You wouldn’t expect a essay on moral rights to appear in a scientific magazine would you? However, a column in Scientific American questions the restriction of rights to humans. The column bears the subtitle**, “How science can inform ethics.”
The author, Michael Shermer, is an historian of science and editor of the Skeptic magazine. His work often reviews pseudoscience and beliefs while he promotes scientific skepticism. His position appears to be show me the evidence, rather than tell me the story.
We assume a human has certain rights. However, in this particular column, Shermer offers his view that all sentient beings have a moral right to survive with adequate sustenance, safety, shelter, and social relations. To Shermer, sentient means having emotion, perception, sensitivity, and the capacity to feel or suffer. It doesn’t necessarily imply tool use, language, reasoning, or whatever the thing is that we call intelligence.
Shermer cites studies in neurology and related sciences that indicate humans and other animals have similar basic emotive capacities, that there is no clear division between human and nonhuman animals, especially in sentience. Artificial stimulation of the same regions of human and nonhuman brains results in the same emotional reactions. Attentiveness, emotional feeling, and suffering occur in differently evolved species. I agree, although my evidence is only anecdotal, not measurement. I have seen dogs grieve and turkeys love and crows play games, and it is obvious that worms feel pain.
Until about 20 years ago, any scientist who reported animal sentience received rebuke and rejection of his or her publications. Animal emotion was denied as anthropomorphism, no matter how obvious. It is only the instrumented scientific experiments that have enabled the recognition of sentience in nonhuman species, and many people—including some physical scientists—still cling to the belief that only humans can have feelings.
Americans share a notion of human rights that is rooted in the American Declaration of Independence: “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” However, we don’t agree regarding rights for other life forms—even intelligent and communicating species.
Shermer is justified in defending a right for sentient beings to survive and flourish. He didn’t say you couldn’t eat them; he said you shouldn’t abuse them. Let’s look at a wider implication. If the concept of rights for sentient beings makes sense, note that some non-living complex systems have almost sentient characteristics. (If you are not a regular reader of this blog, click on <complex systems> under categories on the web home page for a more extensive introduction.)
A complex system shows emergent behavior different from those of its individual members—it responds to inputs, suggesting it perceives its environment. Some treatments might damage its continued existence. Is it sentient? Well, a hive is much different from individual bees, having an existence of its own. You might abuse a hive by scattering the bees, even without injuring an individual bee. So, do certain complex systems have rights?
In the U.S., we say yes, some complex systems have rights.
For example, large corporations are complex systems, responding to external stimulus as a single entity. When damaged, a corporation might show pain by reduced function, reduced output, loss of employees, debt, dysfunctions in management, and even death. The supreme court has said corporations have political rights and free speech rights.
As a second example, note that a neighborhood is a complex system. A city council might treat a neighborhood as an entity, either permitting or prohibiting development and land use according to what the council perceives as the character of the neighborhood. That’s saying the neighborhood as a set of qualities has a right to exist and preserve those qualities.
The weather is a complex system, and we are discovering that it responds to an external stimulus, such as the injection of greenhouse gases. Many, including the President and the United Nations, argue that humans should treat the climate system with more respect, not damage it lest it damage us.
What’s the point?
Shermer is right when he suggests that rights for sentient beings is a moral concept. Perhaps we could better manage our political and social affairs by asking whether rights might be involved in many social issues. We’re already assigning rights by political means. Making the concept of rights conscious and deliberate might sometimes simplify the arguments.
** This subtitle appears in the print version