What rights should be afforded non-human animals, to which animals, under what circumstances, and why? What are the criteria for such decisions? What should those who disagree with the status quo do?
In my view, some rights should be given to some animals, depending on circumstances. I believe the criteria for this decision are more arbitrary than one might think, but a phylogenetic (anthrocentric) model is arguably useful for some, but not all decisions. Individuals involved in the discussion often inappropriately characterize the positions of others at the expense of reaching some kind of agreement, and this intractability exists across the spectrum of opinion. Needed improvements in the treatment of animals are likely to occur slowly because of institutional resistance, which is understandable, unfortunate, and fixable.
Everyone wants to be nice to the animals
A contemporary North American hunter may kill an animal for sport, but every hunter I know prefers a “clean kill,” meaning, the animal dies instantly. If one disdains hunting, this may be hard to reconcile. Like “Rules of Warfare” this sounds absurd, or Orwellian. But even if one disdains hunting one has to admit that normal sports hunting does not involve trying to make the animal feel a lot of pain, but rather, the opposite. This fact is not meaningless or irrelevant. Even those who kill for sport usually prefer to do it in a fashion that they would label as “humane” and the polarity of what is “inhumane” vs. “humane” is commonly understood to be the same by most people, even if we don’t always agree on the details of how to get there. Less pain is better than more pain, if death is going to happen it should be quicker.
A contemporary Western non-vegetarian, if given the choice, would prefer that animals are raised in a more humane environment and brought to slaughter in more humane ways. If you ask people about this, you’ll find many who claim they don’t care. But if you show these people the alternatives and ask if they would vote for the more humane over the less humane version very few would choose the more humane one.
People keep their pets in different ways. In North America, some dogs are working dogs and are never allowed in the house, while the same breed will be “part of the family” in a different household. Nonetheless, there are broad standards that most people agree on and there are certain things that society generally accepts as wrong, even if they are regularly supported and participated in (like the “puppy mills” from which many household pets come).
It is fair to say that except for those who are pathological or especially mean spirited, it is easy to construct binary choices regarding treatment of animals and find almost everyone having about the same preference for one of the two choices, where the preferred choice is the more humane one. Just as importantly, it seems that we use the term “humane” in a similar way across a range of contexts.
There are world wide cultural differences in how humans relate to non-human animals. Having lived with actual hunter gatherers (people who do not kill for sport, but rather, for food) I strongly suspect that few westerners would accurately predict what attitudes towards pets and towards game animals might be in other cultures. Our popular culture is full of misconceptions about how other cultures relate to non-human animals. For the present purposes, it is probably wise to stick to mainly “Western” ideas which are certainly variable enough.
There is no solution that will satisfy all parties
Even though the relative “humanity” of two or more ways to treat non-human animals will rarely be disputed, there are large differences among individuals as to what might be considered appropriate. There is almost certainly no position or policy that would satisfy every stakeholder in a particular discussion. Meat eaters don’t want to be told to not eat meat. True Vegans are generally uncomfortable about the existence of a meat food industry. There are those opposed to all use of animals in research, and there are those who assert that there is at present no unnecessary cruelty to animals or other inappropriate activity associated with the use of animals in research, as the process is already appropriately regulated.
The fact that there is no universally agreed on solution to the question of how to treat non-human animals means that every honest and earnest participant in the discussion must accept that they simply will not get everything they want in any process of negotiating changes to the status quo. Those who show up at the proverbial table with the idea that only their position should be accommodated should probably take their marbles and go home, because they are not going to get what they want and they are going to annoy everyone else. It is, of course, reasonable to show up at the table with the idea that things can change in the direction you prefer them, somehow.
Human rights are arbitrarily granted or assumed
I know of no justifiable argument for human rights of any kind arising from any special source or power. The only seemingly logical framework for human rights is basic equality combined with a kind of Golden Rule. I want you to not harm me or mine, so I’ll agree to the same for you (that’s the Golden Rule part) and since we are all equal this mutualism applies broadly to all humans.
Any other arrangement denigrates or damages a subset of humans, and as a species, or as a set of societies, we seem to be trending away from that approach, although there are still plenty of people who would (and do) gain from differential treatment. In fact, the average Caucasioheteronormative Western All Suffering Middle Class Taxpayer gains a great deal from the unfair treatment of certain groups of humans on a day to day basis. People are exploited so we can have cheap shoes, people are raped and murdered so we can have cell phones, and people are bombed and their lands invaded so we can have cheap fuel. There are ethnic, “racial,” national, religious, and other group-identity related factors that determine which people get exploited to benefit the others.
But despite the fact that exploitation happens, Western society tends to regard this exploitation as bad, and to some extent moves to limit or reduce it, and in the meantime, at least hide it and deny it so we don’t feel badly about it. Denying this sort of intrahuman exploitation is of course hypocritical and inadequate, but the fact that we live in denial of, rather than celebration of, Indonesians sweat shops, Congolese coltan killing fields, and the invasion of arbitrary West Asian countries tells us that we know at some level that it is wrong.
So in the end, equality plus some form of the “Golden Rule” results in the belief that human life is valuable and equally valuable across the species, and human suffering is bad and equally bad across the species. General human equality is, then, the principle by which we operate, or at least, aspire or pretend to operate, regardless of the basis for this particular more.
But why do humans have special rights over other animals? Why do humans have a rule that says we can kill any wild animal we want (with appropriate permits) but if any wild animal kills a human, it loses its right to live?
In the absence of evidence to the contrary, it is hard to see how this right comes from anything other than an arbitrary determination. We have decided that this is so, it is species-level self interest (but really, applies mainly to various subsets of humanity more than to others) and only works because we have the capacity to make it work.
I would like to mention a few alternative scenarios, some made up and some real, in which this principle of Human Exceptionalism can be viewed to put it in some perspective.
Suppose aliens show up. These aliens have independently decided that THEY have the right to live, and that we humans would make excellent snacks. You all know the story. No one ever questioned the (fictional) slaughter of invading aliens as … inhumane or inappropriate.
What about the death penalty and other sanctioned forms of homicide? We know that it is wrong to kill humans, but the state is granted the power to do so. Soldiers in war, police acting in self defense, heavily armed home invadees, and judges can kill people if they follow a few simple rules. The fact that people object to the use of the word “homicide” to describe these deaths is not insignificant. The fact that statistically those who are killed are typically from different group-identity categories than those who sanction or carry out the killing is not insignificant.
During the 1980s elephants and rhinos were threatened with local extinction in Kenya. The Rhinos actually did go locally extinct. The Kenya National Parks Service armed and trained their rangers and instituted a “shoot on sight” policy. Non-rangers and non-tourists in certain parks were bound to be armed poachers. Shooting them to death on sight reduced their numbers and their resolve, helped save the elephants, and allowed the reintroduction of rhinos in various parks. Human rights were explicitly and abruptly put aside in favor of animal rights. Kenya (in particular, Richard Leakey, head of Kenya Parks at the time) took a lot of heat for the shoot on sight policy. But once someone takes the heat for a new policy, it isn’t so hard for that policy to be implemented elsewhere. Today, poachers in Tanzania and South Africa and elsewhere may not exactly be shot on sight, but …. in the end mainly Western White tourists, conservationists, and big game hunters have their interest protected and dark skinned formerly colonized and systematically disadvantaged natives are sacrificed. The relationship between exploitation of humans and exploitation of animals may or may not be related in all cases. In this case it is explicit, overt, and impossible to turn away from.
We know from the palaeoanthropological and archaeological records and other evidence that there was at one time a much larger number of “hominid” species (close relatives of Homo sapiens). We can not say for sure where they went. They did not evolve into something else. They definitely died off. We can not say for sure that Homo sapiens did them in, but it is quite reasonable to suggest that they may have done so in at least a few cases.
Hominoids (the broader category that includes all apes) were also more common at one time. Orangs formerly occupied mainland southeast Asia. They probably went extinct there as late as the 1950s or 1960s, certainly because of humans. (I interviewed one person who claims to have killed an orangutan in southern Viet Nam in about 1964.) Indonesian Orangs are next. Bornean orangs are becoming increasingly rare. It is likely that several species of gibbons or siamangs went extinct during the 19th and 20th centuries. Gorillas formerly occupied West Africa, but no longer. A subspecies of eastern lowland gorilla probably went extinct over the last couple of years, and the rest of the gorillas are all in trouble. The Taï chimps were nearly poached out in the 1980s. A small change in politics or economics in Tanzania could wipe out the Mahale or Gombe chimps. The bonobos of the Congo’s left bank are frequently threatened. And so on and so forth. All of this is due to human activity.
Somebody is acting like the Aliens who view the humans as snacks. And it isn’t the aliens that are doing that, and the snacks are our fellow hominoids.