Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Fear and loathing among the apes

The news has been building for some time now that the Spanish parliament may be about to recognize that great apes should be accorded certain basic legal protections. That is, not only humans, but the other great apes too. This news has been met with controversy and ridicule, as well as approval. Are the wacko Socialists and Greens of Spain about to give chimpanzees the right to drive motor vehicles, to run for parliament, and to sit on the boards of major corporations? Will young Spanish children now have to share their kindergarten desks with gorillas? Well, not exactly. If Spanish legislation were to follow the ideals of the Great Ape Project, chimpanzees ("common" and bonobo), gorillas, and orangutans would acquire legal rights to life, liberty, and freedom from torture. In the words of the Declaration on Great Apes:
We demand the extension of the community of equals to include all great apes: human beings, chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orang-utans.

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.
It is surely a sad commentary on human civilization in the twenty-first century that we are still debating – indeed, have only begun to debate – whether torturing and killing our nearest relatives is acceptable. Passage of legislation in Spain would mark a giant leap for apekind, both because it would hold out some hope (though no certainty) that our relatives may be saved from extinction and enabled to live relatively free lives, and because it would mark significant progress in human ethical thinking, by removing some non-humans from the legal category of property and recognizing their intrinsic moral worth.

It is this last bit – recognizing the intrinsic moral worth of members of other species – that is generating fear and loathing among human apes. Although chimpanzees have cognitive faculties roughly equivalent to those of normal three-year-old human children, there is fierce resistance to granting them the right not to be killed, tortured, eaten, orphaned, kept in tiny cages, deliberately infected with fatal diseases, or to have their body parts used for trinkets or medicines. As I've suggested before, this resistance to admitting non-humans into the moral community is to a large degree based on existential dread: it is only by asserting our right to dominate and exploit other sentient creatures that we can overcome the fear that we will share their ultimate fate, that of being abandoned by God and Nature – of being treated as if we were animals: that is, of being treated the way we treat others who are not human. We must continue to treat animals like animals to prove to ourselves that we are not just animals who will be treated like animals.

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