money to the ape itself, in part because the ape isn't a legal person -- not even a "person" with tightly-delimited rights (such as a mentally-challenged or senile or comatose person, who might well be the ward in a guardianship situation, lacking his or her own right to manage money, vote, own -- ahem! -- handguns, drive, etc. ...).

Now, one can of course imagine ingenious ways around the Austrian situation (though one doesn't know enough about Austrian bankruptcy and non-profit law to know if they would actually work...): perhaps the donors' funds could go to organize a non-profit with the purpose of purchasing and caring for the poor critter. This might have the advantage of not leaving the (otherwise-innocent, so far as we know) creditors of the old facility out in the cold -- the new facility would simply purchase the ape from the creditors of the old. But the lady's point -- to the extent that this pinhead grasped it -- is that there are always going to be situations without convenient legal workarounds, where the most direct and effective way to protect arguably-sentient (if still non-"human") creatures like these is to allow for them a limited sort of legal personhood, but not fully "human" legal status...

Below all this lies the moral argument, of course. Even though we all might agree that the other great apes are not, in all respects, entitled to the full panoply of rights that us "human" great apes may be entitled to, may they not they share enough of key "human" qualities -- empathy, self-consciousness, family feeling, awareness of pain and loss, intelligence, capacity to communicate, etc. -- to be deserving of some more limited form of rights and protections?

Needless to say, we quickly come to the 'slippery slope' concern: where's it all gonna end? To my mind, that's a better argument for a situation where there's an indivisible slope or spectrum -- one where there's no point on the gradient which can, in any sort of principled fashion, be distinguished from any other. We might face such a situation if all of our pre-hominid brethren (or at least a representative and overlapping sampling), going right back to our most recent common ancestor with chimps, were still alive and kicking... But they're not. (And I recognize that some of you may not be persuaded there even IS any such ancestral kinship, but note that that doesn't necessarily resolve the other questions raised by our increasing grasp of the intellectual and emotional sophistication of some of our fellow travelers on the planet, even if they're not our very close kin.)

So we've got humans. And we've got some definable set of characteristics upon which to base a separate category of animals to whom we might accord a limited quasi-personhood. And then we've got other animals who lack one or more of whatever that definable set of characteristics might turn out to be -- who we continue to assign to the traditional "feral" or "property" categories, about whom we might erect various overarching protections -- hunting laws; protections from certain kinds of abuse; ecological protections; import/export and trafficking laws; and so forth and so on.

Of course, once we start listing the characteristics for this intermediate status of not-human, but not mere-property kind of animal, we do risk a limited "slippery slope" problem: who else gets in to this charmed circle? Some of the cetaceans? The lesser apes? Some of the "higher" non-ape primates? Elephants? Those raucous and annoying, but oh-so-clever corvids (ravens, crows, jays, magpies), about whom I reading right now? ("In the Company of Crows and Ravens" by John M. Marzluff and Tony Angell

Are we actually "evolved" enough to start concerning ourselves morally with "every crow that falls"?

And, as with every extension of "rights," how meaningful is it if it simply becomes another "unfunded mandate"? A "right" that goes, all too often, unremedied? Why create a new set of rights, when we can't even meaningfully enforce or guarantee over wide swaths of the planet the rights we've already extended to our (arguably) even more-deserving fellow humans? The old, why-should-we-spend-money-on-a-space-program-when ... problem, dressed up in King Kong habiliments.

There's certainly no reason not to have some fun with this notion, but I don't find it an entirely silly one.


Kevin said...

Stevie, buddy!

Thanks for posting! Your posts are always entertaining and a wonderful challenge to my clearly limited vocabulary. :) I guess I am out of the loop, since I hadn't noticed that fascinating news from Spain. Thanks for bringing it up.

As you know, I see no conflict between evolution and Christianity, though I do think that there are several moral quandries raised by evolution, thereby begging for supplementation with perhaps more subjective principles that some people might term "religion".

For example, the human rights we have developed seem significantly based upon the principle that we are all equal, even if, objectively, we really are not all equal.

It seems that our commonly accepted moral frameworks not only tend to view homo sapiens as divinely special, perhaps even beyond objective measure, but also oppose moral distinction within the species.

And so, strangely, I wonder, if we abandon this principle and admit to a continuum logic of partial allocation of rights based upon an objective evaluation of capabilities interspecies, what is to prevent its logical application intraspecies, within homo sapiens?

Stevie wrote: "But they can't just give the money to his current owner -- the bankrupt facility -- because that money would then fall into the hands of the creditors."

I'm probably missing something, but why is it bad that the money would fall into the hands of the creditors? The donors would still succeed in purchasing the ape, correct?

By extension, I think I'm also missing why the desired protections cannot be extended via the same mechanisms and vocubulary as have been used to construct our current laws regarding animals, rather than potentially diluting what it means to be a person and have associated "rights". I wonder at their motive.

I agree that it is not a silly notion to extend, at least something akin to "rights" to animals, such as the right to be protected from extreme cruelty... at least by humans... which they already are protected from (aren't they?)... which also makes me wonder about violations of animal "rights" by other animals.


MamasBoy said...


Kevin said most of what I wanted to say, so this would be brief if I wasn't the one doing the writing.

What I find most interesting about this idea, is that most of the news articles seem to say that it is basing the idea of personhood on genetics, and not on ambiguous and subjective ideas of self-awareness, language comprehension, etc. If I am understanding the line of reasoning, it goes like this. Apes share a vast majority of our genes, therefore there is a genetic kinship and we should afford them some basic rights, heretofore limited to homo sapiens.

There is a part of that reasoning that resonates with me. I like deterministic means of determining personhood, rather than subjective ones, and genetics is much more deterministic than a third person's determination of someones else's "self-awareness." Being a big fan of speciesism, and human exceptionalism, I'm not sure I like it, but I like how it seems to be presented, if it is based on genetics.

Honestly, though, I don't see how this line of reasoning could be coming out of the Great Apes Project, knowing that one of its founders is the infamous pro-infanticide Dr. Peter Singer, holder of arguably the most prestigous bioethics chair in the country at Princeton... don't get me going on that one. Dr. Singer is well known for basing his ideas on the right to life, etc. on self-awareness and cognitive ability, leaving infants and the severely handicapped out of that definition in his mind.

As I see it, if Spain voted to align itself with the Great Apes Project, they are not basing this idea of human rights on mere genetics, but on very subjective and controversial measures of what makes humans themselves worth protecting. In Peter Singer's world, a down's syndrome kid has basically no rights and can be killed at the whim of his guardians, but a great ape has full human rights. That is what I call flat out bass ackwards reasoning.

It's not too surprising to me that the liberal government in Spain would support something like this, since they seem to have lost their ethical bearings quite some time ago, but I must admit some surprise that they would actually push through legislation like this. They had to back off of their election pledge to liberalize abortion laws even further when they ran into very stiff opposition from the populace. Spain has long been a very conservative country. If this liberal government tries to push things too far to the left, it seems to me the pendulum is bound to swing back sooner rather than later. This is especially true in light of Spain's Great Apes Project director Pedro Pozas saying that the goal is not to stop here, but push things further down the slippery slope, based on (what is in my mind) the fuzzy and arbitrary reasoning this law is based on. “We are seeking to break the species barrier – we are just the point of the spear.”

If we want to prevent animal cruelty, there are better ways of doing it than by trying to extend human rights to these creatures.


steviepinhead said...

Heh, heh! I thought things were seeming a little moribund around here, despite MB's best efforts, so I'm glad to see I actually elicited some views and, better yet, comments! Thanks, Kevin and MB!

Here's a link to an article I found on the Austrian chimps' situation -- turns out there are two of them:
While the chimps' plight is appealing, it does sound to me, after reading further, that the advocacy group has exaggerated the degree to which the bankruptcy would interfere with setting up another charitable organization.

I don't really know anything about the Great Apes Project or Peter Singer and am not, therefore, necessarily approving whatever his or their other stances may be. It is, of course, theoretically possible for people who are very wrong about a lot of things to occasionally get something right. Thus, as much as we might abhor animal abuse or support environmental causes, we are also free to denounce the more extreme idiocies of ELF, PETA, or GreenPeace...

While I don't have any problem with mama's li'l boy folding his concerns about these folks into the discussion -- that's what discussions like this are all about! -- I won't really have anything specific to say about the project's (or Singer's) broader agenda.

I appreciate Kevin's point about that ambiguous concept "equality." Again, however, it seems to me that society does manage to deal -- at times successfully and at times less so -- with treating humans "equally" for some purposes, while recognizing that there are exceptional deviations that require exceptional handling.

Maybe this brings us back to the "bundle of rights" idea that was touched upon in one of our earlier discussions -- while there are certain fundamental rights that may only be abridged through the exercise of due process, and so forth, most of our "human" rights are subject to conditions and regulation -- or even outright abrogation -- by society as a whole.

Of course, many of these are situations where the individual right-holder has (or allegedly has) forfeited the right through his or her own irresponsible action: the right to life and to be free to manage one's own affairs can be lost through the commission of criminal activity, obviously. Convicted felons lose the right to bear arms, to vote, to unrestricted travel, and so forth. Some degree of due process is typically involved, of course, at least -- most of the time, we hope! -- in this and other jurisdictions that adequately recognize these rights in the first place and which follow and safeguard the rule of law.

Likewise, even "innocent" persons -- who have not intentionally committed any crime or harm -- may find their "right" to exercise their rights and freedoms restricted. People with sufficient visual or other impairments (or certain kinds of age-related difficulties) may find their right to drive restricted. People with other sorts of deviations from "normal" human capacities -- or who present some sort of threat of imminent harm to themselves or others (again, all as theoretically determined via "due process," though there are emergency procedures which may result in temporary loss of rights in exigent situations)-- may find themselves under guardianship or even confined for observation and evaluation.

We all recognize, therefore, that even the equal rights of unquestionably full humans are subject to various restrictions and compromises. And we could expand the topic rapidly into the question of when do such rights begin or "attach" (the issue presented in the abortion cases), when do they cease (senility/disability/brain death cases), can they be voluntarily abandoned ("right" to suicide, termination of care, end-of-life issues), and so forth.

I would argue, therefore, that even though we may not always handle all the subtle gradations of these rights issues as well as we could, and are still struggling with the "boundary" issues in many areas, we HAVE -- as a practical matter -- evolved (heh heh) some processes and mechanisms for dealing with the questions raised.

I don't therefore necessarily agree that we would seriously water down or imperil the human rights we currently recognize and attempt to protect by extending a limited form or "person"hood to our great ape cousins. Though Kevin's concern about pondering very carefully the conceptual underpinnings by which we frame and define a workable set of protections and mechanisms may well have merit. Perhaps a more sensible route would be to expand "animal" protection acts rather than attempt to graft some form of truncated personhood onto our current panoply of "human" rights...

MB's point about having a more objective (DNA-based, for example) "bright line" test for inclusion within the charmed circle of rights/protections is also an appealing one.

The difficulties I see there are two-fold. As always, science tends to refine its methods and observations. Thus, the degree or percentage of DNA similarity has changed even in recent years as more genome-comparison data, more sophisticated techniques, and subtler analysis of the data all become available.

But some sufficiently-rigorous set of standards (limited to a particular kind of DNA calculation by a specific and well-defined technique) might do the trick for the great apes.

This leaves open the question of whether other, less-closely-related (taxonomically, phylogenetically, DNA-metric) animals should be eligible for some similar treatment, on some other, more-"subjective" basis. This of course raises the very line-blurring issues that MB's "bright line test" would skirt around. And I don't discount the seriousness of those issues: heck, there's enough controversy about the testing we do for school, vocational aptitude, and university-admission purposes (not to mention the "psychological" testing that some employers insist upon)...

Yet, again, for certain limited purposes, we have come to accept the utility of certain of these standardized tests. Assuming that some appropriately-strong consensus developed among the appropriate body of experts and was held over some sufficiently long period of time (as evaluated by some sort of a commission, perhaps with citizen or governmental as well as "expert" membership), a body of standards might emerge for considering the "admission" of cetaceans, and so forth and so on.

Food for thought, anyway. I don't actually see myself joining a group or campaign around this issue, but I will certainly be watching for developments.

In the meantime, MB, good luck with your charitable fast!

MamasBoy said...

"we are also free to denounce the more extreme idiocies of ELF, PETA, or GreenPeace..."

ELF is getting a bad rap here. As someone who is completely enamored by a chemists ability to predict which molecular combinations will produce a solid/liquid to gaseous state transition or oxidize and release a large amount of energy in the form of heat, I think these folks are just amateur scientists looking for ways to put their knowledge to use.

On a more serious note, honestly, my biggest objection to giving apes human rights is that (irregardless of what rights we are talking about) the word “human” is used. The very use of the word human implies (in my mind) a philosophical equality and a materialist reductionism that says humans and apes are both the sum of their physical bodies (e.g., there is no such thing as a soul).

Even when speaking of corporations, we do not grant them real human rights (e.g., they can be bought and sold). The personhood of a corporation is an analogous idea contrived for the sole purpose of facilitating commerce among the human species.

We already give to animals a certain amount of due process and protection based on very subjective measures, with graduated rights to boot. For instance, I can butcher my own goats or chickens at home, but if I put my aging dog or cat down myself, I can be charged with animal cruelty. Only a vet is allowed to do this in my county. If a dog is found without access to water or shelter from the weather (space under a porch doesn’t count), the owner of the animal is charged with cruelty. If I was an amateur entomologist, I could have as many pet bugs as I wanted, poison them with toxic chemicals, starve them, drown them and put them out into the cold weather at will without bringing the law down on myself. I could do nothing of the sort with a dog or a cat. Given that we already have a graduated system of rights and protections for animals, why create a new class and call those rights “human” rights? It smacks of unnecessary, ostentatious, showboating to score political points with folks in certain materialist crowds.

Kevin’s last two paragraphs more succinctly make the point I’m trying to make, but hopefully these concrete examples add something. Why, Stevie, is it necessary to create an entire new class of rights, when we already have a graduated system of rights based on subjective measures of sentience and “petness?” Why not simply modify the laws we already have? What are the benefits of calling the new set of rights, “human rights?”


steviepinhead said...

Hmm. I haven't actually looked at the Spanish legislation but, again, the way it was explained by the proponent interviewed on NPR, no new class of "human" rights is being extended. As I said in my opening post:

"[S]he did make a different point, and the one that I mainly wish to discuss here: the legislation does not, she claims, confer legal "humanity" on great apes.

"Instead, said she, it confers a limited sort of legal "person"-hood. *** [C]onsider that there is some support for making the "human being"/"legal person" distinction: corporations, for example, are legal "persons" (they can sue and be sued; own, sell, and lease, etc., real and personal property...), but are clearly not human beings."

MB argues (here and in our prior reactions to the Michael Vick prosecution) that American (or Canadian?) animal abuse legislation may have already gone to far. Yet he also seems to be arguing that it is better to expand this same anti-abuse class of legislation than to extend "human" rights (see above) to the great apes... Either I'm not grasping what MB's underlying concern is, or he's saying that -- while some state or national anti-abuse legislation has already overreached its proper ends -- that same class of legislation (as appropriately drafted) is still the best avenue for extending some sort of rights or protections to great apes.

But we may be comparing apples and oranges, since we don't yet know in what manner Spanish anti-abuse legislation (as opposed to MB's jurisdiction) affords abuse protection to animals, which animals are protected, which actions are prohibited, etc.

Apparently the proponents of this legislation are seeking to curb "exploitation" of the great apes for mere entertainment (circuses and similar shows; advertisements) and medical research and to address the conditions of "confinement" and care that the animals so "exploited" are all too typically subjected to.

(One might expect that being "used" for most performance or entertainment purposes would be a welcome interlude of interesting activity for these animals, but this might well depend on how they are treated and trained, what the working conditions and "hours," if you will are like, and what conditions of confinement and "care" the animals are subjected to in between performances.)

On this level, the legislation would either outlaw or regulate the capture or breeding of the apes for these exploitative purposes -- for those animals that could not safely be returned to the wild, for example, perhaps the equivalent of a well-designed and run wildlife refuge would be required.

As I said (ahem, tried to say) in response to Kevin's comments, to the extent that these more limited aims are the primary purpose of the legislation (and ignoring, for the moment, whatever broader and longer-term aims the proponents may have, in Spain and elsewhere), then it may well be that appropriate animal abuse or animal welfare legislation, as opposed to an extension of even a carefully-hedged and limited "person"hood, might be the more sensible way to go...

MamasBoy said...


So you remember the Michael Vick discussion. Wow. You are correct that I think it is ridiculous that I can butcher my farm animals (goats, chickens, etc), but not put my cat or dog down legally (especially since the Chinese Buffet down the road offered such a high price/lb). Those are animal protection laws gone amok IMHO. You are right, though, that Spain may not have had such ludicrous laws.

You are also correct, that I see these same types of laws as the proper forum for the proper strengthening of protecting animals from inhumane treatment. I'm sorry that I missed you saying something similar, though I must admit to some confusion on that point.

I think I've about beat this one to death, so unless I need to clarify something I've written in the past, I'll probably bow out right now. I am curious, though, Stevie, whether you like the quasi-personhood idea, and how far you would take it in an ideal world? In case you hadn't noticed, this is an invitation to pontificate.