|This question is a sub-species of the broader issue of animal rights.
According to MSNBC, in a May 2005 Senate hearing, John Lewis, the FBI's deputy assistant director for counterterrorism, asserted that "environmental and animal rights extremists who have turned to arson and explosives are the nation's top domestic terrorism threat ... Groups such as the Animal Liberation Front, the Earth Liberation Front and the Britain-based SHAC, or Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty, are 'way out in front' in terms of damage and number of crimes ...". Lewis averred that " ... (t)here is nothing else going on in this country over the last several years that is racking up the high number of violent crimes and terrorist actions".
MSNBC notes that "(t)he Animal Liberation Front says on its Web site that its small, autonomous groups of people take 'direct action' against animal abuse by rescuing animals and causing financial loss to animal exploiters, usually through damage and destruction of property."
"Animal rights" is a catchphrase akin to "human rights". It involves, however, a few pitfalls. First, animals exist only as a concept. Otherwise, they are cuddly cats, curly dogs, cute monkeys. A rat and a puppy are both animals but our emotional reaction to them is so different that we cannot really lump them together. Moreover: what rights are we talking about? The right to life? The right to be free of pain? The right to food? Except the right to free speech – all other rights could be applied to animals.
Law professor Steven Wise, argues in his book, "Drawing the Line: Science and the Case for Animal Rights", for the extension to animals of legal rights accorded to infants. Many animal species exhibit awareness, cognizance and communication skills typical of human toddlers and of humans with arrested development. Yet, the latter enjoy rights denied the former.
According to Wise, there are four categories of practical autonomy - a legal standard for granting "personhood" and the rights it entails. Practical autonomy involves the ability to be desirous, to intend to fulfill and pursue one's desires, a sense of self-awareness, and self-sufficiency. Most animals, says Wise, qualify. This may be going too far. It is easier to justify the moral rights of animals than their legal rights.
But when we say "animals", what we really mean is non-human organisms. This is such a wide definition that it easily pertains to extraterrestrial aliens. Will we witness an Alien Rights movement soon? Unlikely. Thus, we are forced to narrow our field of enquiry to non-human organisms reminiscent of humans, the ones that provoke in us empathy.
Even this is way too fuzzy. Many people love snakes, for instance, and deeply empathize with them. Could we accept the assertion (avidly propounded by these people) that snakes ought to have rights – or should we consider only organisms with extremities and the ability to feel pain?
Historically, philosophers like Kant (and Descartes, Malebranche, and Aquinas) rejected the idea of animal rights. They regarded animals as the organic equivalents of machines, driven by coarse instincts, unable to experience pain (though their behavior sometimes deceives us into erroneously believing that they do).
Thus, any ethical obligation that we have towards animals is a derivative of our primary obligation towards our fellow humans (the only ones possessed of moral significance). These are called the theories of indirect moral obligations. Thus, it is wrong to torture animals only because it desensitizes us to human suffering and makes us more prone to using violence on humans. Malebranche augmented this line of thinking by "proving" that animals cannot suffer pain because they are not descended from Adam. Pain and suffering, as we all know, are the exclusive outcomes of Adam's sins.
Kant and Malebranche may have been wrong. Animals may be able to suffer and agonize. But how can we tell whether another Being is truly suffering pain or not? Through empathy. We postulate that - since that Being resembles us – it must have the same experiences and, therefore, it deserves our pity.
Yet, the principle of resemblance has many drawbacks.
One, it leads to moral relativism.
Consider this maxim from the Jewish Talmud: "Do not do unto thy friend that which you hate". An analysis of this sentence renders it less altruistic than it appears. We are encouraged to refrain from doing only those things that WE find hateful. This is the quiddity of moral relativism.
The saying implies that it is the individual who is the source of moral authority. Each and every one of us is allowed to spin his own moral system, independent of others. The Talmudic dictum establishes a privileged moral club (very similar to later day social contractarianism) comprised of oneself and one's friend(s). One is encouraged not to visit evil upon one's friends, all others seemingly excluded. Even the broadest interpretation of the word "friend" could only read: "someone like you" and substantially excludes strangers.
Two, similarity is a structural, not an essential, trait.
Empathy as a differentiating principle is structural: if X looks like me and behaves like me – then he is privileged. Moreover, similarity is not necessarily identity. Monkeys, dogs and dolphins are very much like us, both structurally and behaviorally. Even according to Wise, it is quantity (the degree of observed resemblance), not quality (identity, essence), that is used in determining whether an animal is worthy of holding rights, whether is it a morally significant person. The degree of figurative and functional likenesses decide whether one deserves to live, pain-free and happy.
The quantitative test includes the ability to communicate (manipulate vocal-verbal-written symbols within structured symbol systems). Yet, we ignore the fact that using the same symbols does not guarantee that we attach to them the same cognitive interpretations and the same emotional resonance ('private languages"). The same words, or symbols, often have different meanings.
Meaning is dependent upon historical, cultural, and personal contexts. There is no telling whether two people mean the same things when they say "red", or "sad", or "I", or "love". That another organism looks like us, behaves like us and communicates like us is no guarantee that it is - in its essence - like us. This is the subject of the famous Turing Test: there is no effective way to distinguish a machine from a human when we rely exclusively on symbol manipulation.
Consider pain once more.
To say that something does not experience pain cannot be rigorously defended. Pain is a subjective experience. There is no way to prove or to disprove that someone is or is not in pain. Here, we can rely only on the subject's reports. Moreover, even if we were to have an analgometer (pain gauge), there would have been no way to show that the phenomenon that activates the meter is one and the same for all subjects, SUBJECTIVELY, i.e., that it is experienced in the same way by all the subjects examined.
Even more basic questions regarding pain are impossible to answer: What is the connection between the piercing needle and the pain REPORTED and between these two and electrochemical patterns of activity in the brain? A correlation between these three phenomena can be established – but not their identity or the existence of a causative process. We cannot prove that the waves in the subject's brain when he reports pain – ARE that pain. Nor can we show that they CAUSED the pain, or that the pain caused them.
It is also not clear whether our moral percepts are conditioned on the objective existence of pain, on the reported existence of pain, on the purported existence of pain (whether experienced or not, whether reported or not), or on some independent laws.
If it were painless, would it be moral to torture someone? Is the very act of sticking needles into someone immoral – or is it immoral because of the pain it causes, or supposed to inflict? Are all three components (needle sticking, a sensation of pain, brain activity) morally equivalent? If so, is it as immoral to merely generate the same patterns of brain activity, without inducing any sensation of pain and without sticking needles in the subject?
If these three phenomena are not morally equivalent – why aren't they? They are, after all, different facets of the very same pain – shouldn't we condemn all of them equally? Or should one aspect of pain (the subject's report of pain) be accorded a privileged treatment and status?
Yet, the subject's report is the weakest proof of pain! It cannot be verified. And if we cling to this descriptive-behavioural-phenomenological definition of pain than animals qualify as well. They also exhibit all the behaviours normally ascribed to humans in pain and they report feeling pain (though they do tend to use a more limited and non-verbal vocabulary).
Pain is, therefore, a value judgment and the reaction to it is culturally dependent. In some cases, pain is perceived as positive and is sought. In the Aztec cultures, being chosen to be sacrificed to the Gods was a high honour. How would we judge animal rights in such historical and cultural contexts? Are there any "universal" values or does it all really depend on interpretation?
If we, humans, cannot separate the objective from the subjective and the cultural – what gives us the right or ability to decide for other organisms? We have no way of knowing whether pigs suffer pain. We cannot decide right and wrong, good and evil for those with whom we can communicate, let alone for organisms with which we fail to do even this.
Is it GENERALLY immoral to kill, to torture, to pain? The answer seems obvious and it automatically applies to animals. Is it generally immoral to destroy? Yes, it is and this answer pertains to the inanimate as well. There are exceptions: it is permissible to kill and to inflict pain in order to prevent a (quantitatively or qualitatively) greater evil, to protect life, and when no reasonable and feasible alternative is available.
The chain of food in nature is morally neutral and so are death and disease. Any act which is intended to sustain life of a higher order (and a higher order in life) – is morally positive or, at least neutral. Nature decreed so. Animals do it to other animals – though, admittedly, they optimize their consumption and avoid waste and unnecessary pain. Waste and pain are morally wrong. This is not a question of hierarchy of more or less important Beings (an outcome of the fallacy of anthropomorphizing Nature).
The distinction between what is (essentially) US – and what just looks and behaves like us (but is NOT us) is false, superfluous and superficial. Sociobiology is already blurring these lines. Quantum Mechanics has taught us that we can say nothing about what the world really IS. If things look the same and behave the same, we better assume that they are the same.
The attempt to claim that moral responsibility is reserved to the human species is self defeating. If it is so, then we definitely have a moral obligation towards the weaker and meeker. If it isn't, what right do we have to decide who shall live and who shall die (in pain)?
The increasingly shaky "fact" that species do not interbreed "proves" that species are distinct, say some. But who can deny that we share most of our genetic material with the fly and the mouse? We are not as dissimilar as we wish we were. And ever-escalating cruelty towards other species will not establish our genetic supremacy - merely our moral inferiority.