Regan v Singer: Animal Rights

Regan's most recurrent strategy for validating animal rights is to demonstrate that if human beings can be said to have rights, some animals can likewise be said to have rights. (3) (1) This argument is based, in turn, on the propositions that (a) human and animal experiences and interests may be "comparable" or even "equal", (b) Human and animal experiences differ in degree but not in kind , and (c) no traits that are universal among humans are exclusive to them . (4) There is a large body of published opinion that would deny (a) and (b), and which would hold that (c), though true, is unsupportive of Regan's conclusion.

It is crucial, at the outset, to point out that, in attempting to derive animal rights though an analogy between animals and humans, both Regan and Singer fail to come to terms with the strongest rival position: namely, the argument that so-called "human rights" attach, not to "humans" (a biological category) but to "persons" (a moral category) and "potential persons." "Personhood" refers to a set of capacities -- self-consciousness, a self-concept, abstraction and time perception, rationality, ability to act on principle, etc. -- which are possessed by most members of the species homo sapiens, and, to the best of our knowledge, by no other animals in a remotely comparable degree and kind. This close (though imperfect) correlation between species and the capacity-set called "personhood" leads to the common, though strictly incorrect, term "human rights." Regan's analysis takes advantage of this linguistic inaccuracy. (The error is also rampant in public discussions of "the right to life" of fetuses which focus on the question of "human life" rather than "personal life"). The defender of "person-rights" (rather than "human-rights") will have a much easier time responding to Regan's arguments, for the simple reason that he will readily accord these rights to any non-human being (animal, cybernetic, or extra-terrestrial) shown to possess personal traits. However, it is a simple empirical fact that no such beings have yet been shown to exist.

It does not follow from this analysis that non-humans possess no rights whatever. Several philosophers have argued that sentient animals have a right to humane treatment. (5) However, no animals can be said to have such "person-rights" as "freedom of worship," or a "right to a college education," not because we humans are tyrants, but simply because these animals lack the capacities to exercise such rights.

What, then, of so-called "marginal cases" of human beings with only partial or potential person-traits? As with animals, they might be accorded such rights as they have the capacity to exercise. Also, potential persons, such as infants or temporarily comatose individuals, are plausibly accorded rights "in anticipation" of later capacities. To the best of our knowledge, no animals warrant such "anticipations." But again, personal capacity, not species membership, is the key to such an analysis of rights. Surely it is, to say the least, a prominent presumption among philosophers who deal with this issue. (6) Yet it is not the approach adopted by Regan and Singer who repeatedly write of "humans" (as a species) and only rarely of "persons." (7)

Why should "personhood" loom so large in a philosophical analysis of human and animal rights? Essentially for these reasons: (a) the quality of personal life, and of the experience therein, may be fundamentally different from that of non-personal life; (b) this qualitative difference is such that personal life may be said to be richer, more comprehensive, and more valuable to the person, than a life of a non-personal being to that being; and (c) "personhood" denotes a set of capacities that appears to be exclusive to the human species (a contingent fact), though not universal thereto. (8)

If these claims can be sustained, then it follows that the rights of persons (i.e., most humans) are both more comprehensive and more morally significant than the rights of relevant non-persons (i.e., some animals). This, of course, is a conclusion to which Regan and Singer strenuously object.

Why, then, should personal life, contrary to the contention of "animal rights" advocates, be qualitatively different? The key, most commentators agree, is language, defined, not as "sign communication," but as a syntactically structured system of significant symbols. (9)

With language, an organism is able to respond, not only to mental images of objects of experience (a capacity perhaps attainable without language), but also to types (abstractions), facts (as propositions), projections, hypotheses, time frames, argument forms, and moral principles. Furthermore, all this and more can, through grammar, be combined and structured in an inexhaustible variety of ways. Finally, through language, one may acquire a self-concept, and view oneself as an entity continuing through time.

In view of all this, Regan's treatment of "the language difference" is remarkably restrictive. Though the point of view that we have sketched above has been extensively and recently argued by philosophers (such as Mead, Dewey, Cassirer, Langer, Wittgenstein) and many linguists, psychologists and anthropologists, Regan chooses instead to take on Rene Descartes -- and no one else. (6-7) Regan writes: "one might dispute the view that being able to use a language is a necessary condition of being a conscious being." (6) Later he asserts: "whether or not a person is experiencing pain. . . does not depend on his being able to perform one or another linguistic feat." (7, cf 32) However, by "linguistic feat," Regan seems to mean the capacity to speak or write -- i.e., to "produce" discourse. He thus dismisses "the linguistic difference:"

Imagine a person whose vocal cords have been damaged to such an extent that he no longer has the ability to utter words or even to make inarticulate sounds, and whose arms have been paralyzed so that he cannot write, but who, when his tooth abscesses, twists and turns on his bed, grimaces and sobs. We do not say "Ah, if only he could still speak, we could give him something for his pain. As it is, since he cannot speak, there's nothing we need give him. For he feels no pain." We say he is in pain, despite his loss of the ability to say so. (6-7)

Here Regan attacks a position with no adherents, and draws our attention away from a significant rival position. Of course, animals and language-deprived humans can suffer pain, and may therefore be said to have a right not to endure gratuitous pain. However, paralyzed humans who cannot "perform linguistic feats" may not be language-deprived, since there may be a great deal "going on inside." Speaking and writing, in fact, are not even the most significant "linguistic feats." They are, instead, the outward manifestations of an inward accomplishment which supports advanced thought -- the basis of uniquely personal (presumably human) experiences.

With language and personhood, life-quality is transformed. The life and experiences of persons and of non-persons are no longer "comparable;" they are "different in kind." Regan and Singer would have us believe otherwise. Their advocacy of "animal rights" and "animal liberation" stands repeatedly on the contention that human and animal experiences might be regarded as "comparable," or even "equal," and thus that human and animal "interests" and "rights" might be "equal." Such a contention seems to rest upon a presumption that human and animal lives, like safe-deposit boxes containing coins and notes of debit, are composed of discrete and transferable experiential (and derivatively moral) counters. But surely, this is not how it is. On the contrary, because human experiences are interactive, organic, intentional and systemic, an "autobiography" is more than a sum of discrete sequential experiences. Because human experiences are contextual, they come out of an ongoing life, and effect the future of that life. Experiences which "happen to" a life -- a stubbed toe, a toothache, an unexpected prize, etc., have sense, meaning, value, in the context of that life. Thus the quality of a pleasure or pain can not be assessed apart from the quality of the life it happens "in" or "to" -- apart from the matrix of attitudes, expectations and evaluations that make up that life. Now if, as Regan and Singer contend, the differences between human and animal lives are simply matters of degree (not kind, cf. Regan 159) among isolated phenomenal bits, then some sense and use may be made of this arguments by analogy. Our account of "personhood" seems to suggest, however, that this position is radically mistaken. Humans, qua persons, deal with each other in conversation and with themselves in thought, with and through concepts articulated through syntactical language. They think abstractly of themselves, of others, of community, of time, of their past and future, of concepts such as rationality and of morality. As persons, humans experience unique dimensions of mental and emotional pain; self-reproach, dread of impending loss, regret for abandoned projects, fear of death, and such moral sentiments as guilt and shame. Persons also uniquely enjoy such pleasures as self-respect, intellectual and creative accomplishment, patriotism, irony, humor and pride. In sum the transcending and transforming fact that human beings are persons gives them a moral considerability far beyond that of animals. Thus, once we seriously reflect upon and evaluate the human condition of personhood, talk of "comparability" or even "equality" of experiences of animals and human beings becomes unsupportable.

Having said all this, we must not coast off the deep end. In particular, acknowledgment of these significant differences does not entail that animal experiences do not morally "matter," and that gratuitous torture of animals is not morally reprehensible. However different and even unknowable animal pain may be, it is pain nonetheless. Furthermore, this point of view need not be regarded as what Singer calls "species chauvinism." If homo sapiens is the only terrestrial personal species, this is a contingent fact. Personal capacities, and the entailed transformation of experience, are logically attributable to any creatures. The limitation thereof is based upon empirical fact and circumstance. If we were to discover that chimps or dolphins could be educated to personhood, our moral stance toward them would and should be radically transformed. So too if we were to encounter an extra- terrestrial person. Indeed, if recent experiments with "ape language" are as significant as some claim then a reassessment of our moral stance toward these cousins is overdue.

In an persuasive defense of human rights, Regan points out that: "The world contains individuals (e.g., human beings) who not only are alive but have a life; these individuals are not mere things (objects), they are the subjects of a life; they have, in James Rachels' helpful phrase, autobiographies." (70, cf. 94, 135) Predictably, he then attempts to extend this argument to animals. (10)

It won't do. While some non-personal animals may be said to "have a life," being without time- and self-consciousness they can scarcely be said to have "autobiographies." Given these dimensions of consciousness in personal life, the significance of one's life to oneself is utterly transformed. A steer does not look upon its scheduled slaughter with the sense of dread and foreboding suffered by a condemned prisoner. "Capital punishment" for beasts simply makes no sense (as Regan himself tacitly admits, 150-2). To a person, a life -- his life -- is a continuity and a unity, of which he is perpetually aware and concerned. This phenomenological fact entails rights to life that are unique to persons.

Regan asks: "on what grounds, precisely, might it be claimed that no animals can reason, make free choices, or form a concept of themselves?"(13) The answer is richly represented in recent philosophical, linguistic and psychological literature: on the grounds that animals lack articulate languages -- a rejoinder that Regan has utterly failed to address. He continues, "what one would want [to support this claim] are detailed analyses of these cooperative concepts together with rationally compelling empirical data and other arguments that support the view that all non-human animals are deficient in these respects." (13) Again, there are such arguments, based upon well-known studies of problem-solving skills with and without language, studies of aphasia, of animal behavior, of children raised without language, of language-using blind-deaf (e.g., Helen Keller), and more. In addition, there is a vast philosophical literature on the function of language in personality. Among the prominent contributors to this field of study are Mead, Dewey, Cassirer, Langer, Wittgenstein and Chomsky (to offer only a small sample). None of the above are indexed in Regan's book and, after two careful readings of the book, I can recall none of them being mentioned in this regard. All these studies, and more, are crucially relevant to Regan's arguments and theories. His failure to face them and respond critically must seriously compromise his case.

To close my argument, I will move beyond these scholarly and scientific studies to a case study of much greater familiarity: that of Lassie. Those who can remember far back into the ancient history of commercial television will recall the plot line of (it seems) most of the episodes. Timmy and Lassie go outside to play. Timmy gets into some kind of trouble - he is stranded in a tree or by a flash flood, or falls down a mineshaft - whatever. Timmy says, "Lassie, get help!" Lassie runs back to the ranch, barks at the door, leads Mom and Pop to Timmy. Saccharine theme music. Credits. Fade out.

The following is a plot that we never saw: Returning for help, Lassie encounters an impassable gorge or swollen river. However, on the other side within earshot is "Rover." Lassie "tells" Rover, "Timmy is caught in a mineshaft on the side of yonder hill. Go to the ranch and tell Mom, and lead them to the mine." Rover does exactly what he is told. Timmy is saved.

We never saw this episode because we all know that it was utterly incredible. To be sure, animals do "communicate." But they are incapable of conveying such simple abstractions as "third-person" messages. Lacking this capacity, animals are incapable of "funding knowledge," and thus they lack "culture" and a species "history." The behavior of wild squirrels, wolves and hawks today is essentially identical to the behavior of their ancestors hundreds of years ago. If there is any change in that behavior, it is due, not to the "funding" of their knowledge and experience through language, but through alterations in their genome through natural selection.

We homo sapiens are, in short, very different sorts of critters - and for reasons that can be readily understood and appreciated. No "natural history" or philosophy which fails to take these differences into account deserves to be taken seriously.

And yet, the basic strategy of such "animal rights" philosophers as Tom Regan and Peter Singer, is to stress the similarity between humans and non-human animals while, at the same time, de-emphasizing and perhaps devaluing that which sets humans apart from the animals; namely, the moral significance and dignity of personhood. That, I submit, may be an exorbitant and unacceptable moral cost -- especially so, since there are other grounds upon which to articulate and justify a humane treatment of animals.


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