One of my interests is human nature and identity and Seed magazine has a very interesting article titled No Longer a Mind of Our Own. This is one of a number of recent articles dealing with the psychology of other species and raising the question of the sort of treatment we should give other species if the boundaries between human and non human are blurred.
As the article notes:
"Streams of new data and theories, critically from neuroscience, are converging into a new, trans-species model of the psyche. Humans are being reinstated back into the species continuum that Darwin articulated, a continuum that includes laughing rats, octopuses with personalities, sheep who read emotions from the faces of their family members and tool-wielding crows."
This is a quite different view from when I was an undergraduate when we were taught, that the mental abilities of other animals were quite limited and that we should not anthropomorphise other animals. But now thinking of elephants and other non human animals having psychiatric disorders homologous say to traumatic stress syndrome is not so far fetched.
Yet there does not seem to be a clear consensus about what this means for the treatment of other species. First there are people such as Steve Jones who argue that yes be nice to other animals (here referring to primates) but arguing that they ought to have some sort of rights
"demeans our own position and, even worse, reduces chimpanzees to the level of diminished human beings."
Then there is the proposal in Spain to give certain primates some of the rights we normally accord humans. In this proposal, the great apes would basically become wards of the state, and no longer would be considered property. This position, the article points out is related to one advocated by a group called the Great Apes Project. This group's mission is according to it's web site is
"... to end the unconscionable treatment of our nearest living relatives by obtaining for non-human great apes the fundamental moral and legal protections of the right to life, the freedom from arbitrary deprivation of liberty, and protection from torture."
This position seems difficult to square with those who advocate medical testing on great apes when necessary, or with those who propose to grow human organs in other animals, such as pigs. After all, pigs are pretty smart as anyone who has worked around them will tell you.
I don't think there is an easy solution here. I personally don't know if other animals should have rights in the same way that we have. It seems that the concept of right has developed as a way to regulate interactions within our own species and perhaps ought not be extended to other species. That said, I am a firm believer in what Aldo Leopold in Sand County Almanac called the ethical sequence, namely that as we develop as individuals (and perhaps as a species) we extend concern and ethical treatment from our immediate family, to the tribe, to society and also to other species, and to some degree to the the planet's ecosystems as a whole.
Ethical treatment of other people and species, is different than rights, though clearly they are connected. If societies want to regulate the treatment of other animals, that is perfectly fine with me, but let's not talk about animal rights in an absolute sense. After all, certain animals do have greater moral and ethical status tied to their evolutionary relationship with us and shared cognitive abilities. What does it mean to give great apes protection from deprivation of liberty? I really don't know. Does liberty mean anything to a Chimpanzee?
Yet on the other hand the ethic and moral status of chimps demands that we not cause them undue suffering and provide them with proper environments and, I might add, preserve their natural habitats and populations. The folks at the Great Ape Project talk about a community of equals, but cognitively other animals are not really our equals so the community of equals does not make sense to me. But I do believe in the interconnectedness of all life. For me it is through a combination of our evolutionary and emotional attachment (again following Leopold) that our behavior to the rest of the biological community should spring. As Leopold notes in Sand County Almanac "we can be ethical only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love or otherwise have faith in."
Leopold, Aldo(1949) A Sand County Almanac. Oxford University Press. NY xiii+226pp