Culture & Ethics Icon Culture & Ethics

Thinking of Animal Rights on Father’s Day

Joshua Youngkin

Yesterday was Father’s Day. For a present in recognition of my fathering, I didn’t want a Kindle Fire. I just wanted to see the orangutans, nature’s comedians, at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo.
Zoo 2.jpgAfter an Indiana Jones-like expedition through the zoo’s artificial jungle, we finally located the well-hidden orangutan exhibit. Unfortunately, by then the orangutans had covered themselves up head to foot under burlap blankets and drifted off to sleep. I was sad.
On the way home I thought about the lives of plants and animals. I grew sadder.
Should we really keep our orangutan cousins locked up like that? They’re so funny! They think they’re people! And they are people, you know, people in fur coats. This you’d expect since we branched off from them so recently in evolutionary history.
And rabbits. Who doesn’t like rabbits? Do rabbits get anxious in the face of lipstick testing? I know I would. We really shouldn’t let the suits and lab coats poke at them so much.
And what about plants? Plants are people, too, people in green. Did you know that peas talk to each other? You can’t shut them up. It’s like watching The View. So think twice before ordering the split pea soup.
But sea urchins? Gross. Those guys are aliens. You can’t cut them up fast enough, and while still alive, preferably. More sushi, anyone?
I remember the words of Jack Handey, SNL mystic, who said:

If trees could scream, would we be so cavalier about cutting them down? We might, if they screamed all the time, for no good reason.

In the West, man is still the paradigmatic rights-holder. The closer a creature’s nature, history, and mental capacities are to that of man, the greater its freedoms and protections. Darwin’s Tree of Life has, for many, significantly closed the gap among men, plants and animals. With this development has come some reshuffling of rights.
But even Darwin cannot close the gap in the capacities of man compared to the rest of life. I know (and so do you) what it’s like to be a person, but I don’t know what it’s like to be an orangutan, a rabbit or a plant, and can’t assume that any or all of these experiences are morally equivalent or even proximate.
And while a chimp may manipulate signs and symbols to get a reward, in Chinese room fashion, humans are the only beings I know who truly understand language and use it to achieve mutual understanding of abstract ideas, many of which have no discernible survival value. Apes can’t read, but you can.
I love animals, especially orangutans. But, Darwin’s Tree notwithstanding, there’s something exceptional about being human.

Joshua Youngkin

An attorney, and previously, Discovery Institute Program Officer in Public Policy and Legal Affairs.