It’s virtually impossible to prove whether apes are conscious, since neuroscientists still can’t agree on how to define consciousness, or how it arises in the human brain. But advocates for ape rights say the fundamental question is not scientific, but moral. We do know for certain that great apes have complex mental abilities, which elevate their capability for suffering. On that basis alone, say rights advocates, apes deserve basic protections from the pain, isolation, and arbitrary imprisonment inflicted by medical experiments or captivity in zoos. “Great apes are thinking, self-aware beings with rich emotional lives,” said Peter Singer. “If we regard human rights as something possessed by all human beings, no matter how limited their intellectual or emotional capacities may be, how can we deny similar rights to great apes?”
Because rights are strictly a matter of protecting humans, based on our unique moral value and the need to guarantee that the weak and vulnerable are not exploited as objects–as Peter Singer would happily permit. For example, rather than use chimps in finding the hepatitis vaccine, Singer told Psychology Today we should use humans with significant cognitive impairment instead. He said the same thing about HIV prevention/treatment research. Put simply, the Great Ape Project degrades humanity.
Moreover, we have the duty to take those capacities–let’s ignore the anthropomorphizing and possible over statement for now–into account in the ways in which we treat these magnificent animals. They owe us nothing because the concept of “duty” is beyond their ken.
Peter Singer doesn’t believe in “rights,” per se, but utilitarian outcomes. He admits this proposal is “speciesist,” in that it targets one group of animals for inclusion in the same moral community as people. But he wants to “break the species barrier,” as he put it in his book The Great Ape Project. Once apes have rights, the entire foundation of human exceptionalism will collapse–which of course, is the point.
Preventing chimps from being used in all research could extract a high cost in terms of unalleviated human suffering. From a column by primate researcher John L. VandeBerg bemoaning making chimps completely out of bounds for research:
As the chief scientific officer at a research institute that has 90 chimps supported by the N.I.H., I bemoan this development. In my view, the benefits of such research outweigh the costs. Many people disagree with me, citing their commitment to animal welfare. But here is a fact about animal welfare that my opponents fail to consider: research with captive chimpanzees is vital to the development and testing of vaccines that can help save the lives not just of humans but also of wild chimpanzees and gorillas. It could even help those species from becoming extinct.
It’s a sad commentary on our times that VandeBerg thought that his strongest argument for chimpanzee research is that it can help protect chimps in the wild.
I agree with him: Chimps should be available for limited and very targeted research projects. But if we decide to forgo this important resource, it is because we–unlike apes–are moral agents who will sometimes sacrifice ourselves in order to do our perceived duty to animals. That makes us exceptional.