Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The boundries of personhood

A group of academics (psychologists, ethicist, biologists etc.) have recently endorsed a statement arguing that dolphins and whales do deserve the rights of humans, based on their intelligence, self-awareness, individuality, sociality and so forth.

 A curmudgeonly old man, who was an environmentalist but hated that he was because he didn't like to be associated with hippies, once opined to me as follows on this topic, only in much more colorful language: We can't start treating whales as though they have the same rights as humans, because if we give those rights to whales, we have to give them to apes too, and if we give them to apes pretty soon we'll be extending them to monkeys, and pretty soon antibiotics will be outlawed because they violate the inalienable rights of infectious bacteria.

I have mixed feelings about slippery slope arguments generally. Letting even minor instances of objectionable predilections (sexism, racism, etc.) slide really does seem to be a problem, on the principle that once people are used to these sentiments going unchallenged, they will feel freer to get more egregious. But we can and frequently do make different rules about the treatment of different categories of animals, and there is little likelihood of the rules that now apply to the study of chimpanzees being extended to include studies of bacteria, let alone infections. My research with live animals legally requires no review by any ethics board because I am working with invertebrates. Back when I studied birds, I needed committee approval just to go out in the woods and watch birds for scientific purposes, and my friends who study humans have sometimes had to get such approval just to reuse preexisting published and publicly available data on long-dead populations.

The fact of the matter is that we can and do make arbitrary decisions, often influenced by scientific knowledge but also influenced by emotional predilections, about who and what deserve what rights and protections. Before the US Civil War, southerners quibbled with the evidence that slaves were fully human, but more fundamentally they didn't admit that this implied that they deserved the same rights as other people. These days, American conservatives tend to want to extend the full rights of personhood to fetuses, embryos and potentially fertilized eggs. American liberals often want to extend these same rights to smart charismatic non-humans. Each side sees the other as both ridiculous and morally bankrupt. The difference underlying these wants are philosophical, moral, ethical and political, sometimes economic, but not generally founded in disagreements on scientific fact. Those factual disagreements usually follow, as each side looks for ways to justify its conclusions. I don't expect cetaceans will ever be granted the same rights as humans, but as we learn more about their mental and emotional lives, I do think it will become harder to treat them little different from large endangered fish. In other words, I think we will go part way down the slope.

1 comment:

jte said...

Sensibly said. Subjectivity is an objective fact of reality, and we don't do ourselves any favors by pretending otherwise. You might enjoy Jonathan Marks' commentary on this subject (specifically re: "human" rights for apes) in his oft-wonderful and fascinating book "What It Means to Be 98% Chimpanzee." (My favorite factoid from the book: while most of know that humans are roughly 98% identical to chimpanzees in terms of genetic code, few are aware that we also happen to be about 40% genetically identical to bananas--which, as Marks notes, kind of takes some of the oomph out of the impressiveness of that 98% measure.)