Animal Rights and Human Needs: Foundations of the debate (Part II)

Continued from Part 1 ...

Animal rights are arbitrarily granted or assumed

If human rights are arbitrarily assigned, so are animal rights. The argument has been made that animals with certain properties ... sentience (the definition of which moves somewhat), phylogenetic closeness to humans, or the ability to feel pain, etc. ... should share some protections against painful procedures, death, or being caged because of those properties. Sorry, but no. While it could be argued that the more human a non-human animal is the more like humans they should be treated, that simplistic view in and of itself leaves out the fact that we have only by convention assigned certain expectations to the treatment of our own species. If it is arbitrary for us, it is arbitrary for them.

In truth, we are not going to be able to avoid some scheme for assigning animal protections, and it is likely to relate to what we do with humans somehow. I just feel that it is important to undermine the power of such arguments. They are arbitrary, post hoc, and and they should not be fetishized.

Although it is arbitrary, the anthropocentric circle is reasonable

In fact, I would argue that an anthropocentric, phylogenetic approach is reasonable because it combines many of the things that people want to see in a set of rules about treatment of non-human animals. It is important to note that this does not preclude other rights-granting arguments; we'll get to that later.

First it should be noted that the fact that humans have no very close relatives that are only barely a different species is an historically contingent fact. I think it is a very meaningful fact, so let's be very clear about this and take a little digression with a discussion of evolutionary patterns.

Among vertebrates, it is possible to find cases where a close relative is very close phylogenetically. The southern oryx and the northern oryx in Africa, or the different kinds of gazelles, and many pairs of antelope or cervid, for instance, are all very close phylogentically. If you know all about one species, you automatically know almost all about the species that is its closest living relative. In other cases, this is not true. Pick a random persiodactyl and you may have very different results. A white rhino is not that similar to a black rhino, and the southeast Asian rhinos are different still, and the nearest relative to rhinos is nothing at all like a rhino.

So there are sets of species that are like bouquets of similar flowers ... a dozen roses of differing color, all roses, noticeably different in one attribute, but they all smell the same. And, there are sets of species that are like a display rack in a Hello Kitty store. Although one gets the feeling that there is some basic similarity (in this case overwrought cuteness and a lot of pink) two items hanging next to each other may be designed for utterly different purposes, made of utterly different materials, and of interest to utterly different people.

The clade that includes humans is in that second category. Our nearest relative is plenty like us, but also plenty different. The rhinos and their relatives (including horses, etc.) are disparate because they diversified a very long time ago, and since then have taken it in the neck competitively from other clades, mainly the artiodactyls (bovids, deer, antelopes) and have lost a lot of the branches of their evolutionary bush. The artiodactyls, on the other hand, got their shot at diversity more recently, and are in fact in the middle (or near the end) of their adaptive radiation. So, there are a lot of very similar artiodactyls because most of these species only recently arose. The difference between the two clades has to do with history and competitive exclusion, as well as lots of chance and circumstance, and this is typical in comparing any two vertebrate clades. Our clade ... the great apes ... is also the way it is ... disparate and devoid of very many close sister species ... because of its history.

Many, including possibly me, think this has to do at least to some extent with human competitive exclusion which is a well documented phenomenon; we have killed off our nearest relatives, typically, throughout prehistory for at least the last two million years. This may be a defining feature of our genus. It may have been such a consistent fact of biogeography for so long and across so much space that it might be foolish to assume that the minimum of 12 million years of evolutionary history that separates us from our nearest relatives is a random fact of phylogeny.

So it is quite possible that our "nearness" to chimpanzees, our nearest relatives, is of no consequence. It is possible, in an alternative world, that our nearest living relative is an amoeba. We would not be granting rights to the amoeba just because they are our nearest living relative.

But our nearest relatives are not amoebas: Some of the salient traits that humans posses that we tend to regard as special are not found widely among non-human animals, but they are found in relatively close relatives.

The Smart Monkey Effect

An animal rights policy that specifies certain traits ... the ability to count, the ability to communicate symbolically, the ability to distinguish between the Jerry Springer Show and Oprah (regardless of one's preference), etc ... will quickly run aground when applied more broadly to our evolutionary tree. A special human trait might be found in chimps, but no other apes. But then, this trait could pop up in one or more primates much more distantly related.

Every now and then, a trait thought to be found only in humans, or only in apes, or only in humans and chimps, a trait that might make a good phylogenetic marker to circumscribe a phylogenetically coherent special class of animals to which we afford a common right, is found in some other species such as non-ape primates or even non-primates. Sometimes these are cases of a trait looking similar between two species by analogy, but often they are just as likely to be real homologies, especially when found in primates. There is a general tendency for certain behaviors ... we can call them proto- or quasi-symbolic behavior perhaps ... to arise within primates in general, perhaps more or less randomly along the several hundred primate species that exist, more often but not exclusively in apes.

Certain non-human primates seem to be exceptionally "smart" (human-like) and "symbolic-ish" in their behavior but the literature is unclear about the distribution of human-like traits. Among the great apes there is probably not a lot of difference between chimps, gorillas, and orangs in overall smartosity, but there are very few behavioral lab results showing sub-linguistic, symbolic, or other human-esque behavior for orangs (most of the indicative data comes from the field). Gorillas seem to be lousy research subjects. Koko the gorilla failed the Gallup test again and again, but one day while being led back to her enclosure, I've heard, after once again failing the test, stopped at a randomly placed mirror in a hallway and used it to adjust the hair on her head, which amounts to passing the Gallup test that otherwise had been at that time only passed by humans and chimps. Chimps, especially bonobos, seem like over-eager teacher-pleasing suck-ups when it comes to behavioral research. For this reason we should be very careful about the use of scientific evidence at face value to be overly specific about which primates (or other animals) have which human-like traits. This almost certainly applies to apes, and it may apply to primates in general.

When a human-like trait is seen in another animal, it may or may not really be the same trait. It might be something that looks like the human-like trait but underlying it, neurologically, is a very different process. Elephants have evolved certain very human-like traits with very non-human brains. The fact that they treat their dead with what looks to us like reverence, including returning to the remains, burial of the remains, and other behaviors, does not mean that their brains have crossed some phylogentic/anatomical chasm to be more like humans. Rather, it means that similar behaviors have arisen, in this case probably for similar evolutionary reasons. Intergenerational importance and longevity of "cultural" knowledge is probably critical for elephants in the wild, as is the case with humans, and perhaps in both cases reverence for the elderly and the dead emerges as an effect.

This does not make elephants more human. It does, however, make the special human trait of treatment of the dead more mundane. Perhaps reverence for the dead and the concept of post-life sentience is a more general mammalian trait than we thought, or even a widespread organism-with-brain trait, that happens to be highly developed in humans. In other words, asserting that this trait, or any other trait that is seen as human-like and special to humans found in a distant relative is not necessarily evidence that those distant related animals should be treated like humans, but rather, that humans should not be treated so differently from those distantly related animals just because humans have that trait.

Elephants, honey bees and parrots all show human-like traits with different evolutionary histories and different neurological substrates. This is not earth shattering. Behavioral scientists have understood for decades that analogy is not homology, and behavioral biologists reasonably assume that if there are phylogenetic gaps between instances of specific traits, that analogy is more likely an explanation, and if there are no or few gaps, homology is more likely. Furthermore, if the basic neurological system and sensory modalities underlying the traits is similar, homology is more likely and analogy less likely.

An example is the trait of facial contact to indicate warmth, love, closeness. Mothers touch their face to their baby's face, lovers mush each others faces together, and so on. So, when your cat is all over your face with her face, that's love, right? Well, it probably is in some way, but it is also said to be marking by the cat of part of its territory. If you watch the cat long enough, you will observe it "lovingly" rubbing its face on other cats, on the legs of chairs, on the ground, on a bush, on a book, or a can of soup. Cats live in an olfactory world and they have scent glands used for contact marking on their heads. It may well be that your cat is not simply marking you as territory. House cats are social. They may be using the face marking as a social signal of solidarity kinda, sorta, like how humans mush their faces together. But while face mushing "means" love and attachment in humans, it probably signifies a state of association in cats that means "Don't eat this one. Yet." It only looks like the human act, which is a combination of sensory melding and cerebral symbolically mediated bonding.

But when chimpanzees kiss, that is likely different. Chimpanzees have human-like brains, and humans and chimps share cerebral and limbic systems and syndromes that are distinct from cats and other carnivores. The list of "emotions" one would see in a cat is not the same as the list one would seen in a chimp, but human and chimp emotions are very much overlapping. Chimps seem to do "kissing" in similar contexts to humans outside of pair bonding. (Chimps don't have pair bonding.)

(For more on humans mushing their faces together see this.)

The reason the chimpanzee kisses and some human kisses are probably similar is because of the similarity of the underlying neurological substrate, the similarity of sensory modalities (and thus of communicative process), the contextual similarity, and a likely evolutionary commonality. And these things are all true for one reason: Phylogentic propinquity.

Therefore, even though each and every right assigned to animals or to humans, or even to aliens, might be arbitrary, if we assign a right to humans, it seems reasonable to suggest that this right should be considered more seriously for those closely related to humans than it should be for those distantly related. So, although the underpinnings of this idea may be arbitrary, it's implementation is not.

As a result, it can be asserted that in the absence of mitigating circumstances or other effects, the following concentric circles exist: Humans; The Great Apes, possibly ordered phylogenetically but for many reasons left as a unary group; The Old World Monkeys and New World Primates possibly ordered but, again, arguably left as a unary group; prosimians; mammals ... dot-dot-dot ... amoebas.

... to be continued ...


More like this

Do you think that just rights are arbitrary, or do you think all moral positions are also arbitrary?

Charles: There is a vast difference between "morals" or "ethics" on one hand and "rights" on the other. So, asking me if I think only rights are arbitrary or are all moral positions arbitrary is like asking me if I think Subaru's are good cars or are all mackerel shiny.

Well, its not quite that extreme, but I think you get the idea.

Notice that in this and the previous essay I talk about positions people tend to hold about things like pain and death, and about hypocrisy and irony in these positions. There, I'm talking about morality, and although I don't say it overtly you can easily infer that I think that at least some (very important) moral/ethical positions are not arbitrary.

Humans exhibit what is called the uncanny valley.

I think that this relates to language acquisition in humans, by providing an aversion to associating with those who are insufficiently self-like. I discuss this in my blog in the context of xenophobia. I think it is this aversion, that provides the compulsion to be like one's peers, that provides the motivation for adopting the fads of one's peers, the language of one's peers, the likes and dislikes of one's peers, and everything else that is peer-related.

I think the uncanny valley is why there are no near-human species. Our ancestors killed them all. It would be very interesting to see if elephants exhibit the uncanny valley too. I suspect they do not. It is my understanding that Asian and African elephants can be housed together. I don't think that any pri

I think that relying on human-like characteristics to determine how animals or even other humans are to be treated is too unreliable. Humans have treated other humans as slaves, as food, as non-human objects to be exterminated. I think the mindset that allows humans to kill other humans under conditions other than self-defense is via the uncanny valley and the triggering of xenophobia. That is what preaching hate does, it triggers xenophobia and dehumanizes the objects of the hate.

I think that humans are too caught up in ranking things in a social hierarchy, where those at the top are to be worshiped, and those at the bottom are to be killed. That type of social structure hinges on mob rule, who ever is at the top and controls the mob can do anything they want to. Those at the top have too much power, and power always corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

I don't think that any pri...

Any pri... what? What? I think a piece of your comment uncannily disappeared.

I will mention that new world monkeys and old world monkeys co-associated in mixed species groups peacefully and frequently.

However, there are few oppurtunities for apes to do so in the wild. There is only one study site I know of with anything beyond semi-habituated apes that has both chimps and gorillas, and they do NOT peacefully co-associated. They seem to avoid each other, with the chimps being overwhelmingly dominant over the gorillas as a group.

There are many places (as I've described a couple of essays back) where chimps and humans co-inhabit, and they do NOT co-associate peacefully at all. Chimps occassionally kill humans, if they can get them unarmed and alone, and humans habitually kill and eat the chimps.

And in my fiew, the uncanny valley thing is going on there for sure. Whether it is the main explanation or not, I'm not sure, but it is part of what happens.

I got distracted and posted that before I had finished a thought. There are reports of hybrids between African and Asian elephants, but not viable ones. It is thought that African and Asian elephants diverged 7.6 million years ago. It is hard to imagine primates that had diverged by 7.6 million years being capable of being housed together, let alone mating.

Callitrichids, Squirrel monkeys and Spider monkeys associate in mixed troops of up to five species and get along fairly well. I believe some of these monkeys have been housed together but I'm not sure why I think that. However, it is clear (well,maybe not clear, but I think it is probably true) that mixed species associations in general tend to evolve under certain circumstances, and this is one of the classic cases. There are parallels in Africa. I'm not sure about OWM's in Asia offhand, but I'd wager there are cases.

But, as I said above, no so much for hominoids.

I think the work on primates raised in isolation is informative. Harlow did a lot of work in the 1960's on this. Monkeys that were isolated from birth for 6 or 12 months were profoundly socially deficient, and when placed with socially raised monkeys were bullied and would have been killed by the social monkeys if the investigators had not intervened. I think the behavior of the social monkeys indicates an uncanny valley effect, triggered by the lack of appropriate social responses by the isolated monkeys.


I had just been perusing some meta-ethical readings on moral realism, congitivism, non-cognitivism, moral facts, error theory, and so on.

I guess my head was swimming with those ideas when I asked if your view on rights was similar to you view an all moral positions.

Didn't mean to come across as insulting your moral integrity or ethical intelligence.


In dealings between humans, interaction by formal agreement (i.e. contract) are usually deemed to be âfairâ, provided they are entered into when the parties are not under duress, and when there is no exploitation. What constitutes âexploitationâ in a human context usually hinges on the contract being considered âfairâ by both parties, provided both parties have the autonomy to accept or reject the agreement and both parties voluntarily choose to accept it.

In a non-human context, what constitutes a âfairâ and non-exploitative agreement is less clear because the non-human party cannot understand the agreement and also cannot accept or reject it. However, we can use the âreasonable personâ standard, and impute that the agreement is âfairâ, if a hypothetical reasonable person would agree to it under the same circumstances. Another way of determining if an agreement is âfairâ, is if it is a normally accepted way of doing things, in effect if it has become standard accepted practice.

Slavery is not an accepted practice because there is asymmetry of power and duress, but the enslavement of mitochondria by eukaryotes has become accepted because of its very long duration such that there is now mutual dependence. A mother may agree to enslave herself to her fetus for the duration of a pregnancy, but that enslavement is (or should be) by her free choice. It is a choice that many women choose to agree to, because they derive the benefit of having a baby that (under most circumstances) is their child.

Under severe food deprivation and metabolic stress, a postpartum mammal will commit infanticide, and sometimes cannibalism. If this event preserves the life of the mother, and enables a future reproductive event then the infant that is killed and eaten would want it to happen, if the alternative is for the mother and infant to both die. Applying a reasonable person standard to the infant, the infant would rather see its mother survive and have a future sibling than for the infant and mother (and all potential future siblings) to die. We can apply the âreasonable personâ standard to both parties and determine that in this extremest of extreme situations, the interests of the infant and the mother coincide.

In the context of a woman carrying a pregnancy that will kill both of them if she tries to carry it to term, the interests of the fetus and of the woman are both the same, abort the fetus, preserve the life of the woman, so that she may reproduce at a later time so that the fetus may have future siblings. That circumstance is analogous to the infanticide under metabolic stress that evolution has imprinted into all mammals. It is quite possible that some instances of natural miscarriage are due to the same type of circumstances but human physiology has internalized the cause and effect so that no conscious intervention is necessary.

If we apply a âreasonable personâ standard to predator-prey interactions, the reasonable predator and the reasonable prey would agree that stability of their respective species gene pool and the long term maintaining of species viability is the most important species aspiration and goal, and that any individual member of the species can be sacrificed to ensure continuity of the species. This is what the infant wants when its mother becomes infanticidal, it is not unreasonable to extend that to an entire species. Unfortunately, predator and prey species cannot self-regulate their behaviors so as to achieve stability of both species gene pools, but if they could, that is what they would both want, and over time, that is what evolution will eventually produce.

If we postulate that all organisms have a right to live and a right to personal bodily integrity so long as they do not actively harm another organism, where does that lead? A human could then plant crops and surround them by fences that other animals could not penetrate and those animals would be denied access to the food crops that the human is growing. Eventually the human population would expand and cover the entire Earth, and there would be no space for non-human animals. Humans could do this without violating the bodily integrity of any non-human organism and those non-human organisms would go extinct. The reasonable organism would find extinction unacceptable and would be willing to make reasonable accommodation to prevent extinction. The reasonable human would be willing to make a reasonable agreement with the organism to ensure the organism does not go extinct.

This agreement must benefit both parties. The organism that would go extinct would greatly benefit if humans controlled its population in a sustainable way so that it does not go extinct. What benefit can humans derive from doing so? Humans can derive benefits from consuming the flesh of organisms. Humans can derive benefits from studying organisms and deriving knowledge from their physiological processes, humans can derive benefits by testing drugs on non-human organisms. If humans sequence the organism's DNA, the DNA can be preserved, and new organisms can be generated once humans develop the technology to do so. If humans terraform other planets and inhabit them with a biome that contains organisms from Earth, that is a very large benefit to all organisms included in the biome.

The major benefit the organisms derive is their non-extinction, and that benefit is of essentially infinite value. There are extinction events that only humans can prevent, large asteroid impacts for example. Preventing such extinction events is an infinitely large benefit to many species (including humans).

Since individual organisms are willing to sacrifice themselves to preserve the reproductive capacity of near kin, the reasonable organism will be willing to do that to preserve its species.

Provided humans are willing to prevent the extinction of a species by using a member of that species under conditions that are no worse than the organism would experience in its natural habitat, then the reasonable organism should willingly agree to such treatment. The âprevention of extinctionâ agreement is one of very long duration, essentially until humans are on the verge of extinction too.

In conclusion, from the postulate that all organisms have the right to life and bodily integrity I have derived a non-exploitive framework for using animals as food and experimental subjects by humans, and have laid out obligations on the part of humans that make this a mutually beneficial relationship between humans and non-human organisms.

You spend a portion of this post discussing evidence of animal intelligence. As an animal-rights supporter, I'm completely unmoved, and even somewhat unsettled, by this sort of argument. In many ways a computer is more intelligent than any of us, yet I have no reason to think it can experience discomfort or pain, and therefore I can ethically do whatever I want with it. There's also variation in intelligence among members of our species; if for some reason you won't grant that for healthy individuals, at least consider those with severe birth defects. I'm very leery of using an IQ test to determine whose interests don't matter.

I'm even more disturbed by your argument in favor of what it sounds like you'd happily agree is "speciesism," because I see no fundamental difference from an argument for nepotism or racism. Defining other beings' ethical status by similarity to myself is a very dangerous proposition, because if my criteria change by a small degree I'll suddenly fall in line with some of the worst people in human history. I suspect a great many well-meaning people a century ago were moved to bigotry by similar studies of the behavior and phrenology of "Negroes," but I don't think such data should be relevant to ethics even if they were true.

Peter Singer is a major philosophical influence in the animal-rights movement and follows the utilitarianism of Bentham, who said "The question is not, 'Can they reason?' nor, 'Can they talk?' but rather, 'Can they suffer?'" That is, the degree to which we should go out of our way to avoid harming other beings depends only on the degree to which they're able to experience harm. I have no doubt that some animal-rights supporters do think familiarity and intelligence are the measures of ethical standing (though it might be stylish to include a few examples next time so we know you're not talking about strawmen), but I hope in the future you'll address this more conventional and rigorous argument. If you can be bothered to find out what "sentience" is (outside of Star Trek), it sounds like your wealth of knowledge will be very relevant, and I look forward to learning more from you.

By Epistaxis (not verified) on 26 Mar 2010 #permalink

There is no fundamental difference between man and the higher animals in their mental faculties.… The lower animals, like man, manifestly feel pleasure and pain, happiness, and misery.
—Charles Darwin, naturalist and author (1809–1882)

This discussion is insane, anthropomorphism is something humans do, functionality, monkeys do not ponder whether humans have rights. Of all evolution, arcealogical text I've read human evolution is merely the inability of humans to exist in their habitat, moving from savannah to cave to forest to house to city to country to space, ie terraforming. We've evolved to outwit our own existence. Everything we've invented or manifested is simply that a thought, rational or not, response to our environment. There is no appropriate social response, just like there are no inalienable rights to any animal, human or otherwise, constitutions are manifestions of man. A story such as the bible or Koran, falsehood. Deer do not stop to contemplate whether a vehicle stricken human should receive attention, nor should they. Human species does not owe other species squat, nor should they be inclined. Are we supposed to bring back dinosaurs for the sake of dinosaurs? There are no rights to any part of our universe. Only evolution yielding survival of any single organism or species or stratified layer or anything. In other words we cannot guarantee a perfect existence, for us or them, our planet, nor will we ever be able to. If I'm in a room with a lion, something's getting eaten. There's your Darwin, survival of the fittest, the ameoba engulfs!

By Rod scott (not verified) on 29 Jan 2015 #permalink

The legal hunting of any animal, rhino, elephant brings hundreds of thousands of dollars to the people who inhabit the bush, providing tools to manage the herds and bring awareness of those animals existence. Without the hunting bushmen would slaughter these animals and they would cease to exist. Think about what animals are most prevalent In North America, big game animals of course, deer, turkey. At levels never seen before, deer at time of Columbus arrival, 22 mill., currently 44 mill. Turkeys the same, geese the same. I.e. Manageable hunting and killing equals good. Only now has bald eagle returned after how many decades? You want to help other animals or species, eat them!

By Rod scott (not verified) on 29 Jan 2015 #permalink