Due Conservation: The Humanity of Non-Human Rights

This past summer I taught a course on personality psychology. At the end of the final lecture, I shared a thought that went something like this:

It doesn’t matter to me if you like animals. There are many people out there who do not like children, but that doesn’t make it acceptable to abuse children, or to torture them, or to use them for some purpose. What I hope I have occasionally demonstrated in this course is that like people, animals are also individuals. They too have personalities, and by extension, they have some sort of inalienable rights that at least approximate the human concept of personhood.

You see, I have gained a bit of a reputation in my courses to present animal models of human concepts where possible. Not only are they useful teaching tools, but the feedback from students suggests that they serve to anchor and improve retention of course material. An ulterior motive is, however, that which is noted above: to encourage and foster respect for non-human species, and to underscore the similarities between us rather than our more apparent differences.

I am an animal lover, undoubtedly, and in this respect I am quite biased. But I am also a scientist, and I know what the science has to say on the matter. In addition to our undeniable genetic and evolutionary connections, there is a gestalt of existence—of being alive—that I believe is less exclusively human than we may have previously surmised. Elephants express grief and behaviours best described as mourning in response to lost kin; cetaceans (dolphins and whales) have developed a more elaborate part of their limbic system, the area of the brain responsible for processing emotions; chimpanzees can contemplate both past and future, and have demonstrated such complex emotions as guilt, shame, and remorse; the facial expressions of infant gorillas in response to cold are the same as those in newborn humans; even such higher-ordered products of consciousness, including empathy and altruism, can be extracted from cases of cross-species adoption; and crows have demonstrated sequential tool use requiring a high degree of problem-solving and forethought. Talk to a marine biologist, and she will tell you that individual fish have distinct personalities; that crustaceans indeed feel pain; and that octopuses show evidence of both short- and long-term memory, among other remarkable traits. Ask a cattle farmer about the emotional depth of a cow, or of the connection between mother and calf—both are nearly as complex as the intelligence of pigs (which is greater than that of dogs, by the way). Although sentience must be inferred from such characteristics, everything we know about being human would lead to this inference. It’s a logical course of reasoning. I may not know what it is like to be a dolphin, but I do not know what it is like to be a woman either; fortunately my mind does not require a genetic match to engage in some degree of empathy. And neither does yours.

The reality that is before us is one of the living; the boundary between humans and non-human species is narrow compared to that between life and non-life. Simply put, we are more similar than we are unique. It is not mere coincidence that most of us have two eyes. Our anatomical commonalities are not the result of chance. Indeed, there is a reason that I see something familiar, something relatable, in the face my cat. As Darwin so eloquently stated in his Descent of Man, “The difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not kind. We have seen that the senses and intuitions, the various emotions and faculties, such as love, memory, attention, curiosity, imitation, reason, etc., of which man boasts, may be found in an incipient, or even sometimes in a well-developed condition, in the lower animals.”

The similarities are both subjective and objective, and they are largely quantifiable. This should be emotionally disconcerting given our own capacity for empathy, but emotions need not be considered to reach a consensus of care and concern. In consideration of such characteristics—of the existence of long-assumed human traits in non-human species—we might conclude that we are far less evolved than we would like to assume. I say this not to suggest that the aforementioned comparisons diminish our own evolutionary successes; but rather that our treatment of animals is symptomatic of broader human flaws that similarly pervade human domains. I am of the opinion that no one is free when others are oppressed, and I believe that this philosophy should be extended beyond our human world. So long as the abuse, torture, and exploitation of any one species continues, these conditions will never truly be overcome. To surmount them completely, they must be recognized and acknowledged in all their forms and manifestations. This includes the abuse and torture of animals.

One implication, of course, is the assignment of personhood to other sentient species, or for that matter, to all expressions of life (with the latter being the far greater challenge). As strange as this sounds, there are advocates afoot who are fighting for this very thing, with the most notable cases involving dolphins and chimpanzees (see the work of Steven Wise and the Nonhuman Rights Project). It is a legal debate, to a large degree—currently the law only differentiates between persons and things, with non-human species falling into the things category. But it is also a debate of human morality. Whatever differences exist, to think and feel should position one far closer to person than thing. Indeed, any self-determined creature capable of using tools or forming complex social bonds is much more than a rock; much closer to this thing we call human. The argument can be made that life in any expression deserves some level of respect simply because it exists. We are all products of 3.6 billion years of evolution. The same pressures that brought about the complexities of homo sapiens also produced the cockroach, the cuttlefish, and the kangaroo. Each of us, by default of being here, contains some intrinsic value and worth; or at the very least, none of us contains any more intrinsic value and worth than any other. From an ecological perspective, of course, we are all key players on the stage of life. If we weren’t, we wouldn’t still be here.

In a previous (and lengthy) blog post entitled, Principles of an Ecological Morality: Integrating Values and Morals for Natural and Human Systems, I suggested the following: “Given that all constituents of nature are interdependent, it can be reasoned that each constituent is accompanied by an innate ability to affect other constituents and the ecosystem itself. By nature of being born into such a complex and interconnected system, each of us contains within us the capacity to influence others; in fact, such agency occurs regardless of intention or drive. The honey bee is innately influential, in her pollination of the flower or lack thereof. Each action—any action—impacts the system in some way, as does the mere existence of that particular honey bee. This observation further underscores the value of the individual within the ecosystem.” Furthermore, “the appreciation of our mutual interdependence, whether in nature or in society, [should result] in an appreciation for all individuals, human or otherwise.” It may be difficult to grasp the value of a mosquito or a rat; indeed, we may harbour extreme aversions to many expressions of life. But our intelligence is such that we can (or should be able to) engage in a higher order of reasoning on the matter. And the conclusion, intellectually and by extension ethically, should be the respect, care, and due conservation of non-human species. Above all else, it should be the appreciation and value of life in general, not simply that which bears such advanced characteristics as technology, written language, and civilization; and not only the highest complexities of thought and emotion.

I digress. I could go on, and on. As I sit here writing this, the Earth descends further into its 6th mass extinction, attributed to centuries’ worth of human activity and expansion. From within the Anthropocene, the outlook is grim. Evidence mounts exponentially for our impact on the Earth and its other inhabitants, and yet conservation remains a minority mindset reserved for biologists and activists. Where is the mass outrage? Where is the protest for the rights of those who cannot defend themselves? Where is this empathy of ours? To stand by and remain silent is to implicate oneself in every single act and crime; in every hunted elephant and poisoned rhinoceros; in every test-subject chimp and definned shark. We are all members of the same encroaching species. What we encroach upon, what we invade and infect, is not simply the ubiquity of nature. It is the finite expression of the life residing in it. That it is finite—that the extent of its existence within the universe remains unknown—begs for its protection.

In the eyes of nature, I believe that I am no more a person than any other expression of consciousness. Yet I am human. Amidst all that is beaten, abused, and driven to extinction, I (like you) have been afforded a level of agency in this time like no other. What each of us does with our human agency is self-determined, but the moral and ethical implications of our behaviours for other species warrants greater consideration. Regardless of the level at which conservation occurs, let us put our greatest attributes to good use. Let us refine our empathy, not our reckless brutality; and let us refine humanity itself.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *