An Essay on Animal Rights
I wrote this essay in March as part of my course, it was marked First Class, so I'm assuming it's decent enough, although there were several points of disagreement with my tutor who highlighted some very important improvements that need to be made. Let me know what you think.
‘We demand the extension of the community of equals to include all great apes: human beings, chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orang-utans. The community of equals is the moral community within which we accept certain basic moral principles or rights as governing our relations with each other and enforceable at law.’ (The Great Ape Project declaration, http://www.greatapeproject.org/declaration.php). Discuss. One of my major ethical interests is in the concept of personhood. As persons we have interests in life among other things and our treatment of each other should reflect those interests since we are also as persons capable of morality. It is very hard to claim that personhood be defined purely on the basis of species. We can’t say all humans can be persons. Those in permanent vegetative states are not. In her defence of abortion Mary Warren highlights six basics on which we may qualify a person: “(1) sentience – the capacity to have conscious experience, usually including the capacity to feel pain and pleasure;(2) emotionality – the capacity to feel happy, sad, angry, loving, etc;(3) reason – the capacity to solve new and relatively complex problems;(4) the capacity to communicate, by whatever means, messages of an indefinite variety of types; that is, not just with an indefinite number of possible contents, but on indefinitely many topics;(5) self-awareness – having a concept of oneself, as an individual and/or as a member of a social group; and finally(6) moral agency – the capacity to regulate one’s own actions through moral principles or ideals.”
I would add a concept of death to this list as it is vitally important in deciding whether it is ok to end the life of a certain creature.
I will present this essay in the form of an investigation into whether primates meet the criteria above of personhood. The essay will show that indeed primates share the same basic interests as us and thus deserve the same kinds of rights as us. I will not investigate all of the above criteria, sentience for example is a given fact for all mammalian life the same is true of emotionality for higher mammals at least.
I must first justify my reasons for judging moral status on the basis of personhood. Firstly, Warren gives a fairly good basis of describing the main features of personhood although some more work does need to be done. So why judge morality on this basis? When we talk of person (others use the term ‘agent’) we mean a creature in possession of a brain capable of behaving in complex, sophisticated ways. The more complex the creature on a mental level, the more interests it will have, and the more concepts it will be able to deal with. Respecting interests of all beings normally creates the greatest happiness consequentially. It can be said that an animal with no concept of life and death will not have an interest in life beyond vague survival instincts, so no offence is committed by killing it for meat.
Peter Singer states that although differences between different kinds of creatures (even those of the same species) lead to different rights, there should be no difference in consideration. We should give equal measure to the interests of animals but some animals have more interests especially those that come into the category of possessing personhood. Singer goes on however to a more Kantian argument:“For the… majority of human beings… the most direct form of contact with members of other species is at meal times: we eat them. In doing so we treat them purely as means to our ends.”
This is separate from his main argument on equality of consideration. Not treating animals as means is different from considering their rights equally. One of Kant’s universal laws is not to treat people as means to our own ends, Singer here is just extending that to animals. Ought we not to lie to animals also, even if the animals are dressed as SS officers trying to find a hypothetical Anne Frank? Surely not!
Rights are not innate. They arrive from interests but are not the same. We get rights from a general respect for interests*. So we may respect animal’s rights so far as we respect their interests, but non-person animals do not have a right to life.
Singer’s argument here also contradicts his other writings on abortion where he claims it to be perfectly acceptable for infanticide to take place. Treating non-persons as means should not be a problem if they do not have interests and thus potential rights to not be used as means as long as we give them the rights their other interests deserve i.e. freedom to roam outside and eat grass and mate. Our argument should be against battery farming rather than farming of animals altogether. As consequentialists there should be the realisation that to stop farming animals for meat is more disastrous both for the species which had been farmed and for humans who may starve as a result (since there is not enough fertile ground to feed the entire population of the world on vegetables alone). The not-treating-as-means argument is a simple Kantian approach that is simply not flexible enough as Kantianism never allows for circumstances.
So can primates be classed as persons? As I mentioned in my introduction the criteria of sentience and emotionality can be taken as givens. I think we can all accept that apes are capable of feeling pain, pleasure (apparently female chimpanzees is superior to any other orgasm) and also happiness, sadness, anger, nervousness. Life and death concepts will come under self-awareness since the two are very much linked and a concept of life and death is important in becoming aware of what you are.
It is fairly commonly accepted among scientists that primates possess a certain quantity of intelligence. As I will show in the later section on language they have the ability to learn and teach linguistic skills (even though no language has been observed in the wild) to others in their species. The gorilla, Michael, a project of Dr Patterson of Stanford University was known to have an extensive vocabulary of around 600 signs and indeed paint impressionist pictures that many human artists would find difficult to imagine and he used ASL to give them names such as ‘Apple Chase’ about his enjoyment of chasing his pet dog Apple.
Indeed another gorilla, Koko, who taught Michael ASL, had a recorded IQ of between 71-91 on various different tests in 1975-6 and an average of 80.3 overall between 1972-77. As Richard Byrne writes:
“the researchers used the trick of wiping Koko’s brow with a cloth. She got used to this gentle and unthreatening manoeuvre; usually the cloth was just slightly damp. Then occasionally, a harmless water based paint was hidden on the cloth, and a large coloured mark thus placed above her eyebrows so that she could not see it directly… a few minutes later she caught sight of herself in a mirror – and jumped in comical ‘double take’, proceeding to investigate the mark while looking at her reflection all the while.”
Byrne then goes on to say that when asked what the reflection was, Koko replied “Me, Koko”. Chimpanzees and other species have also been known to understand mirrors. Although older individuals have failed to understand mirrors. Monkeys also misunderstand reflections although they can use mirrors to look round corners for example. The recognition of reflections however is relatively simple in comparison to the full extent of understanding primates can have.
Byrne also notes several other forms of intelligence. One important one is an understanding of geometry. He gives an example of a researcher in Algeria, who noted that the monkeys she was with could disappear behind a tree and be found again thirty yards away having sloped off in the blind spot behind the tree from the researcher. This could only be done by an acute sense of interpersonal geometry, so precise were the monkey’s movements.An extremely important form of intelligence is the capacity for language which I have already touched on but will enhance next.
The Capacity to Communicate
There have been several studies into language development in apes. The earliest studies such as the Viki project headed by the Hayes and a similar project in Japan by Tsuneya Okano tried to teach chimpanzees oral language. Of course this was above the chimpanzees physical capabilities since they do not have the same advanced vocal chords as present day human beings (it is thought that present day human vocal chords are an incredibly recent edition to our species). Needless to say these attempts failed. However, despite their inability to reproduce the sounds, their understanding of vocal language is evident in other studies including the Michael/Koko study.
“In a present study examining the use of English words to teach signs, Fouts, Chown, and Goodwin (1976) found that their chimpanzee subject was able to comprehend the ten English words used in their study. Other researchers have noted the ability of the chimpanzee to comprehend words and phrases in English.”
There have been other studies with other animals. Prairie dogs in America have supposedly the most complex natural language in the world, but to us it is indistinguishable sounds only varying in tiny degrees of pitch.
There have been several important investigations into sign language in primates starting with Allen and Beatrice Gardner in 1971 with their first subject Washoe using ASL.“They found that Washoe was able to acquire the signs and use them in contextually correct situations. They also found evidence suggesting that Washoe’s early combinations had the rudiments of syntax. They studied Washoe’s use of Wh-questions, her vocabulary reliability, compared her early utterances to those of children…, and compared sentence constituents in her early utterances to those of children.”
The Gardners later adopted other young chimps, who in turn learned the human language from Washoe. In the Michael/Koko project, Michael and Koko could invent new or composite words, for example Michael used the signs for lettuce and tree to mean bamboo. Patterson and Godwin gave no other instruction in the use of language than the teaching of vocabulary.“The gorillas have taken the basic building block of conversation (signs) and, on their own, added new meaning through modulation, a grammatical process similar to inflection in spoken language… this is accomplished through changes in motion, hand location, hand configuration, facial expression and body posture. The sign BAD… can mean ‘very bad’ by enlarging the sign space, increasing the speed and tension of the hand, and exaggerating facial expression.”
There have been other projects that have involved orang-utans and bonobos. There can be little doubt then that primates have linguistic capabilities on a scale very similar to those of humans.
Self-awareness and awareness of others
Self-awareness is a slightly more abstract concept but I can attempt to quickly give it a definition. What it means is an awareness of oneself as a being and of being within a world external to oneself in which other selves live and actively realising that. Let us take for example a wasp. The wasp’s interaction with the world is limited. It responds to certain sense-stimuli such as the smell of sugar without thinking ‘Hey, I’m a wasp, on a hot day following the smell of sugar.’ Instead it is a simple process of: Smell of sugar detected – brain sends instruction to follow smell – wasp goes to source of smell – wasp eats sugar.
It is fairly evident that primates are much cleverer than insects or even the majority of vertebrates. Most vertebrates are also just more complex stimulus-response creatures. If a shark sees something moving it will snap at it. Self-awareness is not only the ability to understand one’s self but to understand it from an external perspective. So do they have self-awareness?
Again the Michael/Koko project comes into it’s own and puts it beyond reasonable doubt that indeed they do have. Linguistically both Michael and Koko knew that they were gorillas and that was a characteristic that distinguished them from say the humans, cats, dogs, birds that they came into contact with.
They also knew the things they liked and loved, were able to interact on different levels with different individuals.“[Koko] laughs at her own jokes and those of others. She cries when hurt or left alone, screams when frightened or angry. She talks about her feelings, using words like ‘happy’, ‘sad’, ‘afraid’, ‘enjoy’, ‘eager’… and quite frequently, ‘love’.”
Koko was also known to talk about herself and her relationships with others: friends who had gone away, her favourite kittens (she was very affectionate to kittens), friends who had died – she was also known to grieve when this happened. She also felt uncomfortable talking about her own hypothetical death and those of others when asked.
We might relate the ability to teach to self-awareness since they have an understanding that the pupil might not understand them. There is an example of Michael trying to teach a human pupil the sign for chase, after very little response from her he is said to have formed the sign with her hands and then pushed her to get her moving in order demonstrate.
We may also bring up the mirrors example in the above section on reason. They can be aware of what they look like through an understanding what they look like as well as the example of interpersonal understanding of geometry.
Dawkins explains in great detail in the latter half of his recent book ‘The God Delusion’ that need for morality comes from being communal. Of course, not all group creatures have intelligence or even moral agency. Herds of sheep possess only a group mentality which is in itself beneficial to the species as there is safety in numbers. Primates are communal in that they interact together and co-operate in foraging and hunting. This requires bonds. We see primates grooming each other, and this is seen by primatologists as a bonding process with deep emotional attachment involved.
Primate communities are important in understanding their morality. Peter Kappeler explains that different species and genera arrange their social groups differently.“The strongest social bonds may develop within or between the sexes. The quality of bonds within and between the sexes depend primarily on the interaction between feeding competition and degree of relatedness*.”
It is evident that chimps among other apes have the capacity to form meaningful bonds with other members of the group. It is however, common for groups to have internal political struggles often resulting in deaths and exiles. It is also (worryingly perhaps) common for the patriarchs of communities to commit heinous immoral acts such as infanticide and as groups have been known to commit genocide. Of course there can be morally motivated crimes of this kind in humans (usually those whose morality has been twisted and perverted). The Nazis for example truly believed that Jews were evil, parasites on society. However wrong this assertion is in reality, it was a morally based assertion. But can the same be said for primates?
There is a theory provided by some primatologists as to the cause of infanticide by males as being sexually motivated. Data provided by several sources put together by Carel P. Van Schaik of Duke University, MC shows that this theory is sketchy especially for higher primates such as gorillas and chimpanzees, although subsequent mating with the mother was recorded in a couple of cases (one from each species). However, all the cases suggest the acts to be either selfish or politically motivated. But then, humans who are moral in other aspects are guilty of being selfish and power-hungry. Not in compassionate circumstances such as Peter Singer would advocate.
Genocide however may actually have simplistic moral reasoning behind it. There is a constant state of war between rival primate communities (usually between the same species), generally over land, food, perhaps even females, in the same way that wars between sets of humans normally have economic reasoning behind them. It is evident that primates plan their killings and their missions beforehand; it isn’t just simple confrontation between groups who happen to cross each other’s path. This suggests that the group (or leader) has thought about it, and more generally what is best for the group. The survival and prosperity might depend (in the apes mind) on there being no rivals. Genocide, or other acts of war are deemed necessary*.
Some might argue that since primates are not always capable of the same respect for us, they should not receive respect from us. It is true that primates will not necessarily respect others unless they are part of their group or seen as being trustworthy. The case of Michael/Koko shows that they are capable of moral awareness of any species if they are members of an inter-species group. I would say however, that this is less important. Not all humans are virtuous morally although they may have some group loyalty which is the same kind of morality that most primates possess. The point is not necessarily whether primates have enough morality to mutually accept our rights but simply that they have interests in close bonds with other members of their group.
Higher primates do indeed fill all the criteria of personhood and seem thus to share some common interests. Whether or not they are intelligent enough to warrant freedom of speech as a right is perhaps doubtable although ‘educated’ intelligent primates might perhaps want the opportunity to speak their mind. Things like ‘we want water’ should perhaps be listened to and observed. But more general rights such as the right to life, the right to liberty, the right to a decent standard of living (in human hands), the right to free intellectual development where possible should be acknowledged as being in the interests of the group of persons as well as more tailored rights for each individual species.
Word count: 2,732
Mary Anne Warren
In Defense of Abortion in. Ethics in Practice: An Anthology ed. Hugh LaFollette
All Animals are Equal in. Ethics in Practice: An Anthology ed. Hugh LaFollette
Francine Patterson & Wendy Gordon
The Thinking Ape: Evolutionary Origins of Intelligence
Oxford University Press
Roger S. Fouts
Sign Language in Chimpanzees, in. Sign Language and Language Acquisition in Man and Ape: New Dimensions in Comparative Pedolinguistics, ed. Fred C. C. Peng
Peter M. Kepeller
Convergence and divergence in primate social systems, in. Primate Communities, ed. Fleagle, Janson, Reed,
Cambridge University Press
Others mentioned in footnotes:
JS Mill, On Liberty
Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion and The Selfish Gene
 Mary Anne Warren op cit. On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion in. Ethics in Practice: an Anthology, page 84, ed. Hugh LaFollette, Blackwell 1997
 Peter Singer op cit. All Animals are Equal in. Ibid, page 120
* We may look to JS Mill’s On Liberty to show that not all interests (or liberties) should be respected if they are to cause harm to others. Although we may also say that we can only disrespect harmful interests of persons since we can not stop a lion from hunting antelope or gazelle, the lion’s interests and livelihood depend on the destruction of the antelope.
 Francine Patterson & Wendy Gordon, The Case for the Personhood of Gorillas, Table 2, page 2 , publisher unknown, date unknown (Found through Google Scholar)
 Richard Byrne, op cit. The Thinking Ape: Evolutionary Origins of Intelligence, chap 8, page 114, Oxford 1995.
 Roger S. Fouts, op cit. Sign Language in Chimpanzees, in. Sign Language and Language Acquisition in Man and Ape: New Dimensions in Comparative Pedolinguistics, ed. Fred C. C. Peng, page 127, Westview 1978
 Ibid, page 128
 Richard Byrne, chap 11, page 164, fig 11.1 caption,
 Patterson & Gordon, page 4
 Ibid. page 1.
 Peter M. Kappeler op cit. Convergence and divergence in primate social systems, in. Primate Communities, ed. Fleagle, Janson, Reed, Cambridge, 1999.
*In Dawkins’ The God Delusion and probably the Selfish Gene (which I believe this idea comes from) he says that our original morality came about through our desire to help those of our own genetic make-up survive, however through a fortunate misfiring of this instinct we are able to extend our moral awareness to others outside our family, social group, race and even our species.