Sentients rights

About 225 years ago, Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) formulated a "categorical imperative," one version of which was that we "act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end." [Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals]
    Yet another way of stating it is that we should respect the right of persons to be treated as ends in themselves (as existing for their own sake).

Recent reading encourages me to consider whether a unified statement of rights for both human animals and other animals might be useful.
    An article in the January 2 New York Times, "Animal Studies Cross Campus to Lecture Hall," reports that the Animals & Society Institute lists "more than 100 courses in American colleges and universities that fit under the broad banner of animal studies." Five of the courses are offered by three universities in the state where I live. Three of the courses are offered at Duke University in the area of women's studies, and two courses are offered, one at East Carolina University and another at North Carolina State University, in philosophy. The description of ECU's course, "Ethics and Animals," explicitly states the connection:
The primary goal of the course is to learn more about ethics or morality from considering the significance of animals in moral deliberation. In thinking about whether animals have rights, for example, we shall also need to ask wider questions such as, what are rights and how do they fit into the system of morality?.... [emphasis mine]
    I had realized in November, when attempting to lay the foundation for my own statement of animal rights, that the existence of any rights depends on prior agreements that have the force of law. And "any rights" includes those of humans, who even quite recently were held in slavery in many parts of the world and, if they are women, are still held virtually in slavery in many places. That is, the existence of human rights, too, depends on prior agreements that have the force of law.
    The Animals & Society Institute also states explicitly the connection between humans and other animals. The Institute's announced objectives are "to promote new and stricter animal protection laws, stop the cycle of violence between animal cruelty and human abuse, and learn more about our complex relationship with animals," and its website home page flatly asserts that there is a link between cruelty toward animals and violence toward humans.
    Agreements about both human and animal rights are becoming more enlightened.

A poignant case for animal rights is given by Steven Pinker in his most recent book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined:
Let me tell you about the worst thing I have ever done. In 1975, as a twenty-year-old sophomore, I got a summer job as a research assistant in an animal behavior lab. One evening the professor gave me an assignment. Among the rats in the lab was a runt that could not participate in the ongoing studies, so he wanted to use it to try out a new experiment. The first step was to train the rat in what was called a temporal avoidance conditioning procedure. The floor of a Skinner box was hooked up to a shock generator, and a timer that would shock the animal every six seconds unless it pressed a lever, which would give it a ten-second reprieve. Rats catch on quickly and press the lever every eight or nine seconds, postponing the shock indefinitely. [If this was well known, I wonder what the professor hoped to learn by subjecting yet another rat to the procedure.] All I had to do was throw [throw?] the rat in a box, start the timers, and go home for the night. When I arrived back at the lab early the next morning, I would find a fully conditioned rat. [Again, if he knew what he would find...?]
    But that was not what looked back at me when I opened the box in the morning. The rat had a grotesque crook in its spine and was shivering uncontrollably. Within a few seconds, it jumped with a start. It was nowhere near the lever. I realized that the rat had not learned to press the lever and had spent the night being shocked every six seconds. When I reached in to rescue it, I found it cold to the touch. I rushed it to the veterinarian two floors down, but it was too late, and the rat died an hour later. I had tortured an animal to death. [pp. 454-455]
    The episode is for me even more poignant (if that is possible) because I remember that when my wife and I collected seven-week old "Dark Cream Boy" (whom we renamed Siegfried), we were told that he had been "the runt of the litter." Had he been neglected because of it, perhaps ill-treated? Certain of Siegfried's behavioral characteristics suggest that he might have been.
    Pinker admits that as the experiment was being explained to him, "I had already sensed it was wrong."
Even if the procedure had gone perfectly, the rat would have spent twelve hours in constant anxiety, and I had enough experience to know that laboratory procedures don't always go perfectly. My professor was a radical behaviorist, for whom the question "What is it like to be a rat?" was simply incoherent. But I was not, and there was no doubt in my mind that a rat could feel pain. [emphasis mine] The professor wanted me in his lab; I knew that if I refused, nothing bad would happen. But I carried out the procedure anyway, reassured by the ethically spurious but psychologically reassuring principle that it was standard practice. [emphasis mine; p. 455]
    Pinker writes that he included the anecdote "to show what was standard practice in the treatment of animals at the time." And he summarizes even worse practices before stating:
I'm relieved to say that just five years later, indifference to the welfare of animals among scientists had become unthinkable, indeed illegal....[emphasis mine]
    Any scientist will also confirm that attitudes among scientists themselves have changed. Recent surveys have shown that animal researchers, virtually without exception, believe that laboratory animals feel pain. [emphasis mine] Today a scientist who was indifferent to the welfare of laboratory animals would be treated by his or her peers with contempt.
    The change in the treatment of laboratory animals is part of yet another rights revolution: the growing conviction that animals should not be subjected to unjustifiable pain, injury, and death....[emphasis mine; pp. 455-456]
    To say that agreements about rights are becoming more enlightened is equivalent to saying that standard practice is becoming more enlightened.

Richard Dawkins was quoted in the Times on September 19 (in the article "A Knack for Bashing Orthodoxy"):
"Consciousness has to be there, hasn’t it?...It’s an evolved, emergent quality of brains. It’s very likely that most mammals have consciousness, and probably birds, too."
    (He has embraced the Princeton University philosopher Peter Singer’s Great Ape Project, which would accord legal rights to apes, including a prohibition against torture.)
    When I invoked the comparison with human slavery above, I hadn't yet seen the first paragraph of Singer's paper explaining "why the [Great Ape] project":
Aristotle refers to human slaves as "animated property." The phrase exactly describes the current status of nonhuman animals. Human slavery therefore presents an enlightening parallel to this situation. [emphasis mine] We shall explore this parallel in order to single out a past response to human slavery that may suggest a suitable way of responding to present-day animal slavery.
So, what to call rights respecting both humans and other conscience beings? Something, perhaps, that identifies Dawkins's essential, common "emergent quality of brains" The terms consciousness and sentience are obvious possibilities, each of which has a paired term: conscious beings and sentient beings. The latter can also be rendered sentients; there doesn't seem to be such a term for the former.
    And Wikipedia's entry on sentience seems to establish a precedent for the use of that term in this context:
...The concept is central to the philosophy of animal rights, because sentience is necessary for the ability to suffer, which entails certain rights. In science fiction, non-human characters described as "sentient" typically have similar abilities, qualities, and rights as human beings.
Sentients rights, therefore, let it be. And can we update Kant accordingly?
Act in such a way that you treat sentients, whether in your own person or in the person of any other sentient, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.
    Yes, but only if we reach agreements to do so and write them into law. Notice that these agreements would need to address the eating of animals.
I might well have mentioned Sam Harris along with Pinker, Dawkins, and Singer. I quoted him on animal rights last April.
    This page was originally published as a blog post, on January 6, 2012.
    January 21, 2012: "Humanitarian inclusion" (sentientarianism)

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