PRESS : "What rights do animals have?" by FONDAMENTAL

May 9, 2022

As part of its partnership with The Caring Gallery, FONDAMENTAL publishes this philosophy article accompanying the exhibition "Close to the eyes, close to the heart", where nine contemporary artists explore the relationship between man and nature. The relationship to politics is direct: philosophy and science are the basis of animal rights and their evolution. 


The question is a classic of philosophical debate. Why should we come to the aid of a pig, a beetle or a frog who will never lift a leg for us? What is the meaning of paying a fine for mistreating a kitten, when it will go unpunished if it scratches me? Since the Antiquity, philosophers wonder about the consideration to be given to the fauna. The literature is nourished and the authors abound but one can distinguish two great conceptions: the animal-object and the animal-sensitive.


Let us start with the animal-object. For a long time, Western thought has classified animals as substitutes for humans. In the Catholic religion, man is the closest creation to God. He is at the top of the living world and Genesis authorizes him to exploit the other creatures: "Be fruitful and prolific, fill the earth and rule over it. Subdue the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and every beast that moves upon the earth. After all, we must also feed ourselves...


In the 17th century, Descartes pushed this logic to the limit and radicalized it. For him, the animal is a machine: it always reacts in the same way to stimuli, it responds to orders like a slave... Animals are so predictable that they behave "like clocks," he explains in his Letter to the Marquis of Newcastle (1646). For the father of rationalism, the cause is clear. Even an idiot can speak and express his thoughts, even if they are silly, which no ball of fur or feathers will ever do. We are far from the "animal cause"!


- Mistreatment is condemned, the extermination of species is forbidden


In the following century, the philosophers of the Enlightenment debated the issue, studied the animals and qualified the Catholic heritage. Voltaire praises the abilities of birds that adapt their nests to branches or roof angles, and those of dogs that learn from their master. Rousseau goes much further. In his Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality among Men (1755), he puts forward the idea of the sentient animal: "It seems (...) that if I am obliged to do no harm to my fellow man, it is not so much because he is a reasonable being as because he is a sentient being: a quality which, being common to both beast and man, must at least give one the right not to be mistreated needlessly by the other.

This philosophical thought founds a part of the animal right, that of the protection. Mistreatment is condemned and the extermination of species is forbidden. On the contrary, treating fauna well is a sign of dignity, a higher degree of humanity. For his part, Kant wrote in Doctrine of Virtue (1797) that gratitude towards animals is a "duty of man towards himself".

The fact remains that, in the eyes of the Enlightenment, the rights of animals stop here. They remain quite distinct from people and their exploitation is not condemnable. This is easily explained. For this major current of philosophy, it is reason that must guide morality. Scholarly, scientific thought determines what is right and wrong. But animals are devoid of reason, and therefore of morality... They cannot be considered legally like humans.


- The day may come when the rest of the animal creation will obtain those rights that only the hand of tyranny has been able to deny it.


At the same time, the Anglo-Saxon thought takes a different path. Jeremy Bentham and later John Stuart Mill defined what is called utilitarianism. A very different conception! What counts, for these authors from across the Channel, is individual and collective well-being, "the greatest amount of happiness of the greatest number of individuals". This collective happiness is achieved provided that liberties are broad - Bentham is one of the precursors of liberalism. And morality? The action is moral when it allows, in fine, to raise our degree of satisfaction. The suffering we cause is condemnable because it serves no purpose.

In this conception, morality does not depend on reason but on emotions, which are only noticed once the action is completed. This principle is at the root of Anglo-Saxon law, where behavior is judged a posteriori, where jurisprudence is king.

What does this have to do with animals? In this logic, harming animals is immoral, except to protect oneself or to feed oneself, explains Bentham in his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789). Simply because they can express pain that is of no use to us. "The day may come when the rest of the animal creation will obtain those rights that only the hand of tyranny has been able to deny it. The French have already discovered that the color of one's skin does not justify the abandonment of a human being to the whims of his tormentor... A horse or an adult dog are, undeniably, much more rational animals, but also much more talkative than an infant of one day, one week or even one month. And, if it were otherwise, what would it change? The question is not: can they think, nor can they speak, but: can they suffer?" The utilitarians therefore also defend the sentient animal, but unlike Rousseau and the French Enlightenment authors, they recognize its rights.


- A convergence of evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states.

In the twentieth century, Anglo-Saxon thinking will gain ground through scientific discoveries. It was demonstrated that certain species have thoughts, reflections and intelligence. The ecology movements took hold of this. As science advances, the distance between man and animal seems to be shrinking. In 2016, the court in Mendoza, Argentina, ordered the release of the chimpanzee Cecilia, held in a zoo, on the grounds that she should benefit from Habeas corpus, which prohibits arbitrary detention. Never before seen. The animal has become the equal of the human.


More than a century after Darwin, neuroscientists established in 2021 in Cambridge a declaration according to which "a convergence of evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states as well as the capacity to express intentional behaviors". Same conclusion, in France, from the National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and the Environment. In May 2017, the experts conclude that their work tends: "to show the existence of elaborate contents of consciousness in studied species."

So the gap is narrowing. Not only because the animals would become more human in our eyes by having a conscience and expressing emotions. But also because man, by his own destructive or murderous actions, has questioned his own morality. A great reversal! Or a return a few millennia back? In Greek antiquity, the gods transformed themselves into wild beings or changed humans into game at will...




Add a comment