2013-08-01

Animals Are Not People

The bizarre insistence with which some people assert that animals should be treated like people simply dumbfounds me.

It's not that I dislike animals. In fact, I love them. I grew up in one of those "zoo families," a family in which trips to the local zoo were an almost monthly phenomenon, and happened throughout the year. We had dearly beloved pets in our household for as long as I can remember. I tend to have a good rapport with most dogs, and especially cats. I have had pet dogs, cats, fish, and rabbits of my own, and can readily attest to the fact that pets bring a lot of joy and love to any household. I find wild animals to be majestic and captivating. I believe in reasonable preservation of animal habitat and species well-being. In short, I am an all-around animal lover.

But animals are not people.

As I previously wrote, I posted an article to my Facebook page recently and stirred up some controversy among my friends and family. The article was about a woman who found that she could not give the same amount of attention to her dog after she had children as she did when she was childless. I liked the article, but many others felt as though the woman was being selfish and negligent. In the end, though, dogs are not children, and the love you have for a child will always outweigh the love your have for a dog. If not, then there might be something wrong with you.

That sounds harsh, so let me explain.

How Widespread Is The Belief That Animals Are People?
In the context of a discussion about natural rights and property rights, John Alexander comments:
If one believes in natural property rights along the line that if I made x through my own labor then I have a right to x, does this right extend to non-human animals that built things through their own labor to improve their living conditions? If it does not, why not? But, if it does, then are we invaders and violating the PNA by destroying non-human natural habitats?
And later, when I asked him whether the rules that govern a flock of pigeons extend to pigeons, he responded:
Why wouldn't they, or at least some of them? Some non-human animals can have families, protect and nurture their young and each other, build structures for safety and security, etc. If I occupy some land and build a house and claim 'ownership and a right to it because I built it, how is this different from the beaver that builds a dam? I think it was Locke who argued that it is thru our labor that we take ownership. Other then knowing that I labor, how is what I do different from what a beaver does? Where do rights enter into the relationship between what I do and what I own?
Consider this blog post by Frances Woolley, which I quote in its entirety:
SatisfactionIt is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, is of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides. John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism 
I disagree. A human does not know the inner workings the porcine mind, nor can Socrates comprehend the satisfactions of a fool. 
Yet pigs and humans, fools and philosophers, are more alike than people once thought. Me, I would go for the life of the happy pig, frolicking in mud glorious mud.
Of course, we have all heard the many stories of the Auschwitz of poultry and other similar tales told to us by such venerable organizations as PETA and the Animal Liberation Front.

It all adds up to this: that animals are people is a widespread idea. Why is this problematic?

How Far Can We Push The Idea?
If your next-door neighbor defecates on your front lawn whenever he walks by, you can sue him. He might even be arrested on criminal charges. Most people don't see any problem with this, and neither do I. Protecting one's private property from the neighbors' feces is pretty basic and reasonable stuff.

If the neighbor's dog defecates on your front lawn whenever it walks by, you cannot sue the dog. You might, however, be able to sue your neighbor. This makes sense because the neighbor owns the dog. Legally speaking - and philosophically speaking - the neighbor is the dog's warden, caretaker, and guardian. If the dog damages a human being's personal property, that human can seek a legal (or philosophical) remedy by addressing the dog's owner. You might also try reasoning with the dog. (Go ahead, try it.)

Let's consider two additional examples.

First, consider a vacant lot that has been bequeathed to a dog. The dog owns the land, and I assume this is legally valid since there are many examples of cats having become the beneficiaries of estates. Suppose a second dog defecates on the first dog's property. Can the first dog sue the second dog? Don't roll your eyes. If you believe animals are people, then the answer must be yes. Next question: if the second dog cannot pay his debts to the first dog, can the second dog be thrown in debtor's prison? If not, why not? How far can we push the idea?

Second, consider the case of a stray dog who defecates on your property. Can you sue the stray dog? If so, can the stray dog ultimately be put in debtor's prison? If the resolution to all of these issues lies in the fact that the dog has no legal guardian, does this imply that the dog's guardianship falls to the state? If so, does this mean that you can sue the state if a stray dog defecates on your lawn? And if so, does this mean you can also sue the state for any damage that results from the actions of a wild animal, under the argument that the state is the legal guardian of all wild animals?

Don't roll your eyes. I'm being totally serious. The question of animal-personhood is not just an emotional affinity, it has real philosophical and legal implications. If you consider my questions absurd, I assert that they are no less absurd than the whole question of animal-personhood.

Also, I'm not finished yet. Just how far can we push this? Can a dog become the recipient of a human kidney? Never mind the fact that the kidney is of no use to a dog, other than to serve as lunch. If humans as people can be placed on a  kidney donation waiting list, can we also place pet dogs on these lists? Why not? (Note: Your answer must account for the dog's equal rights as a person.)

I understand the emotional sentiment of wanting to treat animals well, but I reiterate: declaring animals as people has serious implications. You are not allowed to simply dodge or ignore these questions because they seem absurd or unpleasant.

Why Animals Are Not People
The family dog can receive love like a child. All animals can receive love like the children many of us like to treat them as. I have no argument with that fact. Animals can certainly be loved like children.

What they cannot do is reciprocate that love. A dog will love you in the sense that dogs feel a canine sort of love. It is the an emotion unique to dogs that has no direct comparison to human emotion because humans and dogs are simply different. The reason your love for a dog is different in kind from your love for a child is not because the love you give it is different, but because the love you get back is different.

This is precisely why pigeons cannot enjoy the benefits of human philosophical, political, or legal institutions. Sure, we can give pigeons human rights, but they cannot exercise those rights. That's because they're not humans.

Going back to the dog example up above: A dog cannot sue another dog or anyone else, but it's not because a property-owning dog has no rights as a property owner. It's because, whether or not we choose to allow dogs to have property rights, a dog does not understand what it means to sue anything. A dog couldn't articulate a desire to sue. A dog cannot give consent to the legal action of suing. Dogs, simply stated, cannot sue.

And it's not just that they can't sue - it's that they can't do anything that involves an understanding of human institutions, because human institutions cannot be conceptualized by a canine brain. Naturally, this is a fact that extends to every other type of animal in existence. It also applies to humans: Humans cannot enjoy canine institutions because we do not really know what is going on in the pack. We can surmise, we can pretend, we can assume, we can behave as dogs; but we can never be dogs. Thus the rules that apply to the dog world do not apply to us. Nor do the rules of the ant colony apply to us, nor the school of fish, nor the gaggle of geese, nor any of the rest of it.

Human institutions are unique to the human brain and human society. To suggest that animals have a place as equals in those institutions is to pretend that there are no cognitive differences among species.

The best possible thing I can say about that statement is that it is childish in an extremely shameful way.

One Final Word
There are those among us who insist on animal personhood and yet simultaneously hold the pro-choice view on human abortion. While I have no special desire to explore the ethics of human abortion on my blog, it's important to consider the implications of the idea that someone would on the one hand believe that animals are people, and on the other hand believe that human fetuses are not.

Really, what it amounts to is the fact that such people believe living animals have more human rights than human fetuses do. That strikes me as being an extremely difficult position to maintain with a clean conscience.

To be clear: It seems consistent to me that someone would be both pro-life and pro-animal-personhood; it also seems consistent that someone would believe neither the pro-life position nor the animal-personhood position. But to believe in animal-personhood and not in human fetus personhood is a remarkable - and indeed shocking - set of beliefs.

Does this imply that being pro-life means one should also be pro-animal-personhood? No. The problem with thinking that animals, but not human fetuses, are people is that one is clearly putting the rights of an animal ahead of the rights of something that has an equivalent level of cognition and that will eventually grow into an actual human being. On the other hand, being pro-life simply means that one considers human fetuses to be human beings; there is no special ranking of animals in that equation, nor need there be for a pro-lifer to maintain ideological consistency. Remember, it's the animal-personhood advocates who are asserting the human rights of non-humans.

Conclusion
Well, I think I've taken this absurd concept about as seriously as I can. I can only conclude by reiterating that the belief that animals are people is, well... childish. Species treat all other species differently. Spiders eat flies; birds eat grasshoppers; fungus grows on trees. And, yes, humans eat fish, capture animals and hold them as pets, cage birds, and so on. The rules and institutions involved in being a human being do not and cannot apply to animals, because animals cannot reciprocate the human relationship or otherwise exercise their rights.