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On the Rights of an Ape

By Daniel W McShea
Feb 1, 1994 6:00 AMNov 12, 2019 6:29 AM


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Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The Declaration of Independence holds these rights to be self-evident, unalienable. In the eighteenth century, when the words were written, they were called natural rights; today we call them human rights.

Whatever we call these rights, it has long seemed obvious to most people that only human beings have them. But now a group of human beings-- headed by philosopher Peter Singer and backed by a number of prominent anthropologists, biologists, lawyers, psychologists, and ethicists--has challenged our basic assumptions on the subject, insisting that we reconsider this limitation. In the preface to their book, The Great Ape Project, they set forth a Declaration on Great Apes. "We demand the extension of the community of equals to include all great apes: human beings, chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans," they write. " '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 moral principles or rights they mean are life, liberty, and the necessary precursor to the pursuit of happiness: freedom from torture. Their demand will undoubtedly ignite a hot debate. Some people will protest that rights should not be extended to apes when most human beings do not enjoy them. But denying rights to apes will not help oppressed people in their struggle to achieve them, Singer and his colleagues contend. And that argument assumes that apes have a lesser worth than humans--an assumption they strenuously dispute throughout the book.

There is also a fundamental difficulty with the concept of "rights." The rules of chess grant me the right to move my bishop diagonally; the U.S. legal system--a set of rules--grants me the right to a speedy trial. Rights only exist, or make sense, under a set of rules. But under what set of rules do apes--or human beings, for that matter--have rights? And even if such rules exist, how do we know what they are? Who has access to them? Who interprets them?

This is arguably just a theoretical problem. As a practical matter, the word rights is part of our everyday political language. Badly treated individuals or groups use this word to seek special protection, and we know what they mean even if we don't agree on how to respond. There is little doubt that nonhuman apes have been treated badly in the past, and that they are harmed or killed routinely even today. As a practical matter, then, the question is whether they too deserve some sort of special protection.

The Great Ape Project's resounding Yes! is backed by a number of arguments. Two are especially salient. One is that apes are intelligent: they solve puzzles, they learn and use language, and they can recognize and think about themselves. The second is our kinship. Orangutan DNA differs from ours by less than 4 percent, on average; chimps and gorillas are closer yet. We're separated, at most, by a mere 16 million years of evolution. They are very nearly us.

Yet no matter how close we are genetically, many people will argue that they're just not us. They'll acknowledge ape intelligence and our close kinship but insist that humans come first, especially when important human interests--such as our health--are at stake. To many, humans are obviously special, and there is something unserious, unthinking, or overly emotional about such a high level of concern for other species. This usually unspoken charge must lie at the heart of many people's skepticism about the animal welfare movement in general; it will doubtless influence views on ape rights. To answer it, I suggest a different sort of argument than the one based on intelligence and kinship, an argument that speaks to us more directly. This argument for ape rights is based on our concern for our own well-being, our own feelings.

Feelings are basic human equipment, like legs and livers. They're the driving force behind all human behavior that requires thought. Some behavior is automatic, or reflexive, and requires no thought to be performed properly. Heartbeats are reflexive, as are digestion and even the mechanics of walking. Earthworms reflexively crawl up out of the ground to avoid drowning when it rains; cats go limp when grasped by the scruff of the neck.

Other behaviors, however, are what might be called motivated. Motivated behavior requires a combination of two equally essential ingredients: intelligence and feelings. Intelligence is the ability to reason; feelings are the internal states of tension or dissatisfaction that motivate reasoning and ultimately behavior. A house cat meowing at the door is experiencing an internal state of dissatisfaction, a feeling--it wants to go out. A human mother hearing her newborn baby crying experiences a state of dissatisfaction, a feeling of empathy--she wants to help somehow.

Clearly such behavior is intelligent. The cat meows at the outside door, not the oven door; the mother tries rocking her newborn, she doesn't sneak up behind it and pop a balloon. But intelligence is only half the story. Without motivation, intelligence can do nothing. Consider one of the most rational creatures ever, the home computer. Plugged in and humming, packing multimegabytes of memory and multimegahertz of speed, it sits on the desk doing only what it is told. It worries about nothing and takes no interest in anything. It has no preferences, not even a preference for survival. It is a completely reflexive beast. The defect is not a failure of reason--as a logician the home computer is almost flawless--but an absence of motives.

The link between intelligence and motivation, reason and feelings, is often misunderstood. Feelings tell us what we want, usually in very unspecific terms; culture fills in the specifics. Our intelligence computes how to get it. The Scottish philosopher David Hume recognized this in the eighteenth century when he wrote, "Reason is and ought to be the slave of the passions."

Yet most of us assume that reason is supposed to dominate. The person who trips over a loose floor tile, then turns angrily to kick it, is said to be behaving irrationally, to be momentarily carried away by his or her feelings. But what has really happened is that one feeling--pain-- evoked anger--has temporarily won out over calmer feelings that might have motivated a repair project. All motivations are feelings.

Rationality, on the other hand, motivates nothing. A truly rational Mr. Spock (of the old Star Trek series) or Mr. Data (of the newer series) would have no motivations and thus would never do anything, including get up in the morning. That's why scriptwriters surreptitiously infuse these characters with feelings like curiosity or loyalty. They're calm feelings but feelings nonetheless.

Feelings are just as central in the nonhuman great apes. In chimpanzee society, for instance, relative peace is maintained by a complex dominance hierarchy. Occasionally, subordinate males recruit allies and attempt coups. In captive chimp populations, females will take sides in these coups, but they will also attempt to orchestrate reconciliations between the combatants. All this social maneuvering requires each chimp to be able to read the feelings of others, to act to alter those feelings, and to respond emotionally in ways that can be understood. To pull this off, a chimp needs, at the very least, a complete package of chimpanzee motivational equipment--chimpanzee feelings. Nothing less will do. An orangutan, a mainly solitary ape, could never arrange a reconciliation between chimps. Neither could an emotionally deficient chimp.

Apes have feelings, but the case for protecting apes doesn't hinge on the damage done to their feelings by maltreatment. Rather, it hinges on the damage that their maltreatment does to our feelings. In particular, it hinges on the damage done to one of these feelings--the one Hume called "natural sympathy."

It's hard to define natural sympathy, but it's easy to trigger. Visual cues work well: just the sight of a baby--with its large eyes, large head, and tiny legs and toes--is enough to evoke immediate feelings of affection and protectiveness. A kitten, a baby seal, and E.T. can do the same. That's natural sympathy.

Emotional cues can be equally evocative. The sight of another human being in need or distress--the Midwest's flood victims, California's fire victims, starving Somalis--triggers natural sympathy. Hollywood plays on our natural sympathy all the time. How easy it was to feel affection for the kindly ant in the movie Honey, I Shrunk the Kids after it rescued the children from a much less sympathetic scorpion, even though both are insects, creatures more likely to trigger natural revulsion than natural sympathy. And how easy to sympathize with the murderous, bloblike silicon creature--the horta--in the old Star Trek series when we learned that it had been killing only to protect its unhatched eggs. Recognition of familiar passions evokes sympathy, regardless of appearance. On the other hand, what could be less sympathetic than the Terminator (in the first movie): intelligent and human in appearance, but mechanical and dispassionate, not to mention homicidal.

Natural sympathy makes Darwinian sense. Parents who feel great affection for their children doubtless care for them better and thus leave behind more surviving offspring. Individuals who respond sympathetically to other adults are likely to have the favor returned one day; such favors might also translate into more surviving offspring.

Most large, furry animals trigger sympathy in us, but none more than the great apes. They look like us and they often act like us. They play. They grieve. They feel. Free-living chimpanzees have been known to go out of their way to sit and watch the sunset. One famous chimpanzee, Washoe, supposedly leapt over an electric fence to rescue a drowning young chimp she'd never met. The apes' intellectual accomplishments--such as self-recognition, tool use, and language acquisition--are impressive, but the displays of feeling affect us far more profoundly.

Like any other vital organ, however, our feelings, our natural sympathy, can be damaged. Horrifying sights or situations can dull any emotion. Soldiers who've seen excessive brutality in battle and children who are constantly bombarded by violence on television or on the streets risk having their feelings numbed. Natural sympathy can take only so much battering before it ceases to function.

Similarly, any human being can become inured to the plight of an injured or confined ape just by seeing it often enough. Eventually one can look at a laboratory chimp with paralyzed limbs or electrodes buried in its skull and not feel sympathy. Some will call this a triumph of rationality over emotion or feeling. But that would be impossible, because rationality has no motivating force. What happens is that one feeling, curiosity, which motivates the search for knowledge, overrides another, our natural sympathy for apes. This sort of suppression brutalizes us, damaging our ability to live in a cooperative society and have normal, nonneurotic interpersonal relationships.

The argument is that we need to protect apes to protect ourselves. It follows, then, that we should treat apes better than we do. What's not clear is how far this protection should go. Certain measures present no problem. For example, if we prohibited the removal of any more apes from the wild and eliminated private ownership of apes, the gains for apes and thus for us would be great, and the losses trivial. But other possible protections--such as the elimination of all medical research on apes--are more troubling. Medical research on apes has resulted in real human gains in the past; many scientists believe that a cure for AIDS will come from research on apes. If that promise is fulfilled, human suffering will be reduced. Apes may engage our natural sympathy, but so do other humans, particularly sick, suffering humans. The choice is difficult. Vital feelings will be sacrificed either way, and this argument offers no easy way to choose.

The argument leaves another question dangling as well: Why protect only the great apes? Why stop there? We have natural sympathy for pandas and dolphins--why not include them? And what about the millions of unfeeling and unpleasant-looking species in the world? Mosquitoes, for example, hardly engage my natural sympathy. Yet the range of creatures to which our natural sympathy extends seems to widen over time, perhaps as our perspective widens. Today few people could witness slavery with indifference, although once many could. And while it's unlikely that our sympathy will ever be much aroused by mosquitoes, it makes little sense to rule out the possibility.

So where--in the huge gray area between apes and mosquitoes-- should we draw the line? Unfortunately this is not a subject that lends itself to drawing lines, because our sympathy is not an all-or-nothing phenomenon. Some people cheerfully bait their hooks with earthworms and feel no compassion, while others recoil in horror at the thought of driving a piece of barbed steel through the sensitive flesh of a living organism. Obviously, in the gray area, how far natural sympathy extends will vary from person to person. But this variability should not affect our judgment in the clear-cut cases like apes. Milk is indigestible only to some people, but cyanide is poisonous to all.

The theoretical problems with ape rights are serious, and the legal problems could be worse. The apes can't speak for themselves, so who would defend their rights? If apes have rights to life and liberty, do they also have rights to property? These difficulties, however, are not reasons to abandon the Great Ape Project. They are reasons to get to work ironing out the ambiguities and devising workable laws. To protect apes, to protect one of our most vital feelings--natural sympathy--we need to take bold steps. According apes the basic protections of life, liberty, and freedom from torture is a first step in the right direction.

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