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COLUMN

Giraffe Rights

Dan Tortorice

In one of last week’s odder news items, the Smithsonian’s National Zoo refused a request to release the medical records of Ryma, a giraffe that recently died. What made this refusal so bizarre was one of the justifications: the zoo director said releasing the records would violate the giraffe’s right to privacy and intrude into the zookeeper-patient relationship. This reasoning seems absurd. If releasing medical records violates animals’ privacy rights, how does putting them in a giant cage so humans can stare at them and say, “Wow mommy, that giraffe has such a long neck,” or, “Mommy, I think that hyena is killing the other hyena,” not violate their right to privacy? How does having a Web cam in their cages -- you can view the zoo’s two pandas and its elephant Shanti on the zoo’s Web site -- not violate their privacy rights?

But I’m not writing to argue whether animals have privacy rights. I’m writing to correct an error in society’s understanding of why humans have rights. It seems that people are content with John Stuart Mill’s argument, from Utilitarianism, when they consider what gives a human being rights. They contend that human suffering is bad, and our rights come from the fact that violating those rights make humans suffer. This reasoning leads some to be wary of eating animals. They argue that animals too suffer and therefore also should have rights.

Despite the intuitive nature of this argument, it has clear shortcomings. Take the example of an individual who is unable to feel pain. Imagine he has no family or friends, so his death would not cause the suffering of anyone. In fact, maybe it would make his next door neighbor a bit happier. Would we be violating his rights if we killed him? I imagine any conscionable individual would say yes. Even though he is a human incapable of suffering, he still has rights. This makes me want to look beyond human suffering as the source of human rights.

Now at this point one may object that we should look at a broader definition of suffering. Maybe the person isn’t capable of physical suffering, but clearly he will be happier alive than dead, so we can’t really kill him. But this argument has a flaw. How do we know someone is happier alive then dead? At times people have believed they would be happier dead than alive. Since we don’t know what death really is, a theory of rights based on individual happiness would seem to be on shaky ground.

Now let’s think about another example. Imagine we have our person who can’t suffer, a puppy, and that German guy from Die Hard. The German guy tells you he will detonate a bomb in a subway unless you either (A) kill the non-suffering man or (B) torture the puppy. What should you choose to do? Hopefully you will choose to torture the puppy. But this isn’t the solution that minimizes suffering. (I imagine a puppy suffers when you torture it, though I have not actually done so myself.) The bottom line is, rights do not come from the ability to experience pleasure and pain. Something else gives us our rights.

What is that something? I would like to suggest that this something is our capacity to be moral. Unlike animals we are capable of understanding right and wrong and choosing to do one or the other.

If we believe that a human’s choosing to do good, is good, then it is good for us to enable others to do good. And what must we give people for them to be able to do what is good? They need life; dead people can’t do anything, never mind do good. They need freedom; people who can’t choose can not choose to do good. They need education, to know what one should do. We have the moral obligation to provide these things to others. And these obligations are the origin of what we call rights.

This is why we should not automatically extend the rights of humans to animals. They are not moral creatures and we do not have the same obligations to them that we have towards our fellow man. Now don’t suggest we all go out and kick dogs; I’d be a villain to do so. What I’m suggesting is that humans are unique beings and should be treated as such.