Rights vs Responsibility

Once upon a memory there was a Secretary of the Interior named James Watt.  He was a born again Christian who was reported to be so strong a believer in the immanent Second Coming that he thought all of the fuss about the environment, endangered species and such was pretty silly.  Since the end of the world was going to come before any of the scientist’s dire predictions could possibly come true, why worry about it?  Then, too, as a representative of the new Western Republicans, he had the old frontier belief that God had given us dominion over the world and all its creatures to exploit as we wished.

That frontier gave America a belief in the inexhaustible abundance of nature.  Christianity gave us the belief that all the creatures therein were ours to exploit.  The amount of tragedy, waste and needless pain built on that foundation would be hard to overstate.

By now, I think most of us are familiar to the point of nausea with pictures of baby fur seals being clubbed to death, whales filling the waters around them with their blood and maimed animals slowly dying in traps.

We have become familiar, too, with the bizarre lengths that “science” has gone in animal experiments.  We have seen dogs with glass windows permanently installed in their bellies so that we could watch their insides in operation, sad eyed monkeys with wires dangling from the permanent implants in their brains and rabbits clawing at their eyes after some jackass has sprayed hair spray in them to check the effect.

To say that man has exercised his “dominion” with something less than wisdom, decency or even common sense seems to me to be beyond question.  In some areas, needless excess has surpassed any possible good that man might derive.  In others, the putative “good” has been to better adorn the fatuously fashionable.  In still others, no good that anyone can reasonably grasp has resulted.

Why, then, do I refuse to join the animals rights side of the argument?  Why do I, in fact, find them offensive?  In short, why do they piss me off?

The easy answer is to look at the lunatic fringe of zealots who make the headlines.  Folks who believe they have a right to throw blood on perfect strangers on the street (who seem to be wearing furs) or who believe they can break into medical labs, trash them, set fire to them, etc. (because they use animals in their experiments) legitimately scare us.  They belong to that happy group that sees their right to act as directly proportional to their faith.  And their faith is so great that no action is forbidden them.  They are in every sense brothers to those who throw blood on people outside clinics and shoot those who work there.

But to pretend that the fanatics accurately represent the whole is clearly specious.  And to use our visceral reaction to someone’s actions to keep us from fairly evaluating their thesis is an act of intellectual cowardice.  A fair person should be able to set aside the gut reactions to the actions of the few in order to honestly listen to the arguments of the many.

Unfortunately, it is precisely at this point that I find myself completely alienated from these good folks.  They base their conclusions about what should be done to protect animals from an irresponsible science and industry on an idea I find logically backwards:  Animal Rights.

Insofar as I can tell, their thesis if founded on the old logical homology syllogism:  If this thing is like that thing, then it must share the same qualities.  If we grant ourselves the right to life, why do we not extend it to animals?  If we think it would be wrong to experiment on humans, how is it any more right to experiment on animals?

It is an easy form of logic, and one that appeals to the emotions and sense of equity in a satisfying way.  Problem is, I think it a completely fallacious bit of reasoning.

The idea of Rights is a purely human concept.  We believe we have to have a “Right” to act before we are allowed to act.  However, there is no absolute standard of what is Right.  (In fact, it is conceived in our Western tradition far differently from the rest of the world.)  To find a useable standard, we have to explore the meaning of the word.

In English, the term is particularly slippery, as it is ambivalently tied to two dualities:  Right vs. Wrong and Right vs. Responsibility.

The first part of our definition of Right is based on a somewhat moral stance:  “I have a Right to do this and you would be Wrong to stop me.” Or “You have no Right to do this and it would be Wrong of you to try.”

The second part of the definition goes to our understanding of exactly what freedom means.  We believe that freedom is meaningless without limits and that every freedom carries with it a sense of obligation.  “You have the Right to be a parent, but you have a Responsibility not to abuse that Right.”  Or “You not only have a Right to vote, you have a Responsibility to do so.”

The key here is that our idea of Right is inextricably tied to awareness.  Because If you cannot understand the Wrong, then you do not have the Right.  If you cannot be held Responsible for the result, you cannot be granted the Right to act.

This is the heart of our term “diminished capacity.”  An inability to understand your own  responsibilities or the wrongness of your actions protects you from the punishments that they would otherwise bring.  The corollary is that is can also strip away your “Rights.”  Citizens with impaired reasoning can lose their freedom, become legal chattels and are subject to other actions that would be illegal if applied to others.

Animals (setting aside the charming/infuriating dynamics of our relations with domesticated pets) clearly do not understand that their actions can be “Wrong.”  Equally, they have no sense of being Responsible for the consequences of their actions.  Lacking half the equation, animals cannot be assumed to have Rights in human terms.

But I said I thought that the argument of the animals’ defenders was “backwards.”  From my point of view, trying to assign some sort of human qualities to the victims is precisely the sort of romantic anthropomorphism that invites dismissal.  But if you turn the argument around, and take a long look at the victimizer, I think you can find solid ground.

Okay, animals do not have human Rights and their ethical corollaries.  But the “scientists” and other humans involved do.  I think it is completely reasonable within our system of thought and law to ask what Right the laboratories have to use animals in their experiments.  They must justify, by the nature of their goals, their claim to having such a Right.  Under that standard, it is reasonable to cause limited pain and suffering on the road to cure cancer.  It is not reasonable to cause agony to develop cosmetics.

Furthermore, they must act responsibly in the pursuit of their worthy goal.  To claim a Right to experiment is not to be given the Right to keep animals in horrible conditions.  Their actions have to be humane within our standards and proportionate to the goal.  It is not responsible to use primates to test something that could be tested on rats.

My opinion is that the presence of a Right in animals is not a defensible position in Western values.  It is based on a misuse of language and introduces notions that are contrary to our culture and jurisprudence.  The absence of a Right to act irresponsibly and cruelly in people is based on the logical evolution of Western ideas.  That is where the battle ought to be fought…and won.

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