Animal Rights and Wrongs

Lawmakers and Lawyers Doggedly Working to Enshrine Shaky Concepts

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BERLIN, JUNE 29, 2002 (Zenit.org).- Last week Germany's Upper House of Parliament, the Bundesrat, voted in favor of enshrining animal rights in the Constitution, making it the first European Union country to do so.



How that change will affect the legal status of animals is open to debate, the Times of London reported June 22. Already, Muslims have expressed concern about the amendment, fearing that their ritual slaughter of sheep could be outlawed.

The change to the German Constitution involves adding the words "and animals" to the clause obliging the state to protect human life. The article now reads: "The state takes responsibility for protecting the natural foundations of life and animals in the interest of future generations."

When the Lower House, the Bundestag, approved the change a month earlier, BBC quoted Consumer Affairs and Agriculture Minister Renate Kuenast of the Green Party on May 17 as saying the constitutional change could lead to new legislation limiting the testing on animals of products such as cosmetics and mild pain relievers.

Kuenast said the change did not give animals equal rights with humans, the Guardian reported May 18. But, in a remark the newspaper said might have an ominous ring for researchers and farmers, Kuenast added: "Work is not stopping. It is just beginning."

In the United States, meanwhile, a chimpanzee by the name of Moe is at the center of a legal battle on his status. His owners -- the city of West Covina, California -- and the Animal Legal Defense Fund have been involved in litigation since 1998, when Moe was removed from the home of St. James and LaDonna Davis after the animal allegedly bit two people, ABC-TV reported May 13.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund lobbied three years ago to represent Moe in court by gathering experts who would formally assess what might make the chimpanzee most content. Joyce Tischler, executive director of the defense fund, says her group is getting involved in more common kinds of cases involving cats and dogs.

In custody battles over pets and in cases involving damage to pets, the legal defense fund has been submitting court briefs, suggesting that judges look at the case in terms of the animal's interest. In this way, Tischler says, her group hopes to take small steps toward gaining legal rights for animals.

One of those developing the theoretical case for animal rights in the United States is lawyer Steven Wise. His just-released book, "Drawing the Line: Science and the Case for Animal Rights," proposes that some animal species should be given legal rights.

"I don't see a difference between a chimpanzee and my 4 1/2-year-old son," stated Wise in a presentation at a bookstore last month, the Washington Post reported.

Wise bases his case on the capacities of some animals to experience emotions, use language, and interact in a social way. Apart from chimpanzees he says other species, such as gorillas, orangutans, bonobos, Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, African gray parrots, African elephants, dogs and honeybees, would meet his criteria for giving them rights. He calls for basic "rights of bodily integrity and bodily liberty."

Wise began representing animals in court in the late 1970s after reading Peter Singer's "Animal Liberation." He later became a vegetarian, and redirected his Boston law practice from personal injury to animal rights. He has taught animal rights law at Harvard Law School, Vermont Law School and John Marshall Law School in Chicago.

The Washington Post noted that the concept of animal rights attracts strong criticism. Richard Posner, a U.S. appellate judge and lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School, says: "It just is not feasible to equate animals to humans. There are too many differences. Their needs and our relations to them are too different from the needs and our relations to human groups to warrant actually granting animals rights."

Tibor Machan, a philosopher and professor of business ethics at Chapman University in Orange, California, argues that the criterion for rights is morality. "Such rights would only arise if animals developed into moral agents, which they haven't," he says.

Downgrading humans

Another critic is Roger Scruton, philosopher and the author of "Animal Rights and Wrongs." Writing in the Times of London on May 7, Scruton commented on the UK government's proposal to establish a Bill of Rights for animals.

Giving rights to animals is "a downgrading of human beings from sovereigns to subjects in the animal kingdom," argues Scruton. If we give rights to animals, he explains, "we put them on the same moral plane as ourselves." But this makes no sense to him. Humans make "free choices based on the conscious evaluation of alternatives," he states. "We exert over our lives a sovereignty that we require others to respect, and which we must respect in turn. We are accountable for our actions, and try to resolve conflicts by agreement rather than by force. In short, we are moral beings. That is why the concept of a right is useful to us."

A more detailed argument on this matter is found in "Applied Ethics: A Non-consequentialist Approach" by University of Reading philosophy professor David S. Oderberg. That an animal is a subject in the psychological sense, perceiving pain and pleasure, is not the same as saying it is a subject in the moral sense, with rights and duties, he explains.

As to arguments based on an animal's self-consciousness -- for example, the fact that a chimpanzee will groom itself in a mirror -- we need to distinguish what type of awareness this is, Oderberg points out. There is no evidence, he says, that chimpanzees or any other animals have self-consciousness "in the sense of being able to think about their own thoughts, to reflect on their own reasoning processes, to make judgements about their own judgements."

"Human beings have rights because human beings know why it is that they do what they do," affirms Oderberg. As for infants, the senile or brain-damaged, they also have rights because of their very nature of beings whose members are capable of conscious self-reflection.

Animals should also be excluded from the category of rights holders, continues Oderberg, because they do not have free will. They cannot decide between right and wrong in the sense of deliberating between courses of action, and intending to do something good rather than bad.

Centrality of the human person

On a more theological note, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, in nos. 342-4, explains that there is a hierarchy of creatures and that "man is the summit of the Creator's work." The Catechism also quotes Jesus when he says, "You are of more value than many sparrows," Luke 12:6-7.

This does not mean that we should be indifferent as to how animals are treated. John Paul II has insisted on many occasions that humans are stewards of the created world. He has also said we should make "the existence of creatures more dignified" (General Audience address, Jan. 17, 2001).

This stewardship and ecological awareness must be based "on the centrality of the human person within creation," according to the declaration on the environment signed June 10 by the Pope and the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I. Whatever is due animals, takes second place.