Squirrel Arrested For Stealing Nuts: Nonhuman Rights Entail Nonhuman Responsibilities

Cetacean rightsWesley Smith writes at the Weekly Standard:

[T]he annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science hosted a panel supporting the Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans, which in the name of promoting “equal treatment of all persons” affirms that all whales and dolphins are persons possessing “the right to life, liberty, and wellbeing.”

The reason these, as Melville called them, great fish should be treated like your mother or sister or wife is that, the AAAS claims, “whales and dolphins are capable of advanced cognitive abilities (such as problem solving, artificial ‘language’ comprehension, and complex social behavior).” Note that the AAAS helpfully supplied scare-quotes around ‘language’, which (thanks to David Stove) allows us to understand that ‘language’ means not-language as commonly understood, and which saves us the time of supplying them for ourselves.

We might call this “explanation” (more scare quotes) scientific spin, worthy of any presidential press secretary, because it attempts to use convoluted words and phrases to say very simple things, and because of this false elevation to convince us of what is not so.

Tale the term “advanced cognitive abilities”. There is no problem with “cognitive abilities”, yet we note that even a worm has them on the interpretation that any animal which responds to its environment is displaying abilities which are “cognitive.” The key is with “advanced”, a comparative term. A grasshopper has “advanced” cognitive abilities with respect to a worm, and even worms tower mentally over bacteria. And human beings have them so far above any other animal that to suggest otherwise is to equate Koko’s signing “eat” with Casanova the spy and great lover’s voluminous diary (some 3,700 pages).

Ants may be said solve problems: how to bring food back to the nest, for one. So too bees. Problem solving is no great trick and is not what separates the men from the blow files. And mere possession of a rudimentary “language” doesn’t either. Birds call to one another, other creatures leave trails of chemical clues. No other animal besides man creates a philosophy.

That is just a rudimentary sketch, and a well-known one at that, with many subtleties ignored, of why humans are different than mosquitoes, etc. Of more interest is the legal attack which Smith writes about: of how various lawyers are being employed to flummox and burden courts in an effort to find one, any, which agrees that animals are equivalent to humans morally.

The full list of whale and dolphin rights contain no surprises except for the right which reads, “Every individual cetacean has the right to life.” Now, take that and the right to “wellbeing” contained in the preamble, and you have a set of rights stronger than which exists for any human. Of course, many claim such a right does exist for people, but if it did it would mean it was a moral (and eventually legal) crime for anybody to, say, stub his toe or come down with a cold. And I feel I must remind my readers that everybody dies, the ultimate removal of wellbeing.

The correlation between the legal (and not moral) idea that anything untoward which happens is some human being’s fault except for the human being to which the untoward event applies, and the increasing calls for “rights” to non-human creatures cannot be spurious. (I’d also be willing to bet that most (all?) animal-rights activists hold human abortion sacred.)

Now, if every cetacean has a right to wellbeing, then this entails that there inescapably exists a responsibility for some creature to provide for this wellbeing, or to
“fund” a restoration of wellbeing . Who might this creature be? Man? Suppose it is. But that presupposes not only that man has responsibilities towards whales, but that, in turn, whales have responsibilities towards man. If we recognize them as persons, they must also recognize us as the same.

This means that any time, say, a whale wrongfully impedes a man-run fishing vessel, that whale incurs that same penalty as would a man were he to impede the boat. And that means we must negotiate with dolphins over the rights to various fishing grounds: who gets to take what and how many. What representative will they send to hammer out the inevitable treaties? But hold on: is fish are people too, who gets to eat them? Isn’t it murder when a dolphin kills a fish?

It doesn’t stop there. If whales (or substitute in any other animal) are non-human persons, then any whale must behave towards any other whale according to some set of laws. And these laws must exist. It is no use arguing that “whatever whales do is natural, so that whatever one whale does to another cannot be wrong.” For if whales and men are equivalent, then we could also write, “whatever men do is natural, so that whatever one man does to another cannot be wrong” and that is clearly absurd.

Happy Easter everybody.


  1. Speed

    Soon we’ll be paying for their healthcare. Pork for the mereswine.

  2. Big Mike

    And eventually people will be willing to give it all, and more, up to anyone who can restore order.

  3. Eric Anderson

    This is what happens when people become fixated on rights, without understanding that every right inevitably comes with responsibilities. And those responsibilities come in two important types: (i) the responsibility of others to honor and respect the right holder’s rights, and (ii) the responsibility of the right holder to exercise that right in an appropriate manner.

    Unfortunately, so much of the call for “rights” today is little more than a call for a particular person’s comfort, or whim, or desires, and has little to do with the historical and foundational basis for rights and responsibilities within society.

  4. “Rights” are a form of contract. You have rights only in so far as others agree to them. You may say (and even believe) that you have a right to the Empire State Building or the Brooklyn Bridge, but you don’t, not unless the rest of us agree.

    It is not so much that rights come with responsibilities but that rights are contracts, and animals without the ability to negotiate, agree to, and enforce contracts cannot therefore have rights.

    Squirrels have responsibilities, to their mates and cubs and to other squirrels. Squirrels claim territories and defend them. Squirrels store nuts for winter and defend their caches. Squirrels make decisions and act on them.

    But squirrels don’t make contracts. They cannot act other than from instinct and self-preservation. They cannot reason or control their actions based on symbolic contract. They cannot have rights because they cannot agree to respect the rights of others.

    It is not that people deny rights to squirrels. It is that squirrels are biologically unable to have rights because they cannot reason, just as they cannot breathe under water or fly to moon.

  5. Patrick Moffitt

    And what do we do about orcas? What creature will be responsible for the arrest of killer whales and who serves on the jury? Perhaps Sea World can build the jails.

  6. ad

    Exactly Uncle Mike, wild animals are subject to “the law of the jungle”. Domesticated animal species though may be considered to have a mutual contract with humans. In exchange for protection and fair treatment, we get to eat ’em.

  7. DAV

    artificial ‘language’ comprehension

    English, Spanish and French are natural languages (well, maybe not French). COBOL and Esperanto are artificial languages. It’s nice to hear that whales understand them (or perhaps the higher next generation language, W). I wonder how.

    complex social behavior

    And yet the common impression is that being smart equates to poor social skills.

    No other animal besides man creates a philosophy

    What if part of their philosophy is to never let a human catch on to it? Did prehistoric humans have a philosophy, mathematics or cell phones?


    Pshaw! Under Obama Care they will have to pay their own insurance or suffer penalties.

    Enough of the squirrley comments.
    Happy Easter, y’all.

  8. JH

    Happy Day after Easter.

    The squirrels and chipmunks raiding our yard do get arrested but not for stealing acorns.

    And that means we must negotiate with dolphins over the rights to various fishing grounds: who gets to take what and how many…

    This is the problem, isn’t it? There would be no negotiation with the predator when you are the prey.

    Now, take that and the right to “wellbeing” contained in the preamble… Of course, many claim such a right does exist for people, but if it did it would mean it was a moral (and eventually legal) crime for anybody to, say, stub his toe or come down with a cold.

    Apply the same reasoning, are you saying that one of the enumerated rights of the Declaration, pursuit of happiness, means it is a moral crime for anybody to be unhappy with JH’s comments?

  9. Carmen D'oxide

    What separates humans from all other animals? No other species is so stupendously stupid (not alliterative, for that matter).

    Yet, after some reflection, with equal rights would not the cetaceans be liable for some measure of a carbon fin-print tax? Yeah, that’s the ticket…

  10. Tom S

    Someone seems to be so irritated at the term “advanced cognitive abilities” he totally slips into absurdity that deserves no refutation.

  11. Dolphins are known to kill their little ones by repeated battering unto death so that they can impregnate Mommy with their own genes (I figure they’re so smart, they probably know all about genetics, right?). So in these cases I guess we’ll have to give ’em life in prison (or the death penalty in Texas). I admit that the evidence gathering miles out in the Gulf will be difficult but I’m sure a Reality TV show will pay for it.

    As to the penalty when those roguish dolphins alpha-males attempt to rape humans! well I’ll leave that up to Congress. I, for one, look forward to the debate.

  12. Greg Cavanagh

    Who says animals don’t have a philosophy. Just because it’s not written down, doesn’t mean they don’t have one.

    Anybody who owns a cat or a dog, knows the animals have a philosophical outlook on life.

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