Saletan on Singer, or Are you stupider than a monkey?

4 Jul

What kind of monkey?

Link : Slate – Animal-Rights Farm

Animal-Rights Farm

Ape rights and the myth of animal equality.
By William Saletan

Should apes be treated like people?

Under a resolution headed for passage in the Spanish parliament, respecting the personal rights of “our non-human brothers” won’t just be a good idea. It’ll be the law.

The resolution, approved last week by a parliamentary committee with broad support, urges the government to implement the agenda of the Great Ape Project, an organization whose founding declaration says apes “may not be killed” or “arbitrarily deprived of their liberty.” No more routine confinement. According to Reuters, the proposal would commit the government to ending involuntary use of apes in circuses, TV ads, and dangerous experiments.

Proponents hail the resolution as the first crack in the “species barrier.” Peter Singer, the philosopher who co-founded GAP, puts it this way: “There is no sound moral reason why possession of basic rights should be limited to members of a particular species.” If aliens or monkeys are shown to have moral or intellectual abilities similar to ours, we should treat them like people.

He’s right. To borrow Martin Luther King’s rule, you should be judged by what’s inside you, not by what’s on the surface.

Can apes talk? Slate V investigates:

If the idea of treating chimps like people freaks you out, join the club. Creationists have been fighting this battle for a long time. They realized long ago that evolution threatened humanity’s special status. Maybe you thought all this evolution stuff was just about the past. Surprise! Once you’ve admitted chimps are your relatives, you have to think about treating them that way. That’s why, when the Spanish proposal won approval last week, GAP’s leader in Spain called it a victory for “our evolutionary comrades.”

Opponents view the resolution as egalitarian extremism. Spain’s conservative party frets that it would grant animals the same rights as people. Spanish newspapers and citizens complain that ape rights are distracting lawmakers from human problems. Wesley Smith, my favorite anti-animal-rights blogger, sees the resolution as the first step in a campaign to “elevate all mammals to moral equality with humans.” Ultimately, Smith warns, “Animal rights activists believe a rat, is a pig, is a dog, is a boy.”

You can certainly find that theme in some quarters. GAP calls humans, chimps, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans “members of the community of equals,” and Singer holds out the possibility that GAP “may pave the way for the extension of rights to all primates, or all mammals, or all animals.” But the arguments GAP has deployed in Spain don’t advance the idea of equality among animals. They destroy it.

GAP is scientifically honest. And science doesn’t show mental parity between great apes and human adults. What it shows, as the group’s president acknowledges, is that great apes “experience an emotional and intellectual conscience similar to that of human children.” Accordingly, the Spanish proposal doesn’t treat apes like you or me. It treats them like “humans of limited capacity, such as children or those who are mentally incompetent and are afforded guardians or caretakers to represent their interests.”

And that’s just the top rung of the inequality ladder. GAP’s mission statement says great apes are entitled to rights based on their “morally significant characteristics.” It says they

enjoy a rich emotional and cultural existence in which they experience emotions such as fear, anxiety and happiness. They share the intellectual capacity to create and use tools, learn and teach other languages. They remember their past and plan for their future. It is in recognition of these and other morally significant qualities that the Great Ape Project was founded.

Morally significant qualities. Morally significant characteristics. These are appeals to discrimination, not universal equality. Most animals don’t have a rich cultural life. They can’t make tools. They don’t teach languages. Singer even points out that “chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas have long-term relationships, not only between mothers and children, but also between unrelated apes.” Special rights for animals in committed relationships! It sounds like a Moral Majority for vegans.

Opening your mind to science-based animal rights doesn’t eliminate inequality. It just makes the inequality more scientific. A rat can’t match a pig, much less a boy. In fact, as a GAP board member points out, “We are closer genetically to a chimp than a mouse is to a rat.”

George Orwell wrote the cruel finale to this tale 63 years ago in Animal Farm: “All animals are equal. But some animals are more equal than others.” That wasn’t how the egalitarian uprising in the book was supposed to turn out. It wasn’t how the animal rights movement was supposed to turn out, either.

I find this article utterly baffling. At first, Saletan seems to think he’s agreeing with Singer by endorsing the claim that if “monkeys are shown to have moral or intellectual abilities similar to ours, we should treat them like people.” Setting aside the fact that this paraphrase is an embarrassing (and possibly intentional) bungling of Singer’s position, he then introduces the point that, for Singer, a given animal’s specific cognitive faculties should be used as criteria for determining what rights that animal should be accorded.

Saletan’s moral indignation over the suggestion that a self-aware, emotionally sophisticated chimpanzee should be granted greater legal protection than, say a mosquito, is such that he compares Singer to Stalin. Not only is this analogy idiotic and offensive, but it also flies in the face of Saletan’s professed support for a slight variation on Dr. King’s dream of a world where ethical relations are determined by character rather than outward appearance. Does this mean he thinks that all animals have exactly the same psychological make-up? Does he think moral and legal considerations are separate on this issue? In any event, he neither bothers to mention why Singer thinks certain mental characteristics are morally significant (viz. they are connected to interests, experiences of happiness and suffering, etc.), nor does he offer any substantial moral criteria of his own. While he condemns the GAP for creating more refined conceptual means by which to discern the degree of moral consideration called for by a given animal, the implicit alternative–granting all animals equal status–seems too sweeping and immediately problematic to really be Saletan’s position. If not sentience and/or emotional life, on what grounds then do we justify the ascription of rights and protections to animals as opposed to anything else? Or perhaps Saletan thinks bonsai trees and tennis shoes should also receive basic rights?

The article closes with a lament over Singer’s corrupting influence on the animal rights movement. It “wasn’t supposed to turn out this way,” he whines. Like he would know. Peter Singer’s 1975 book Animal Liberation is widely credited with having sparked the contemporary animal rights movement. Last I checked, Saletan’s biggest claim to fame is having contributed a series of articles to the New York Times which defended the idea that race plays a genetic role in determining IQ. How anyone takes this guy seriously is a mystery to me.


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