Spain “gives” rights to Great Apes
Tibor R. Machan
A committee of the Spanish government, concerned with environmental issues, has recommended that Spain “give” rights to these animals. The committee is being guided in its thinking about this issue by philosophers Peter Singer (USA) and Paola Cavalieri (Italy) who are directors of the Great Ape Project.
The gist of the legislation is not quite what it seems. Great Apes will not be understood to have the rights the American Founders, following the English philosopher John Locke, identified in the Declaration of Independence. There will not be protection of the right to freedom of speech, freedom of religion, or even the right to life and liberty, which are the central rights Locke and the American Founders set out to secure for human beings. Indeed, the very idea of giving apes rights is alien to the tradition of individual human rights—no one gives us rights; we have them because of our human nature (ergo, “natural” rights).
The basis of these rights is that human beings make choices in their lives, possess free will, and can act responsibly or not. It is to secure their sphere of sovereignty or self-governance that the concept or human rights has been identified. Within their sphere of personal authority they are free to decide what they will do and no one may force them to act against their will. This is necessary because in society fellow human beings can intrude on them, interfere and rob them of their freedom to make their own moral choices. Thus, for example, even though someone may write something obscene or say something offensive, no one may stop that person from doing so other than by peaceful means, such as convincing him or her to do otherwise. Without the acknowledgment of human rights some people, usually oppressive governments, take it upon themselves to make others their subjects, to deny them their sovereignty.
The bottom line is that human beings are, as a rule, moral agents, while no ape has that capacity. Which is why despite all the talk of the rights of great apes, no one seriously proposes that apes be judged morally, that they may be guilty of misdeed or gain credit for commendable actions. That would be to treat them like human beings but despite the fact that the DNA of these animals “is 95 percent to 98.7 percent the same as that of humans,” the difference is crucial. It means no great ape will be taken to court for devouring its young, whereas infanticide when committed by a person is severely punishable because human beings can choose to do the right or wrong thing and are held responsible for this.
Some speak of human beings “deserving” rights but that is wrongheaded. They have them or do not. It’s not as if they did something commendable and so they deserve to be given rights. (Who is to do this giving, anyway? That was something that monarchs might have done, grant a certain standing to some of their subjects. But the authority to make such grants was exposed as a fiction.)
Others rail against the supposed claim that human rights are absolute but that’s a fabrication. It is clear enough that human beings can be so badly damaged that their rights would need to be seriously qualified, as are the rights of children and senile persons. In nearly all realms of human affairs there are borderline cases and fuzzy delineations—for example, between an infant and a child, a child and an adolescent and the latter and an adult. No precise border exist here but intelligent people still know the difference and make ample use of it.
Ultimately the Spanish effort to treat apes as if they were people serves but one clear purpose: it empowers government officials who would eagerly regiment the rest of us who may be dealing with great apes. And the effort is rather ironic, to boot: isn’t it in Spain that there is widespread bull fighting? One might suppose that it is those bulls who need protection from abuse by Spain’s citizens, not great apes (of whom there are but a few in Spanish zoos).