The equality of all things—and why liberal society permits any crazy argument

As a follow-up to the recent news that Spain is about to grant rights to great apes, Paul T. in Canada writes:

Cover story in National Geographic Magazine this month:

This Month: Who Murdered the Virunga Gorillas?


This is no surprise. When it is being constantly drummed into people’s heads that chimpanzees and gorillas “are 99 percent [or whatever] genetically the same as humans,” isn’t it natural that they will soon start to believe that chimps and gorillas as 99 percent the same as humans, period? And therefore that chimps and gorillas should be treated legally the same as humans?

And why stop at genetic similarities to human beings as the basis for rights? Is it not true that at the sub-atomic level, rocks are 100 percent identical to humans? After all, rocks as well as humans consist of neutrons, electrons, and protons, don’t they? Therefore we must demand rights for rocks. No more cutting up limestone and granite for building materials. No more TV broadcasts of The Agony and the Ecstasy (Michaelangelo was murdering marble). No more pet rocks. Stop the exploitation of our sub-atomic brothers and sisters!

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Peter B. writes:

It’s true that humans are 99 per cent the same as the great apes genetically. So what?

All mammals are about 90 per cent the same. Do mice and gerbils get 90 per cent of the rights we get? What about the responsibilities? If we grant them rights, could apes be charged with murder? Do we only grant rights to animals if they’re cute? Whales get the vote, chimps get congressional representation but goats get turned into kebabs because they aren’t photogenic.

Since most of the genetic code is used for basic cellular machinery common to all life we turn out to have 50 to 60 percent of our genetic code in common with bananas. What rights do we grant to bananas?

In short; the whole thing is ridiculous. Even within the logic of liberalism I find it hard to work out how we’ve arrived at a point where animals are granted rights in the same way as people are. I suppose when a society abandons all of its traditional values and something completely crazy is proposed then there is no answer to the question “why not?.” Why not give apes rights? What’s so special about humans that they should be the only ones with rights? Once the notion of humans as being imbued by God with a soul is regarded as preposterous, everything that sets humans apart becomes a matter of degree.

This would be funny but I have a deep sense of unease about where this is heading. I think blurring the lines of who gets “human” rights will blur the lines on what is considered humanity in a court of law. I wonder what your thoughts are on the consequences of this?

P.S. I think you’re probably going to win your bet but not by a very wide margin.

LA replies:

“I suppose when a society abandons all of its traditional values and something completely crazy is proposed then there is no answer to the question ‘why not?’”

That’s it. Once people reject their basic social and moral framework, e.g., a common moral code, a common loyalty to country, there is no longer anything constraining their thoughts about what is right and wrong and what is true. They allow themselves to believe and argue anything. Look at the weirdly detached-from-reality arguments that open-borders proponents make, treating America as though it were nothing but an economy, nothing but a collection of jobs to fill.

As for where this animal equality craziness may head in a legal sense, I can’t imagine.

Ed L. writes:

You wrote:

“Once people reject their basic social and moral framework, e.g., a common moral code, a common loyalty to country, there is no longer anything constraining their thoughts about what is right and wrong and what is true. They allow themselves to believe and argue anything.”

I don’t think it’s purely the rejection of traditionalism that leads to such nihilism. I would argue, ironically, that our traditional approach to criminal justice, embodied in the Bill of Rights, has a good deal to answer for in this vein. In the recent Entwistle trial, for instance, the defense put out the argument that his wife killed their infant daughter and then committed suicide. That’s surely an example of believing and arguing anything, yet such argumentation is accepted practice in courts of law. The defense attorneys face no penalties for advancing such stances, no matter how substanceless, outrageous, or absurd. They’re not on the hook to substantiate such claims. Arguing anything, indeed, is generally accepted as part and parcel of defense attorney job description.

LA replies:

That’s an interesting and troubling point.

My understanding is that it used to be (and perhaps is still supposed to be?) that defense attorneys are not free to make any crazy counter story to the prosecution’s case, that defense attorneys cannot argue what they know to be untrue; but that this rule/restriction on defense attorneys has been allowed to lapse in recent decades and is no longer enforced.

I still remember my shock at the time of the O.J. Simpson case, when scads of defense attorneys were on tv all the time as commentators, and I realized the total moral cynicism of these people, their manifest and boastful lack of any ethics or any concern about truth, the fact that ethics and truth were not even expected of them. But I don’t think it was like that, say, 50 years ago.

I remember once when I was considering studying law, and asked a law professor at the University of Coloardo in Boulder about the legal profession, and he said to me that lawyers were “ethical hired guns.” A very interestinig description. You’re a hired gun, hired to advance your client’s interests, but you have be ethical. That conversation was in the late 1970s. I wonder if a law professor today would still use the word “ethical” to describe lawyers. Certainly not in the field of criminal defense law.

Why have the former rules/restrictions on attorney behavior lapsed? I would say that it’s for the same reason that standards have fallen radically in every area: everything is now permitted.

So, while I’m not sure I’m correct on this point, I would argue that instead of the absence of an ethical code among criminal defense attorneys being the cause of a gradual loss of ethics in our general culture, it’s the loss of ethics in our general culture that has made the criminal defense lawyers much less ethical than they used to be.

But one could take the other side and argue that since lawyers are so influential in our society, the lack of ethics of lawyers, or more specifically the lack of respect for truth that is paraded by, and is officially sanctioned in, criminal defense attorneys, has gradually affected general societal ethics as well.

Alan Levine writes:

Read the items on the equality of the apes with some amusement, although I think that it is reasonable to afford our fellow primates a bit more protection than is given to other animals.

I think, however, that you vastly underestimate the destructive impact of the legal profession on our society, not just the criminal defense attorneys. The utter perversity, dishonesty and arrogance of the latter isn’t all that different from that of the constitutional lawyers and civil attorneys. I remember my father, after dealing with the latter, many years ago, made comments about their ethical standards that sounded exactly like yours about defense attorneys. And had anyone done more harm to our society than the Supreme Court. These people have made the rule of law a bad joke.

Come to think of it, I’d much rather protect gorillas than those guys!

LA replies:

Of course, kind and humane treatment of animals is one thing, establishing animal “rights,” is quite another. We don’t need any notion of “animal rights” in order to treat animals decently. But for liberals there can be no good apart from “rights.” For a true liberal, even adequate parental protection of children is inconceivable without a UN Universal Declaration of Children’s Rights.

Ed L. writes:

I don’t think it’s that the deterioration of societal values in general has eroded lawyers’ ethics. There’s no shortage of theoretical justification for the kinds of machete artist tactics we see from lawyers. I remember once many years ago (it might have been around the time of the Simpson and Oklahoma City trials) reading an essay in a prominent news magazine by a law professor, who said (I paraphrase): “There’s a profound vision behind what’s going on here, as galling and unseemly as it may strike the public. Reasonable doubt demands that the prosecution’s case for conviction be so air-tightly strong that it be able to withstand the most wrenching conceivable contortions and perturbations of the truth.”

LA replies:

That quote is a perfect expression of the nihilism in the American legal profession. It would liberate defense attorneys to trample all over the truth, to engage in any outrageous perversion of truth, with good conscience and with complete impunity.

Alan Levine writes (posted July 2):

I agree that the concept of “animal rights” makes little sense. The case of gorillas, I think, is arguably ambiguous, as they seem much more intelligent than other species and can communicate with sign language. A smart gorilla may be as intelligent as a stupid human being (and much more likeable than a lawyer.) In their case, it can reasonably argued that they have “rights.” The issue, however, is sentience, not “animal rights” and the problems involved have little bearing on species other than primates, with the possible exception of dolphins.

Perhaps a better way to put it is that the real question is really whether some few non-human species can reasonably be described as animals at all.

Just to make clear, I do not think gorillas or dolphins should vote or serve on juries. But then, if you tried to get dolphins to serve on juries, they’d just swim away. Or they might recognize the lawyers as sharks, of whom dolphins do not approve and whom they deal with summarily.

LA replies:

I don’t think Mr. Levine is being serious when he proposed “rights” for even very intelligent anmals. Also, sentience doesn’t mean high intelligence; a frog, a bird, even a fish or an octopus, are sentient beings.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at June 30, 2008 12:02 AM | Send

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