Animal Rights and Marginal Cases

A few months back I came across an article on animal rights over at Strike The Root. It caught my eye because it focused on the "''argument from marginal cases". I have noticed that this has become a very popular argument in recent years in favor of animal rights. That fact however surprises me because it does not seem like a particularly strong argument. In fact it seems like a particularly weak one. The complexity of the issues it deals with is what makes it a hard one to address, but it is not in of itself a strong argument in my opinion.

The argument from marginal cases basically states that if we are justified in granting rights to human marginal cases - humans with an impaired or undeveloped physical or mental capacity - we are also justified in granting rights to animals with an equal capacity to those marginal cases. For example suppose a human is so impaired that his mental activity is physically equivalent to that of a healthy cat. The reasoning goes that since that person has rights in our society, so should the cat. We want to treat like cases alike after all, or so the animal rights advocates would argue.

The reason I consider this to be a weak argument is because it does not claim that animal rights exist due to any fundamental characteristic of the animals themselves. Rather it argues that animals should be granted rights on the basis of a perceived human inconsistency of action. The claim of an inconsistency rests on the premise that there is no fundamental difference between a marginal case human and an animal of equal capacity. But more to the point of why the argument from marginal cases is flawed, if animals have rights (specifically a right to live) by their nature, an inconsistency on the part of humans in this regard is irrelevant. That inconsistency of human action cannot grant nor take away rights that already exist. Humans can either respect those rights or not respect them.

Whereas if the rights come from the humans themselves and are granted to the animals then the inconsistency is still irrelevant because the inconsistency could be resolved by not granting rights to the human marginal cases. What they are effectively trying to say is that whatever quality marginal case humans have that allows them to have rights, whether granted or otherwise, must necessarily be true for animals of equivalent capacity, and therefore, these non-human animals should also have rights. The underlying premise must therefore be that the only relevant consideration in whether rights exist for a given creature is its capacity. I am presuming since most of the arguments I have encountered have used this reasoning that that is referring to the mental capacity of the creature. In other words the fact that these animals are not human would not be a relevant consideration, and the fact that they are not impaired would also not be a relevant consideration.

From this premise it logically follows that the rights of any creature must be granted or must naturally exist due to their individual mental capacity. But the rights of developing humans (children), impaired, and disabled humans does not come from their individual mental capacity nor any other capacity specific to them considering how large a range exists in the category of marginal case humans. Rather they are protected because they are human and lack the full capacity of an unimpaired human. Because they are human there exists some possibility, however remote, that they could one day be healthy enough to function as a part of society.

This possibility does not exist for animals that lack human level sentience. They may evolve into creatures with human level intelligence many thousands of years from now, but they are not that now. A tiger no matter how healthy will not be able to choose to respect the rights of other individuals. That is the relevant ability, the ability to choose to respect the rights of other individuals, and thus coexist in peace with them. We know that humans can have this ability, and will have it if they are not impaired, and we also know that no other species we have encountered as of yet does.

Hence it is the capacity of the species, and not the individual mental capacity of a specific marginal case, that is relevant. Furthermore it is not about what is normal or status quo for a given species but rather it is about what is possible. If a single monkey exists with human level intelligence then it follows that it is possible for its species to have human level intelligence. Therefore we should extend rights to protect all of its species when we have evidence that any member of its species can consciously choose to respect the rights of others.

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I think you are placing way

I think you are placing way too much importance on species. Species are not ideal platonic forms in rigid separation from those things we classify outside of the species; rather, they are merely somewhat-arbitrary groupings of things which share a family resemblance with each other.

Further, if you wish to say that a mentally disabled human being has the potential for rationality, I see no good reason for not saying the same thing about gorillas. We cannot say, a priori, which scientific advance is more likely. The focus on one's membership in the class of humanity rather than some other individual ability is precisely what we should not be focusing on. It merely feeds into Peter Singer's argument that we discriminate agaist animals not because they lack anything essential, but because they are different than us and people are group-selfish, as is demonstrated by sexism, racism, etc.

"...Rather they are

"...Rather they are protected because they are human and lack the full capacity of an unimpaired human...."

It would seem unlikely that any truly unimpaired human has ever existed or could ever exist.

Regards, Don

I'm unimpaired. If what you

I'm unimpaired. If what you are calling "truly unimpaired" is so extreme that it is unlikely that any human has ever met it then I honestly have to wonder why you bother mentioning it. It doesn't have anything to do with the concept of an "unimpaired human" as mentioned in my post.

IMO, basically, we probably

IMO, basically, we probably aren't justified treating a human with the mental capacity of a cat differently from a real cat (assuming you can be certain they won't get better). Especially if they were born that way, and there's no question of according sentimental-memory dignity for who they once were.

There are a number of reasons beyond pure "human chauvinism" or religion to still do so, but they don't relate to individuals per se.

- Personal empathy and caution (what if I had an accident and that happened to me?)

- Desensitizing ill-treatment of nonsapient humans will probably desensitize ill-treatment of regular sapient ones.

- Every bigot with an ax to grind says their would-be victims are "inhuman", and it's a really bad idea to pander to their BS.

- Probably most important: natural empathy reactions to distress do not take account of sapience, but only of "tribe membership". That's why they're triggered by cats and dogs too. All this "species" thing is, is like "race" or "nation", it's a modern way to say "in my tribe".