15 July 2008

The Politics of Animal Rights

South African photojournalist Brent Stirton won a World Press Photo (2008) award for this photograph, which shows Rangers and local residents, carrying a murdered mountain gorilla out of Virunga National Park in the eastern reaches of the Democratic Republic of Congo. I will return to this situation below. It seems, as The New York Times reports here, that the Spanish parliament is about "to grant limited rights to our closest biological relatives, the great apes — chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans." In doing so they are adopting a set of proposals that have been advanced by The Great Ape Project as embodied in this declaration:

We demand the extension of the community of equals to include all great apes: human beings, chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans.

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. Among these principles or rights are the following:

1. The Right to Life
The lives of members of the community of equals are to be protected. Members of the community of equals may not be killed except in very strictly defined circumstances, for example, self-defense.

2. The Protection of Individual Liberty
Members of the community of equals are not to be arbitrarily deprived of their liberty; if they should be imprisoned without due legal process, they have the right to immediate release. The detention of those who have not been convicted of any crime, or of those who are not criminally liable, should be allowed only where it can be shown to be for their own good, or necessary to protect the public from a member of the community who would clearly be a danger to others if at liberty. In such cases, members of the community of equals must have the right to appeal, either directly or, if they lack the relevant capacity, through an advocate, to a judicial tribunal.

3. The Prohibition of Torture
The deliberate infliction of severe pain on a member of the community of equals, either wantonly or for an alleged benefit to others, is regarded as torture, and is wrong.

I have written critically about the antics of animal rights groups such as PETA [1] [2]. I still find most of what I know about them dripping in self-absorption. So I must admit that I find the political approach to protecting animals more persuasive. I do not buy the notion of rights as "fundamental" in part because, like Hannah Arendt, I believe them to be largely useless absent an entity (think 'the State') charged with, willing and able to monitor and enforce them. I do not buy talk of the "community of equals" precisely because the alleged community is insufficient to enforce rights. (And of course, any real community, is as likely to violate individual rights as enforce them.)

So what is needed, if we are to protect great apes (or other animals) is something like the set of political measures that the Spanish Parliament is about to take. This much is clear from recent accounts of how gorillas have been murdered in the Congo, not for food or out of self-defense, but simply as a way of further undermining political control of the region. You can find stories (in large measure prompted by Stirton's work) at npr and National Geographic for instance. In the area of the Congo where the gorillas were murdered there is essentially no effective political structure, just warring groups none of whom have much, if any, regard for the Rangers in Virunga National Park who are striving courageously to protect the wildlife. (According to an AP story I read, 120 Park Rangers have been killed in the DRC over the past decade.) In that context, asserting the "rights" of animals, or of humans for that matter, is a bad joke.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

"And of course, any real community, is as likely to violate individual rights as enforce them."

Can't we say the exact same thing about the state, though? In fact, with the exception of Western style democracies, where the rule of law is deeply entrenched in the social psyche, aren't the majority of states in the world violators of individual and human rights? At least by Western standards. Not to mention that the West's record is not exactly pristine in this arena either.

15 July, 2008 19:11  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...


I'm sorry to have overlooked this comment. You are right, of course. But at least in most states there is some claim to accountability. Communities make no such claim. I will concede that the claims to accountability are at best imperfectly implemented. But the move (however imperceptibly slow) toward democratic mechanisms makes it at least plausible to think in such terms.

25 August, 2008 20:04  

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