Animal Rights(was Re: Need Safeguards for Gene-Tinkered Foods)

Toby Bradshaw toby at stein.u.washington.edu
Wed Jul 7 10:07:09 EST 1993


In article <C9rwJH.KHC at dartvax.dartmouth.edu> James.F.X.Wellehan at dartmouth.edu (Jim Wellehan) writes:
>In article <21cugc$9if at news.u.washington.edu>
>toby at stein.u.washington.edu (Toby Bradshaw) writes:
>Taxonomists have classified most sources of food anyone is likely to
>eat.  The animal/plant line seems fairly easy for a vegetarian to avoid
>crossing.

Why would one avoid it?  What I'm saying is that a taxonomic distinction
is not a functional distinction (i.e. if plants feel "pain", why
is it more ethical to eat them than animals?).  Since AR people would
like us to believe that "sentience" or "ability to feel pain", functional
definitions of life's hierarchy, are the criteria by which human actions
against other forms of life are to be judged, why is it that they cannot
apply a rigorous standard of functional analogy to (say) plant behavior?
I would argue it is because if one admits that plants "feel", one is
obliged to chemosynthesize a diet or starve.

>Sentience is a much more difficult idea.  It seems that
>self-awareness could only be proved, and not disproved, in an organism.
> If one refused to eat potentially sentient organisms, one would
>starve.  You'll notice I avoidedthe concept in my post.  Intelligence
>seems a more useful yardstick, although that is a subjective decision. 
>Why would you say humans are more deserving of rights than other
>animals?

I wouldn't, and haven't.  Rights are a human invention, vary across
human populations and across time, and the only "rights" possessed
by non-human animals are those accorded them by humans.  Like human
rights, non-human "rights" vary in time and space according to the
whim of humans.

>> Your definition of "human" above is based on a quantitative assessment
>> ("more") of a fuzzy character ("intelligence").
>
>I didn't define human.  I was searching for a reason for humans to be
>more deserving of life than other animals.  As fuzzy as the concept of
>intelligence is, there are tests for measuring it.

Why limit the discussion to animals?  Why are humans more deserving
of life than other _organisms_?  There is no _inherent_ reason, as
poisonous plants, venomous snakes, and several large carnivores
demonstrate on a daily basis.  There are tests for measuring intelligence,
sure.  All are invented by humans.  If a dog invented the test, he
might find us incredibly dense for not being able to tell which
way the rabbit ran down the trail hours after the event, or how
to locate a truffle.

>>  A retarded human is
>> genetically human (that is, a member of the human clade), regardless
>> of intelligence.
>
>What if someone has Down's or Turner's?  Their genetic makeup differs
>from the normal human genome, and they can't breed with a normal human.

A cladogram would still show the affected person clustering with
the human clade, and not with any other species.  That's why I was
careful not say "part of the human gene pool" or some other phrase
that implies reproductive capacity.  I don't consider someone less
human because he/she is sterile.

>>  Koko is still a gorilla.  Now, one may argue the
>> merits of this classification scheme, but it is as valid as the
>> arbitrary distinction you have made based on "intelligence".
>
>Agreed.
>
>>  My terrier is more "intelligent" than a normal human infant, but if I were
>> forced to choose the life of one over the other I would not be
>> using "intelligence" as the criterion.
>
>Is a terrier more intelligent than a normal human infant?  Human
>infants learn at an astonishing rate.  Which one could learn language
>first?

Having experience with both, certainly an adult dog (at least of some
breeds :) ) is more intelligent than a newborn human.  In fact, an
adult dog can learn the meaning of more words than a newborn human.
Does that mean the dog has more rights than the human?  Not to me.
I say this with the full knowledge that my own dogs live better than
many of the world's people, which leads to the conclusion that I
value my dogs more than I value some people.  If I believe that
all people deserve (have a "right" to) a minimum standard of living
that could be provided by killing my dogs and diverting those resources
to human needs, then I would be a hypocrite for keeping my dogs.
Am I?

>Anyway, to return to my original question, why are humans superior? 
>Because we are members of the dominant species?  If so, is the life of
>a member of one race worth more, as they are the dominant race?  Just a
>little over a century ago the law held that white people were superior.

As a practical matter, dominance = superiority.  I doubt woodcutters
in India feel dominant to tigers, and the inferiority of humans in
this situtation is reinforced regularly.  Would I blame woodcutters
for snaring or poisoning tigers?  Not at all, no more than I would
blame you for poisoning rats in your attic.

It would be an unusual evolutionary progression for a species to
value the genes of other organisms over its own.  It might be
a "good idea" to think globally, but biology works against us.
We are perhaps the only species capable of grasping even a part of
the big picture; this places us in the position of conflict
with our own biology.  Such conflicts happen in other organisms,
such as when a female mammal "adopts" an infant of the same (or
even another) species to replace a dead offspring.  This kind of
conflict has been raised to an art form by humans, though, to
the extent that some have advocated that the ideal human population
of the earth is zero.  Such a person, who is a hypocrite if
not actively engaged in either murder or suicide, has achieved the
ultimate in negative selection. 

-Toby Bradshaw
toby at u.washington.edu



More information about the Bioforum mailing list