Human Exceptionalism

Saletan on the GAP

Slate’s Will Saletan has weighed in on the Spanish plan to pass the GAP. As usual, his take comes at the reader from different and unexpected angles that acknowledge the arguments of the opposing sides of the debate. (And he is kind enough to give a tip of the hat to yours truly.) But I think he misses the bigger picture of the deleterious impact the GAP will have on human rights. Saletan writes:

If the idea of treating chimps like people freaks you out, join the club. Creationists have been fighting this battle for a long time. They realized long ago that evolution threatened humanity’s special status. Maybe you thought all this evolution stuff was just about the past. Surprise! Once you’ve admitted chimps are your relatives, you have to think about treating them that way. That’s why, when the Spanish proposal won approval last week, GAP’s leader in Spain called it a victory for “our evolutionary comrades.”

But this approach would eventually require that all animals and vegetables be included in the moral community because we are related to all life on the planet under Darwinian theory. And of course, as the Swiss showed with plant rights, that is precisely where we are heading. But this isn’t about science so much as ideology. That is why some neo Darwinists desperately yearn for human beings to be knocked off the pedestal of exceptionalism.

A huge point about what is wrong with animal rights in general and the GAP in specific is that once you grant animals rights, it destroys human rights. Saletan gets it at one level, noting that the GAP is speciesist and destroys animal equality rather than promote it (and he could have written, is rife with robust anthropomorphism):

GAP’s mission statement says great apes are entitled to rights based on their “morally significant characteristics.” It says they enjoy a rich emotional and cultural existence in which they experience emotions such as fear, anxiety and happiness. They share the intellectual capacity to create and use tools, learn and teach other languages. They remember their past and plan for their future. It is in recognition of these and other morally significant qualities that the Great Ape Project was founded. [Me: No, it was to destroy human exceptionalism.]

Morally significant qualities. Morally significant characteristics. These are appeals to discrimination, not universal equality. Most animals don’t have a rich cultural life. They can’t make tools. They don’t teach languages. Singer even points out that “chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas have long-term relationships, not only between mothers and children, but also between unrelated apes.” Special rights for animals in committed relationships! It sounds like a Moral Majority for vegans.

Opening your mind to science-based animal rights doesn’t eliminate inequality. It just makes the inequality more scientific. A rat can’t match a pig, much less a boy. In fact, as a GAP board member points out, “We are closer genetically to a chimp than a mouse is to a rat.”

George Orwell wrote the cruel finale to this tale 63 years ago in Animal Farm: “All animals are equal. But some animals are more equal than others.” That wasn’t how the egalitarian uprising in the book was supposed to turn out. It wasn’t how the animal rights movement was supposed to turn out, either.

Ironic point: But the GAP is a mere way station, not the end game. Moreover, accepting the premise that rights come from capacities rather than humanhood–as Saletan seems to–obliterates human rights and we end up with a society in which some humans have greater value–and hence rights–then other humans, but also animals having greater value than some humans. That is to turn our backs on the long struggle for universal human equality.

One final point: The GAP goes completely against Martin Luther King’s values of human equality. Yet, Saletan writes:

To borrow Martin Luther King’s rule, you should be judged by what’s inside you, not by what’s on the surface.

No, King was not arguing for rights based on capacities. He was arguing for full inclusion of all human beings into the true community of equals. (Indeed, I am sure it never occurred to him to consider including animals, since he died before the animal rights movement was truly launched.) Along these lines, King hoped that one great day we would all be judged based on the content of our character rather than the color of our skin.

But chimps don’t have character. That is a moral characteristic that is uniquely an attribute of the human species.

The GAP is a catastrophe. It isn’t about science, it is about ideology and the destruction of Judeo/Christian moral philosophy. And it must be stopped.