The controversy over the slaughter and torture of poor dogs in the shooting of acclaimed Filipino film Oro, an entry in the Metro Manila Film Festival that portrays the complex nuances of small-scale mining, has been rather enriching. It set out trains of thoughts that we would otherwise not have pondered.
Last week, I said on Facebook that from a legal perspective the issue has been pretty much settled. There obviously was a violation of our animal welfare laws, and these laws already provide for how the perpetrators could be held accountable. However, I think we should not limit discourse to the legal; there is much more to discuss.
There is, for instance, the issue of artistic freedom. Censorship of artistic output has usually been conducted on the basis of content. Now, it appears that relevant authorities, by pulling out Oro from the theaters, have decided to exercise censorship on the basis of the manner with which the output was created. It begs the question; can the law not run its course in making the filmmakers accountable without inhibiting their artistic expression?
There is also the issue of culture. Many of us like to think that our animal welfare laws are reflective of our evolving norms and modernizing outlook. But are these new norms and outlook shared by all? Is there really cultural consensus behind animal rights? These are important questions considering that we have indigenous communities that eat dogs as a matter of tradition.
Finally, there is the more fundamental issue of animal rights itself, which really sparked my interest. This is an issue that we have relegated to the sidelines, perhaps because we think it has no practical significance. Now this will sound insensitive to dog-lovers, and I do apologize, but I think the issue of animal rights is not a closed debate.
What I know about rights is there are positive rights, which are derived from legitimate human authority, and there are natural rights, which are extrapolated from perceived order of nature — or, if you are a theist, the divine. Are animal rights merely positive rights bestowed by either human prerogative or utility, or are they based on inherent, pre-conceived natural rights?
If animal rights are positive rights emanating from human authority, then why can’t they be trumped anytime by other human considerations, such as for instance the need to effectively tell a story in order to inspire social action? If, on the other hand, animal rights are natural rights that emanate from a higher authority such as natural law, then why don’t we respect the rights of all animals? Why just dogs and not, say, mosquitoes? Moreover, how can we say that it is natural for creatures to have rights when the most fundamental regime in nature is the food chain, which decrees that all is fair in the name of survival? Natural selection does not protect creatures from death and suffering; on the contrary, it allows millions of creatures to die and suffer every single day, all in the name of ecological balance.
Some philosophers say that it is speciesist to presume that only humans have natural rights. I think, however, that they miss the fact that the concept of rights itself is a mere human abstraction. By imposing this entire regime of rights on animals, therefore, we turning them into subjects of human abstraction. I think that is the height of speciesism.
My take is that only humans have natural rights. Whatever rights some other creatures currently enjoy emanate from human prerogative. We give some animals rights because it feels good to do so. We condemn senseless suffering of animals because we know how it feels to suffer and therefore we feel guilty when we see other creatures suffer. We protect some species to conserve the ecology. That’s it. Animals have no inherent right to life or right against suffering as philosophers like Richard Ryder and Peter Singer claim.
As Richard Dawkins once pointed out, the only thing that is sacred under natural law is ecological balance. Nature is indifferent to the plight of individual lives; it is only concerned with sustaining itself. Species come and go. Individual members of these species die and suffer. This is the objective, physical reality; and this is the reality where all animals, including humans, live.
But, unlike other animals, humans also live in two other realities; and the concept of rights exists only in these other realities. To understand these realities is to understand the origin of rights.
How humans imagined they have rights
According to historian and anthropologist Yuval Noah Harrari, humans inhabit three realities: The objective reality, the subjective reality and the inter-subjective reality. We have already discussed objective reality, but what is subjective reality? Subjective reality is the world of human imagination. We imagine there is ethics. We imagine there are rights. We imagine our lives have purpose. Yet can we touch, feel, see, or smell ethics, rights, and purpose? No, but this does not mean they are not real. They are real, but not in the physical sense. Hence, they form a subjective reality.
Inter-subjective reality, on the other hand, is the realm where the subjective and objective realities intertwine. In this reality, some creatures of human imagination act as if they are physically real. Societies, nations, law, the economy — these are all creatures of inter-subjective reality. They exist only in our subjective human imagination, yet they act in a manner that physically affects objective reality. The law, for instance, states that corporations are persons who can own property, sue, and be sued. Corporations affect human lives, the environment, and other physical things; yet corporations are mere products of human fiction.
The creation of these two realities enabled humanity to escape the food chain. Consider, for instance, that while individual humans are all intelligent, so were the Neanderthals. In fact, some anthropologist even believe that Neanderthals might have been smarter, having much bigger brains. On top of that, they were also much stronger. So what made us Homo Sapiens better? It’s our ability to cooperate. Hillary Clinton was right; we are naturally stronger together. Of course, other species cooperate too, but they do so only to a certain extent. For example, apes have to build personal trust first before they can cooperate with fellow apes. This means ape cooperation is time-consuming because apes must develop personal friendships first, and limited because apes can’t possibly develop personal trust with a thousand other apes.
Unlike apes, we humans can cooperate with other humans even if we don’t trust them, and this enables us to cooperate on a massive scale. Mass cooperation enabled our specie to become master of the food chain. After all, one ape might be smarter and stronger than one human; but twenty apes is no match to two thousand humans. The key to this unique human proficiency for mass cooperation is our ability to imagine. We imagined that we are a community. We imagined that we have shared interests. We imagined that we are part of a great cosmic order, that we have rights, and that there is morality. From there, our imagination evolved. It has created religion, spirituality, society, nations, law, and other complex fictions. This network of imaginations became our framework for mass cooperation. A perfect example is money. To an ape, it is just a worthless piece of paper. And indeed, from the perspective of objective reality, money is just a piece of paper. Yet enough humans have imagined money to have value, and as a result it became part of the inter-subjective reality that drives even the objective reality. Humans cooperate now on a global scale because of money, the value of which exists only in the collective imagination of humans. This piece of fiction has enabled humans to create a sophisticated global economy.
Taking off from this premise, my point is that rights exist only in our collective human imagination. Rights exist only in the subjective and inter-subjective realities. Animals, on the other hand, are outside those two realities, unless we humans allow them in. But even if we let them in, they will be oblivious and indifferent. This is actually my point when I said we are being speciesist when we turn other species into subjects of our abstractions.
Many centuries ago we decided to imagine that all humans have rights. We did that so we can cooperate and create a society that would shield us from the wild. Humans originally had no inherent rights. They only imagined that they do, in order to protect themselves from the cruelty of nature. Rights, ethics, principles, morality and law are all imagined concepts that were invented for the propagation of the human specie, the protection of human lives, and the inviolability of the human spirit. Everything else, including animal rights, emanates from that.
How inter-specie contracts became the basis for animal rights
If natural law has not bestowed other creatures with natural rights, would it then be ethical for humans to slaughter and torture them at will? I think the prevailing moral consensus states that senseless animal suffering is wrong. But why? I have asked some of my learned friends about this, and they can’t seem to find answers beyond the fact that our gut instinct tells us that animal cruelty is wrong.
One argument is that it is plainly wrong for sentient beings to suffer. However, this argument opens a Pandora’s box full of questions about the viability of sentience as the basis for rights, and I won’t even go there. Another argument — a favorite of animal rights activist — is that every creature wishes to live, and that we humans should respect that. People who subscribe to this argument abide by a strict vegetarian lifestyle. Yet they seem to have not paused to ask themselves why animal life is superior over plant life.
Both of these arguments presuppose, again, that animals, or some animals, have the natural right to life, and the natural right against suffering. As I have argued above, this is a faulty argument, simply because rights as a concept is an abstraction that is completely outside the realm of the natural order. The only basis for allocating rights is humanity. It doesn’t matter if you are incapable of thinking or in a vegetative state; if you are human, you automatically have rights. This is the central tenet of humanism, which is the prevailing basis of morality in the world. This is also why even if robots become sentient, they will still have no natural rights, unless a new consensus on morality other than humanism emerges.
There must be literature on the philosophy behind animal rights that I may be missing, but right now the only basis for animal rights that I can think of is the concept of inter-specie contract, a theory that I made up while on the treadmill the other day.
From the perspective of evolutionary biology, the goal of every specie is to avoid extinction. Having successfully escaped the food chain, we Homo Sapiens now have the power to not only protect ourselves from extinction, but also to propagate our specie. More than that, we also have the power to extend this mantle of protection to other species. Indeed, as an example, this human power has turned wheat into the most dominant plant specie on the face of the earth.
In most cases, we have extended this power of protection to other species, and have helped them propagate. In exchange, these species sacrifice individual members on the altar of human consumption in order to propagate their DNA. Millions of individual hogs, cattle, and chicken live miserable lives in human farms that ultimately lead to terrible deaths, yet the prospects of these species’ survival and propagation have never been stronger. Indeed, it might be useful for the purpose of philosophers and ethicists to characterize our interaction with other lives as a network of inter-specie agreements. Humans propagate other species, and in exchange they provide for human consumption.
If we adopt the concept inter-specie contract as a philosophical framework, then it would be easier to set the standards of when animal suffering could be allowed. We can say that individual animals can only suffer at human hands if the suffering is essential to the consummation of the inter-specie contract. Animals can suffer in the course of food preparation, for example; and based on this standard, eating pinikpikan may be justified. But if animal suffering at human hands is senseless, then it should not be condoned for it would be a breach of inter-specie contract on the part of Homo Sapiens.
In the same manner, we can say that the canine-Sapiens contract is such that dogs provide humans with companionship and loyalty, and in exchange humans agree to give dogs protection and affection. Dogs may not die or suffer in any way — except perhaps in traditional communities where they are seen as food — for otherwise that would be a breach of the said contract. This, I think, is the basis of our animal welfare laws.