Tuesday, July 15, 2008
There has been much buzz about Spain's decision to grant limited rights to apes, much of it favorable. (Stephen Colbert, it bears noting, was skeptical, insisting the new law better not give apes "the right not to wear a tuxedo and roller skates.") Two pieces appeared in the New York Times, and William Saletan chimes in on Slate. An excerpt:
Secular humanists reject this dogma [that humans have souls but animals do not]. We understand that there's something wonderful and uniquely worthy of respect in the power, richness, and subtlety of the human mind. But to us, the soul doesn't explain these wonders. It describes them. That's one reason why the destruction of human embryos doesn't torment us the way it torments pro-lifers. We don't believe in ensoulment at conception. We believe in the gradual development of mental capacities.
This puts us in an awkward position. We call ourselves egalitarians, yet we deny the equality of conceived humans. We believe that a woman deserves more respect than a fetus. A 26-week fetus deserves more respect than a 12-week fetus. A 12-week fetus deserves more consideration than a zygote. We discriminate according to ability. This is also why ape rights appeals to us. It's not a claim of equality among all animals. It's a claim that apes resemble us in ways that insects don't.
This whole issue raises lots of questions for me: Is a belief in the human soul secularly accessible? Does it need to be to justify the rejection of animal rights? Can we embrace animal rights without embracing the corresponding belief that rights are simply a function of demonstrated mental capacity? Does recognizing the ape's rights make it less likely that we'll recognize the rights of a severely disabled infant (much less fetus)? My own initial reaction is that, while I would support legislation aimed at minimizing the unnecessary suffering of apes (or other animals whose highly developed mental capacities make them especially vulnerable to pain or loneliness), I would prefer that the legislation be framed in terms of humans' stewardship responsibilities, rather than in terms of animals as rights-bearing agents. Thoughts?