Rights for animals(?) or Consistency can be misleading  


On Radio 3 there is a series called 'Free Thinking'. It is designed to encourage new voices amongst young academics and develop their ability to use the media with the help of the BBC. One of the talks dealt with animal rights. The person giving the talk, Dr Alasdair Cochrane of Sheffield University, develops his own arguments and also mentions arguments in favour of such rights used by a group of American activists. They are currently trying to persuade the Courts of New York to accept that they should issue a writ of Habeas Corpus in order to secure the liberty of a chimpanzee, something which will no doubt gradually work its way up the appeals system – the case, not the chimp. Dr Cochrane, who is a lecturer in the law of human rights, believes that the exclusion of non-humans from our civil institutions cannot be justified and explores various efforts at re-imagining a political world which takes other animals seriously. Doctor Cochrane was a carnivore until invited to debate the lack of rights for animals. Having looked in detail at the question he came to the conclusion that the existing legal framework was not justifiable

He illustrates the current situation with some examples of how we treat animals. He tells us that there were two dogs which were used to protect Prince William when he was stationed in Wales. When he left, the RAF had the two dogs put down because they were not able to find an alternative home which would have been suitable for them. This indicates that they were regarded simply as our instruments. They had no value in themselves, something which he sees as typical of our normal attitude. We treat most animals like this, as units of production. Another example given, however, was that of a police dog. The dog had gone to the defence when his handler was being attacked by someone with an axe. At the end of his police service with the Nottingham police force, he was awarded a pension (the dog, not the policeman). The Daily Mail had the very original title - “Barking Mad”. The reason for the award of the pension was explained by the Police & Crime Commissioner: “We look after the people who work for the police. They have a dignified retirement. We do the same for police dogs. They work hard and in fact are police officers.”. A pension is of course the exception, even for police dogs, but there are nonetheless many charities for dogs. Clearly, however, charities depend on donations. A pension on the other hand is paid by the state and so is not a charitable gesture, but a right. Something of which Dr Cochrane approves.

He tells us that his change of opinion came about as a result of three key scientific discoveries:

1. that of Copernicus: that the world is not the centre of the universe;

2. Darwin's theory of evolution which proves that we cannot claim to be different to the other animals;

3. The discovery made by Freud that we are governed by our subconscious.

His interpretation of the consequences of the theory of evolution is rather exaggerated: it doesn't actually prove anything one way or the other regarding the existence or otherwise in humans of what theists would call a soul. Neither does it tell us that being linked genetically to other animals produces any sort of 'ought' as regards our relationship with them.  Natural selection is morally neutral. And to think that Freud represents science is a bit of a joke.

But let's accept that we are neither at the centre of the universe, nor the result of any form a special creation and that we often act on instinct rather than reason – like the other animals. What conclusion can we draw from this? Dr Cochrane says that we have to accept that we have a moral obligation towards other animals because we are the same as them. A curious argument; an argument for a moral code based on apparent consistency.  But it is the type of consistency which can lead us astray because of its superficiality. It seems to me that to create a new morality based on the fact the we are all animals is a huge step to take.  Worms are animals: do we have a moral obligation towards them?  We share a very large part of our organic composition, including our DNA, with plants – should I abstain from eating lettuce? Should I tuck it up at night? It would be 'consistent'.

But it is we human beings who have a concept of time - of history and of the future - the capacity to reason. And it is we who have created the very concept of morality, something not obviously present in other animals. All of this represents a huge and important difference between us and the other members of the animal kingdom.  And as regards Freud, even if our desires come from our subconscious in the first place, it doesn't mean that we act on them automatically.  We can and do incorporate other information from elsewhere, consider the likely results in the long term and modify our actions accordingly, a facility which exists at best in a very rudimentary form amongst our 'cousins'.  It seems to me that we are quite justified in affirming that we are in a different category.

But he continues his argument with reference to the marginalised peoples of the world – slaves, oppressed minorities and women. We don't expect these people to depend on charity or the good will of others to protect them or to improve their position in the world.  We incorporate the obligation that they should have equality with the rest of the human race in our laws.  Only in this way can we be sure of attaining the desired results.  They need to be a part of the political system and in Dr Cochrane's view the same should apply to animals.  So then pensions for every dog? Apparently not.  Having based his argument on the marginalised of mankind, Dr Cochrane does not want to pursue it to its ultimate conclusion.  He proposes instead that the law recognise the status of animals as animals, rather than as objects which we can use as we want.  But as part of this, he wants us to accept that the wishes and interests of animals be taken into account by our political system.  So then, a lamppost for every dog?  But what about the need for a ready supply of birds for every cat, the provision of worms for every bird...and for the worms? Well I suppose they can eat dirt.  The argument just falls apart.

I wouldn't want to contemplate the infliction of unnecessary suffering on an animal which may have self-awareness, however limited, because I would to some extent feel its pain. But it also seems to me that the protection of animals from our cruelty probably has the beneficial effect of discouraging cruelty towards human beings in general. An increase in the level of compassion in our human society would be good for all of us, but I would not want to pay, as the price for its creation, the making of the sort of fundamental change to our legislation proposed by Dr Cochrane, a change based on an incoherent concept of consistency.


Post script

For any lawyer reading this, I would add that Dr Cochrane takes the view that the status he proposes for animals ought to be part of a written constitution. For him a constitution is not just a series of rules, but a declaration of our values. And a constitution forces the government to take account of the values it enshrines because it is resistant to modification.  He comments that the fact that we have not taken the step of having such a constitution says a lot about us – and not in a positive way.

He cites in contrast the constitutions of Germany and Switzerland which require that the rights of animals be taken into account.   He could have added that France has recently decided to add an extra dimension to its constitution. Instead of being categorised as 'things', animals will now be categorised separately – as animals, although no-one seems very clear as to what that means. Brazil has a constitution which is even more favourable – it prohibits the extinction of species, although how this can be enforced is not entirely clear to me.  And India requires everyone to show compassion to animals.

Now I'm not sure, but I think that most people would accept that the UK has a system of protection for animals and an attitude towards their well-being which is already very strong and which I would back against any of the other countries which provide constitutional protection to animals.  I don't see therefore the evidence to suggest that a constitution is necessary in order to protect animals.

In any event, I take issue with the idea that a written constitution is vital for us so as to be seen to hold the values which it may set out.  I would have thought that our basic British values would be thought of very favourably throughout the world, even though they are not all codified. And of course there is a reason we have not gone down that route. It is not because we do not want to proclaim our values, but because we didn't have the extreme political tumult necessary at the right time in our history – at the end of the 18th century when revolution was in the air and constitutions were popular as attempts to restart society and produce a definitive version of the nature of the State for the future. Imagine the sort of constitution we would have had if it had been written the last time we had a major upheaval in our political life. That was at the end of the 17th century, when, having won the civil war, Cromwell would have been writing a constitution prohibiting dancing for ever.

Obviously without a written constitution the law is less well structured and has no requirement for an entrenched majority in order to effect change. But then is the right to bear arms, entrenched in the American constitution, such a major recommendation for this way of proceeding? We each have our own way of doing things and I think that ours works quite well. Bearing in mind the doctrine of the supremacy of Parliament, it would in any case be extremely difficult to create a constitution which had an enforceable requirement that any change should be subject to, say, the approval of a two thirds majority. Over time, various eminent jurists have put their minds to this and have not yet come up with a solution which is generally thought to work. So then, we would have a constitution which could be changed by a simple majority – or in other words just another statute.

29 December 2014


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