Bioethics Discussion Blog: The Rights and Wrongs of Rights

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Sunday, April 30, 2006

The Rights and Wrongs of Rights

Continuing with the topic of rights, I would like to present a commentary about rights by Dr Erich H. Loewy, a physician and ethicist, who gave me pemission to post it on my blog. The questions are: what are rights, what are human rights, what rights do others who are not humans deserve and can a right be a wrong? ..Maurice.


What rights do humans have? May I re-phrase it? What creates a right, how is it created, how assured?

If one is a believer in natural rights than you believe in something you can neither verify nor falsify and will try your best (which may include force) to force others to accept these. This lends itself to any vision be it religious or secular. If we accept "rights" as something all of us together agree to call a "right" and to enforce it, then the story is somewhat different. To me rights are something which we as a community have decided to call a right (whether it is bed-time for Jon or speed limit for Dave) and then to enforce it. Such rights, I would argue, have to have several prior assumptions: (1) that everyone counts for the same; (2) that those who cannot speak for themselves have an appropriate number representing their interest present; (3) that we shall not resort to force, etc. This discussion take place (again in my view) in a framework of capacities and experiences we inevitably share. The building block of the frame are:

-----All of us want to exist (Being)
-----All of us want to have our biological needs vouchsafed.
-----All of us wish to have social needs met. These are different among societies but at the very least amount to medical care and education sufficient to maximize our goals (in our society at lest health-care and full education)
-----None of us want to suffer needlessly
-----All of us have a basic sense of logic. at least enough to know that you cannot be in three places at once
-----Pursue our own talents and interests.

In a discussion among us we would be able to reach some very broad agreements:

-----We cannot destroy or help to destroy this framework or its components.
-----We must have tolerance for other points of view so long as they do not destroy the framework itself.
-----Things like murder, allowing people to starve or go hungry cannot be permitted.
-----Health care and schooling up to any level the individual is capable and desirous of fulfilling, must be accessible to all.
-----We cannot stand by and watch people starving, going ignorant or suffering in ways that society can ameliorate.
-----Develop our talents to the fullest--something that society as well as the individual benefit from.
-----Have a decent livelihood for those who have retired assured.

In such a scheme animals that are sentient beings could not be slaughtered so as to please the taste-buds of these superior (at least in power) creatures called humans.Non-human animals have "moral standing" by which I mean that they have self-awareness, have their own interests, exhibit pleasure and pain, have the neurological substrate that humans have to feel pleasure and pain and somehow have to be figured into the equation. Let me hasten to say:

-----This does not imply that non-human animals lower on the scale then human animals have the same rights as human animals but that there is a transition and a hierarchy of rights and obligations.
-----The rights we as equal members of society we give out are (hopefully) appropriate to those to whom we give this right.
Dogs do not have the right to vote because we the public believe that they lack the capacity to make choices voters have to make. (I am not being sarcastic)
-----Sending an orangutan to college or allowing him/her to vote is obvious nonsense because they appear to lack those human neurological structures necessary to make a reasoned choice.
-----But they appear to have the same interest in living out their lives as human animals. They are self-aware, capable of making choices, capable of experiencing pain or joy, have a memory, etc.
-----It is probably the case that my dog when he sees some flickering light on the right is motivated by curiosity to turn and look and that her imagination than presents her with a number of options one of which she will choose. Humans--at least some humans--go on to puzzle about the nature of light and it seems probable that non-human animals do not.

But none of this would seem to give human animals the "right" to slaughter non-human animals whose interest in being alive so that they can have a life are far more probable than the opposite. In making decisions we are well advised to go with the most probable rather than the least likely. I personally will eat shrimp, crabs, etc. because they lack the substrate which would enable them to have a life. Am I sure that they do not "feel" in the sense that a mouse or I feel? Am I sure that spinach or cauliflower do not feel? No, of course I am not--there is very little if anything that I am absolutely sure of. But with a high probability approaching certainty I think that it is the case that they do not suffer. If someone will show me convincing evidence tomorrow that crabs do have the capacity to suffer or have pain it will do nothing to my theory but simply cause me to stop eating crab.

Research so as to potentially cure disease (of human and non-human animals) is quite another matter than eating flesh which one does because one likes the taste not because one must to survive. To use non-human animals after computer modeling, etc.have failed should be a somewhat lesser evil than using human-animals which not only are alive but have a life. This is the case, I would argue, because we ultimately reach a point at which animal models or research with lower organisms or lower hierarchical creatures failed to yield the vitally needed information. It would be ethically more appropriate (in my opinion) to use Human animals who meet the criteria for a "permanent vegetative or comatose state" (by two independent neurologists) and whose family knows that this is what they wish. Until lately we still had rather crude methods of trying to use in research. Our methods have grown ever more sophisticated and the need for non-human animals has increased.

One of the problems with using animals in research is that there is no way of obtaining informed consent and that this makes interaction with and supervision by a Bioethicist critically necessary. There are some things which arguably are prima facie ethically not acceptable: using animals to test cosmetics (often in their eyes), using living pigs strapped in the front seat of a car to test, etc. Using animals for our pleasure and to their pain (has anyone ever driven along "5" in CA where for several miles cattle are crammed into shed and stand in their own excrement to the knees) is at the very least problematic.

But again--rights are something which in a community and in dialogue with all concerned are given by a legislative body. Habermas communicative ethics gives an idea of what I mean. They may be legally correct but ethically clearly wrong, etc.

3 Comments:

At Tuesday, May 02, 2006 2:32:00 PM, Blogger Kevin T. Keith said...

Dr. Loewy is an intelligent and thoughtful scholar, and his contributions are always worthwhile. I think that this sketch of a moral theory, above, however, is not well-conceived.

As a general approach, Dr. Loewy seems to have a view similar to that of Rawls - that we can enumerate a list of basic human needs and then adduce a moral/social system that will satisfy them. This closely models classical social-contract theory as well. This is certainly a time-honored way of approaching the problem.

However, Dr. Loewy's list of needs, and the conclusions he draws from it, seem somewhat slapdash. For one thing, it is not clear that his "framework" is necessary or inevitable. Items (1) and (2), at least, are likely false: we can perfectly well construct a workable social system even if everyone does not count for the same (arguably, every reasonably-decent legal system in the world to date got its start this way; most of them still incorporate severe inequalities, but they are not unstable, or even hopelessly immoral); also, it's in no way obvious that the downtrodden do need to have a voice in shaping the social code (on the same evidence just given). Note that the assumption of equality is the conclusion Rawls arrives at after his lengthy hypothetical discussion, not an assumption he feels he can begin with; similarly, equal protection for the weak is the outcome of Hobbes's social contract, not an assumption he makes. Loewy invites controversy by starting with controversial premises before moving on to his actual argument.

Also, some of Loewy's declarations of wants are likely false or questionable: not all of us want to exist (some of us are suicidal, and not necessarily irrationally so); if the standard for logic is knowing that "you can't be in three places at once", that's a pretty low standard and likely not sufficient for building a stable society - and the degree of logic that is required for that purpose is very likely unreachable by many. (52% of US voters chose George Bush in the last election. Enough said.)

From this groundwork, he derives conclusions that are attractive but highly problematic: a positive right to have one's biological needs met, as he alludes to, is likely to be very expensive, and is also one that is not actually all that popular (most people in the world favor socialized medicine; relatively few seem to favor socialized food distribution, as Loewy explicitly endorses; also, my biological needs certainly include frequent and satisfying orgasms, and that need is, sadly, going badly unfulfilled - what does Loewy propose to do about it?). And, it is not clear that the moral considerations Loewy posits - even if they are the right ones - would necessarily lead to the kind of society he envisions; there may be multiple ways of satisfying those conditions (a highly socialized economy; a rigid economic system with a premium on reciprocal loyalty, like Japan's; a highly socialized system with low mobility but extensive social services, like many European countries; a laissez-faire economy with mandatory health insurance and retirement savings plans; etc.). Here, then, he again invites controversy, this time by creating a social system from his already-controversial premises that goes beyond what even those premises might require.

So I don't think Loewy's scheme of human rights gives us a platform for identifying animal rights, because that scheme itself raises more controversies than it resolves. And finally, Loewy's scheme of human rights carefully does not ground itself on mental capacities (for the most part), but he then introduces mental capacity as a distinguishing characteristic when animals enter the picture. How is this justified?

The attempt to create broad schemes of universal rights by modeling the ideal society is an old and respectable one. (It harkens back to The Republic, and is certainly the foundation of the Enlightenment social-contract theorizing.) But I don't think Loewy's - admittedly preliminary - attempt holds together. In particular, he seems to assume sweeping moral principles that other philosophers regard as anything but a priori, and derive from them an extensive welfare state that many would regard as controversial in its own right, before even getting to the question of animals. That's reaching a bit too far, though I applaud the attempt.

 
At Tuesday, May 02, 2006 6:08:00 PM, Blogger Maurice Bernstein, M.D. said...

Kevin, as a physician and not a schooled philosopher, I myself have no capacity to argue your view. I have encouraged Dr. Loewy to return to this blog and defend himself. But, many thanks for taking the time to write to my blog. ..Maurice.

 
At Wednesday, May 03, 2006 8:21:00 PM, Blogger Maurice Bernstein, M.D. said...

Hans Engel, M.D. wrote the following to this posting today. ..Maurice.

"I admire both Dr. Loewy's and Dr. Keith's comments and their stances. Ideally and ethically, I agree with them entirely.
Alas, humans and animals are egotistic. My society has accepted the fact that cows are beautiful creatures, yet, despite our antipathy of murder, I enjoy eating cowmeat. Certain Asiatic societies eat dogs and vice versa and are disgusted by the choice of the other.
Realism surpasses idealism in genetic development: the powerful overpower the weak, whether human, animal, plant or the lowest genetic species.
There are moments when I feel guilty,- but I still enjoy eating steaks!"

 

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