Animal lovers may be interested to know that in Argentina a judge ruled that the chimpanzee "Cecilia" has rights under the law and could not be confined in a local zoo without a companion to spend her days with, while philosophy lovers may be interested in Judge Mauricio, who explained his position by quoting Emmanuel Kant- "We may judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals."
I'm sure PETA is rejoicing but I'm not as quick to celebrate- for in our desire to protect the wellbeing of animals and in Kant's own words actually lies more understanding of the nature of humanity than that of animals. Kant claims we can see into the morality of a man by looking at how he treats animals, a statement that sounds clear and radical at first. But look at what happens if we switch out animals for other people groups.
"We may judge the heart of a man by his treatment of the poor"
"We may judge the heart of a man by his treatment of the elderly"
"We may judge the heart of a man by his treatment of minorities."
Do you see the problem here? This statement seems to recognize the innate worth of the direct object (animals), but when we change the sentence around it is clear it does no such thing. Rather, it creates a dichotomy between the (claimed) superior and inferior, the dominant and the submissive, the morally responsible and the helpless. When speaking about animals, this isn't necessarily bad. Because we are human (unless I have a secret animal audience, in that case, hello!), we naturally put the innate worth of our species over that of others. However, many news outlets reporting on this particular case called attention to the emergence of animal rights being recognizing legally. But granting a population allowances because we believe we are superior to them is not giving them rights. We cannot claim adherence to animal rights as an expression of moral righteousness or integrity.
As much as I love the cute little furry ones, I recognize that when we object to someone abusing a dog we do it not necessarily on a foundation of believing in the inner worth of that dog, but because we find pleasure in the cute little furry ones and we don't want someone to compromise that source of pleasure. Humanity's quest for animal rights is not actually about the animals at all- it's about us- seeking to take care of the vulnerable and simultaneously being placed on a pedestal of ethics.
I love that this chimpanzee is legally entitled to a companion. I love this because I am a human who seeks relationships and community and not because I know the scientific basis for the emotional stability of apes. I give my congratulations to Cecilia and the hopefully full life she will live in companionship. But I caution the supposed heroes of the animal rights movement to understand where they are coming from.
(Also, please check out my podcast "Ergo" available on iTunes and Soundcloud!)
- Alexandra Kytka