Animal Rights: Where to Draw the Line
March 17, 2012 4 Comments
Humans make remarkably sweeping decisions about our relationships with animals based on minimal knowledge about animals’ intellectual, emotional, and social lives. We seem to have very little problem commodifying sentient non-humans in order to enjoy the most remote and completely unnecessary luxuries.
We do so, moreover, without asking whether or not this act might be a violation of the rights that enlightened humans hold sacred. Ivory, fur, feathers, and fins–not to mention food and clothing–are the grammar and syntax of our material lives. It’s easy to take this lexicon of materialism at face value–there is, after all, little overt motivation to ask troubling questions about the status quo. But what if the status quo perpetuates profound injustice? And what if, by our every day consumer choices, we’re directly complicit?
These questions and thoughts came to mind as I read Steven M. Wise’s Drawing the Line: Science and the Case for Animal Rights. Wise bravely confronts the legal question of which animal species deserve legal rights as persons. Critics will say that his conclusions are ultimately arbitrary, which is technically true. But the nature of the question–where to draw the line on a continuum of life–by its nature demands an arbitrary response. There’s no way to be absolute about such a question.
Wise’s accomplishment is to make the line less arbitrarily drawn. The myriad and complex questions surrounding animals and rights were hardly all clarified at the end of this fascinating book. But I do know that if humans are going to grant the basic rights of personhood to humans who are mentally debilitated, we must grant them to a wide range of animals, including African Greys, Dolphins, bonobos, chimpanzees, dogs, and orangutans. And that’s something to ponder.