Site hosted by Build your free website today!

Life and Death -- Moral Shades of Gray

(c) Copyright March 31, 2005 to March 30, 2019 by Kenneth R. Conklin, Ph.D. All rights reserved

SUMMARY: The controversy over Terri Schiavo provides an opportunity to focus attention on fundamental moral issues. Should an individual have a right to choose death for himself or for a close relative unable to make the choice? Should society be able to prevent such a choice, or to keep someone alive who prefers to die? Should society be able to require the killing of criminals or even of merely unproductive or inconvenient people? Should society, or individual people, have any right to make decisions about life and death; or should such decisions be left in the hands of God? There is a spectrum of stages of human life, from before conception to after death; and the larger moral issues reverberate in different ways at different stages. It is also relevant to consider animal rights, because it might be that all sentient beings have fundamental rights; and the rights of human beings should be considered within that broader context. All such questions need to be taken seriously. They are all interconnected. They all should be decided by each person and by society, on the basis of logical deduction from fundamental principles and after thoughtful meditation and prayer. This essay seeks to clarify the questions and their interconnections, without presuming to provide answers.


The recent controversy over removing a feeding tube from Terri Schiavo has been highly publicized and politicized. Millions of people have given serious consideration to some legal and moral issues they seldom think about. It's a golden opportunity for a philosopher to help people think clearly and see how practical decisions are logically connected to fundamental moral principles. In this essay I will try hard to avoid stating my own views. Indeed, I am still struggling over some of them. I will go out of my way to raise points which might seem trivial, strange, or gruesome, but which I believe need discussion. We will also go around some things twice, in different contexts.

There are a host of factual questions about Schiavo that captured media attention but may not be morally decisive: Did she have conscious awareness? Was she suffering? Did her husband really love her? Should the estranged husband with a common-law wife and children on the side still be legally recognized as possessing the right to make decisions about her healthcare, especially when he might profit financially or socially from her death; or should guardianship pass to the parents or to the brother? But none of those questions arise unless we first believe it is morally right for someone to commit suicide or to help someone else commit suicide; or unless we believe it is morally right for a family or society to kill an unproductive individual whose continued existence places a strain on limited resources.

If someone is suffering horribly from a terminal illness, does she have a right to commit suicide? A related question is: If someone wants to commit suicide but is physically incapable of doing it, is it morally right for a trusted friend to kill her at her request? And if the patient's wishes are unknown, is it morally right for a trusted next-of-kin to either keep her alive or to kill her based on what that agent judges to be the patient's wishes? But even those questions do not get to the heart of the matter. If someone is fully conscious and rational and in good health, is it morally right for her to choose to commit suicide? A Libertarian might say "Yes, of course; everyone has a fundamental right to decide how to live, and even whether to continue living at all. The most obvious thing you own is your life, and you do not need to invent any excuses if you wish to end it." A Roman Catholic might say "No! Suicide is a mortal sin leading to eternal damnation; and helping someone commit suicide is tantamount to murder. You do not own your life; God owns it."

A factual question is: Was the removal of Terri Schiavo's feeding tube a way of "letting her go" or was it a way of pushing her over the edge? We might never know. The moral question is: do human beings have a right to choose death either for themselves or for someone else; or does only God have such a right? And if human beings have a right to choose death for someone else, it is morally acceptable to do so only out of compassion to put an end to someone's suffering, or is it also morally acceptable to do so for the convenience of protecting group resources against depletion? We are all familiar with stories about Eskimos putting grandma on an ice floe to die when there's not enough food.

A question that is both political and religious is: should the laws enforced by our government be founded on a particular religious belief in God and his commandments; or should the laws allow for each individual to act upon the basis of his own set of religious beliefs or non-beliefs? In America we try to allow people to choose any religion they wish, or no religion at all. In Saudi Arabia a certain view of Islamic religion takes priority, and all civil and criminal laws are based upon that.

If God really exists, and has given us a set of moral commandments, then how in the world could anyone who believes in that, possibly tolerate human laws contrary to the explicitly proclaimed will of God? The theocratic foundation of Saudi society should not be dismissed as improper without further consideration. Christians believe that an all-knowing, all-powerful extra-terrestrial spirit came to Earth in the form of a human and performed miracles. That is bizarre. It is utterly amazing. And if it is true, then it is the most important thing that ever happened. Therefore, shouldn't we organize our lives around that; as well as our government and our laws?

Our society respects freedom of religion; but our laws do not allow any religious cult to practice human sacrifice. The only reason human sacrifice is not a major source of conflict between religion and government is that very few if any people want to practice human sacrifice for religious purposes (although that was done right here in Hawai'i only 200 years ago). But the conflict between religion and law is very obvious when thinking about abortion, because millions of people have participated in abortions. Perhaps if there were millions of human sacrifices on the religious altars of America those would also be socially and legally acceptable, but would they be morally right?

Our laws do not allow murder, even for religious reasons. If a fetus is truly human, then killing it to avoid financial hardship or to avoid 20 years of personal inconvenience would be murder. The law could not allow murder even for people whose religious views do not recognize a fetus as human. On one hand, each person is entitled to his own religious beliefs, including beliefs related to the morality of abortion. On the other hand, if abortion is murder then nobody should be allowed to do it. In the interest of protecting harmonious civil relations we allow people to choose a religion and to choose whether or not to have their own abortions. But it needs to be understood that when we allow people the freedom to choose whether to have an abortion, we are thereby imposing upon those who see abortion as murder, our own moral viewpoint that abortion is not murder. In the absence of social consensus it seems best to leave the matter up to individual choice; however, we thereby deeply offend those whose religious views are different, and we risk the wrath of God if our moral views are contrary to God's (but we risk nothing if God does not exist!).

Government-sponsored abortion clinics supported with tax dollars would be especially hurtful to those whose religious views identify abortion as murder and who are nevertheless forced to pay taxes to provide abortions. For that reason our government has sometimes refused to provide foreign aid to other nations or non-governmental organizations which pay for contraception and/or abortion. But our government does not always respect the religious views of taxpayers forced to pay taxes for purposes they detest -- for example, people who oppose war on moral or religious grounds nevertheless see their tax dollars paying for bombs and bullets. It's hard to imagine what general principle would allow government to demand taxes for one allegedly immoral purpose and prohibit government from demanding taxes for others.

For human beings there is a continuous series of stages of life. At each stage the fundamental question of the right to choose non-existence or death arises in a unique way. Let's go through some of those stages of life from beginning to end.

Even before a man and woman mate, the man is producing millions of sperm continuously and the woman is producing eggs at a rate of at least one per month. Each sperm and each egg is the seed of life. If a man masturbates to ejaculation, each one of the millons of sperm thereby wasted could potentially have created a human being. That's why some religions consider it a sin to masturbate, because it is a waste of a precious gift from God. Genesis 38:8-10 tells of God killing a man named Onan for intentionally "spilling his seed" upon the ground. On July 25, 1968 Pope Paul VI issued his encyclical "Humanae Vitae" proclaiming church doctrine that it is a sin for a man or woman to use any artificial means (such as condom or diaphragm) of blocking the coming together of sperm and egg during intercourse, because the primary purpose of intercourse is procreation under natural law as set in place by God.

The question "When does human life begin?" is highly controversial. Some say a soul enters human life at the time a sperm fertilizes an egg. From that moment on, any intentional destruction of the zygote is an abortion, which some say is a form of murder. Some commentators say that a sin of abortion can take place even as early as two or three days after intercourse, when a contraceptive pill or intrauterine device does its job by preventing the implantation of a fertilized egg into the wall of the uterus. Hospitals are open to the public, and people have a right to expect emergency treatment there. But if a woman has been raped, or has had voluntary intercourse unexpectedly without taking her usual precautions to prevent pregnancy, should that woman have a right to demand that a hospital provide a "morning after" pill (which produces abortion by preventing the implantation of any egg which might have been fertilized)? What if that hospital is owned by the Catholic Church, and staffed by doctors who have Catholic religious beliefs? Should a hospital be required by law to provide services which it considers morally reprehensible? Should a woman be forced to go without services she considers morally permissible and socially essential, simply because the hospital has a moral objection?

A Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade said that a Constitutional right to privacy implies that no state can have laws that deprive a woman of a right to an abortion during the first three months of pregnancy, but that states may impose reasonable regulations for abortion during months 4-6, and may even prohibit it during months 7-9. The recognition of different rights for different trimesters of pregnancy is apparently based on a belief that a fetus is not yet human in the first trimester but does have the rights of a human during the third trimester. The procedure commonly known as "partial birth abortion" is perhaps the extreme limit of demarcating an abortion from an infanticide -- a fetus might be within only a few minutes before being born, when a doctor inserts an instrument into the womb to puncture and crush the head; and then a suction device shreds and removes the almost-baby. Such a procedure might be necessary to save the life of a woman having birth complications; but the procedure is so gruesome and the fetus is so near to being born that bills have been introduced in Congress to outlaw it. Nevertheless it is open to debate whether an unborn fetus is actually a human being; whether abortion is in fact murder; whether the stage of pregnancy makes any difference to those issues; whether saving the life of a pregnant woman makes abortion morally permissible even if it is considered the killing of a human being (on the grounds of a woman's right to self-defense); whether abortion is permissible in case the pregnancy was created through rape (but it's not a baby's fault that its mother was raped!); etc.

It is also worth noting that there is no necessary connection between a woman having an abortion and the fetus dying. The killing of the fetus is probably the desired outcome -- the pregnant woman wants the fetus to be killed for the purpose of protecting the circumstances of her own life from being overtaken by the inconvenience and financial hardship of taking care of an infant. Or perhaps a medical test has determined that the fetus is deformed, or has a genetic disease or "Down syndrome" -- problems that would not result in the death of the baby before birth, but would require huge expenditures of time and money possibly lasting for many years. Some abortions taking place after the 4th or 5th month of pregnancy, and most taking place after the 7th month, could be done in a way that would both save the life of the mother and also save the life of the fetus. But in virtually all such cases, a primary purpose of the abortion is to kill the fetus, even though it could live with proper medical care. Witholding food and water from Terri Schiavo for two weeks until she died from starvation and dehydration, when she could have gone on "living" for many years, might be more similar to abortion than we realize -- except that abortion is done quickly and the fetus is dead within minutes, whereas Schiavo lingered for two weeks. The primary purpose in both cases might be to kill a "human being" whose human-ness is unclear, for the convenience of the survivors. But perhaps it is morally right to protect limited resources and protect the ability of fully-functioning humans to be fully productive and not handcuffed to years of caring for someone who is less than fully human or in a vegetative state. And perhaps those who favored the witholding of food and water from Terri Schiavo should have simply acknowledged that the purpose of killing her could be achieved more quickly, painlessly, and inexpensively by putting a bullet in her brain.

Everyone agrees that human life has begun once a baby is actually born (if not sooner). In the United States no newborn baby can be killed intentionally or by neglect without that act being subject to criminal prosecution. However, in some ancient civilizations and even in some primitive societies today, infanticide is acceptable for various reasons including government-sponsored population control, eugenic selection of favorable characteristics, protection of a royal bloodline, parental preference for a boy instead of a girl, or inability to afford another mouth to feed. In some ancient civilizations human sacrifice was the custom, including the sacrifice of virgins, young children, or a first-born infant. It is a moral question worth exploring, whether the right to life of an individual infant should outweigh the needs of the parents, the tribe, or the nation, especially if there is a religious belief requiring human sacrifice to please the gods and ensure an abundant harvest. If it is morally permissible for a pregnant woman to kill her fetus merely because she does not want the responsibility of raising a child, then surely it is morally permissible for a government or society to engage in infanticide to protect scarce resources, to improve the genetic pool by allowing only "desirable" babies to live, or to ensure that the gods will smile upon the tribe. Raising these latter justifications for infanticide should not necessarily be seen as a criticism of the common practice of abortion; instead, our society's acceptance of abortion might be seen as a good reason to consider both infanticide and euthanasia as reasonable tools to ensure general prosperity. Good moral decision-making and "social justice" requires all options to be given fair consideration, and decisions to be based on logical deduction from fundamental principles.

If social needs can justify the killing of infants, it is even easier to understand social justification for the killing of adults.

In warfare our purpose is to kill the enemy, and we understand that our own people might be killed also. Of course there are moral arguments against war. Some countries (including our own) allow people to be exempted from military service if they hold a sincere belief that all war is morally wrong, or that it would be wrong for them personally to kill anyone except in immediate self-defense.

The United States still allows capital punishment for certain crimes, although some states prohibit it entirely. Our jury system is based on a belief that a randomly chosen group of citizens, screened to exclude obvious biases, has the moral authority to sit in judgment of the behavior and motives of fellow citizens. Some religions claim that God alone can judge the deeds and hearts of people. But the stability of our society depends upon the assumption that people can fairly judge people. We cannot wait to hear God speak; and it has been thousands of years since the last time God carved his words into stone or wrote them on a wall. If we believe it is morally right and socially necessary for humans to judge other humans on civil and criminal issues including capital punishment, then are we not also entitled to say it is morally right for humans to decide what should happen to Terri Schiavo? This is not a rhetorical question, it is a serious question. There are close similarities between the issue of capital punishment and the issue whether to prolong or to terminate the life of someone whose mental or bodily functioning may be less than human. The obvious difference is that a capital criminal is guilty of a horrible crime whereas a brain-dead person is guilty only of continuing to consume valuable resources. But the obvious similarity is that either we put these matters in the hands of God or else we take responsibility for making decisions ourselves.

Toward the end of life, there is the question whether euthanasia (mercy killing) is morally permissible. Is it OK for someone to kill himself when life becomes unbearable? Or even if life is not unbearable but merely is no longer wanted? Is it OK for someone (a doctor or a friend) to kill someone who has requested death, especially if the patient is no longer in control of his own bodily functions to an extent that would allow him to do the suicide for himself? Is it OK for a close relative, or friend, or appointed guardian, to make the decision for death on the grounds that's what the patient would want, even though the patient never spoke to the issue and is no longer capable of speaking for himself?

After the end of life, there are bones and also artifacts. There have been many controversies regarding the bones and artifacts of native Hawaiians removed from the caves, sand dunes, and backyard burials where they were placed a hundred or five hundred years ago. The national NAGPRA law (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) was written to ensure the repatriation of bones and artifacts of all America's native people which were being held in museums or private collections. That law got started because of situations arising in Hawai'i. See

In some religions, but especially primitive or pagan religions, the bones of a dead human are believed to still contain his spiritual essence. Even certain artifacts, such as carved wooden images of a god or a person, are considered sacred because the spirit of that god or person can enter the image during prayers or ceremonies. Of course whatever rights such bones or artifacts may have must be asserted by currently-living people who are direct descendants or tribal leaders. But the people now living often say they are taking action for the purpose of protecting the spirits of dead people, and protecting the rights of those dead people to continue to possess the artifacts which were close to them in life and accompanied them on their journey after death. When a living person engages in legal or political activism to protect bones and artifacts, is that living person protecting the "rights" of those bones and artifacts (and the spiritual beings who might inhabit them), or is he actually protecting the property rights or the political rights of himself and his tribe?

Some NAGPRA-related activity is clearly for political purposes unrelated to the spirits of dead people. Bones and artifacts are being (ab)used as pawns in a political struggle. Some hard questions must be raised. If a person in life was a lower-class farmer or even a slave, who had little respect; and if his dead body was buried under a house or in a backyard like a dog; then why is it that when his bones are dug up a couple centuries later the bones are considered sacred and treated with respect never given to the living person at the time his skin covered his bones and he walked the earth? Why should multimillion-dollar buildings or highway projects be stopped or diverted when those modern projects will deliver far more benefit to now-living people than whatever miniscule contribution might have been made by the dead person back in the time when he was living? On the other hand, we the living hope that our own bones and artifacts will be respected in the future. So we set an example of respect for the dead and for their living descendants or tribal members; and also respect for their religious beliefs even though we do not share those beliefs.

One final topic that should not be ignored is whether animals have rights. Cats in ancient Egypt, and cows in modern India, are considered sacred. In Hawai'i some animals are 'aumakua -- kinolau (bodily forms) of a family's ancestors who function as guardian spirits. And yet at least two such 'aumakua -- honu (green sea turtle) and mano (shark) -- are killed for food or for body parts used for cultural purposes such as sharkskin drums.

Some people believe that all sentient beings have a right to life and a right not to have suffering intentionally inflicted on them. They say people should not kill animals for meat, should not use animal skins or furs for clothing, should not make slaves out of animals for use in plowing fields or pulling carts, and perhaps should not even keep animals in confinement for the purpose of collecting eggs or milk.

Some political liberals who support animal rights also support human contraception, abortion, or euthanasia. There might be some animal rights activists who would say "Let Terri Schiavo go" and would support the removal of food and water from her. Such activists seem to be saying that the life of a chicken is more valuable, or has more rights to protection, than the life of Terri Schiavo. Perhaps the universal principle at stake in the minds of these people is the prevention of suffering, so it's OK to hasten the death of a suffering human even though it's immoral to cause suffering to animals by enslaving them or eating their eggs or milk.

A different approach might be to argue that the level of sentience of a creature determines whether it has rights or how strong those rights are; and it might also be argued that the ability to feel pain and to suffer is proportional to a creature's level of sentience or ability to anticipate future consequences of current events. From that perspective, if a human is suffering grievously or is doomed to suffer from an incurable illness, it might be an act of friendship and mercy to kill him, especially if that's what he has requested. Also, if someone is in a persistent vegetative state, then that human is incapable of feeling pain or suffering, and therefore it is permissible to abuse the body or kill that person.

An ant gathering a particle of food from my kitchen counter, or a termite eating the cabinet, might have more right to life than Terri Schiavo, for many reasons -- the ant's level of sentience is higher, the ant can feel pain, the ant is engaged in purposeful activity, the ant runs away when threatened. Or it might be argued that the ant does not have a soul, whereas Schiavo is created in the image of God and her life must be protected at all costs. It might be argued that I have a higher level of sentience, or am more valuable to God, than the ant; and therefore I have a right to kill the ant to protect my property or my health, or simply for my own pleasure.

It might be argued that if Schiavo is truly in a vegetative state and thus cannot feel pain or fear, then there is no harm in keeping her alive if someone wants to spend the money to do it. Why then should some non-relatives feel it is important to "let her go" when some close relatives are willing and able to care for her for many years to come?

In the search for universal principles from which to deduce practical conclusions regarding life and death, we cannot ignore the issue of animal rights (or even plant rights?) and whether the level of sentience determines the extent of a creature's rights. Indeed, if Schiavo is in a vegetative state but nevertheless has a right to be kept alive, then perhaps I should reconsider whether I am doing something wrong when I send money to a farmer who kills broccoli (a vegetable) for me to eat. Back in Boston I sometimes listened to hear whether the squirming lobster screamed when I dropped it into a kettle of boiling water. Now in Hawai'i I worry whether buying frozen vegetables at Safeway makes me guilty of murder-for-hire in Kansas.

And so we return to where we began. As promised, many questions have been raised but none answered. I have tried to make clear some of the interconnections among various issues. I have tried to raise for serious consideration some questions which might seem either trivial or gruesome, because I believe all such questions need to be taken seriously. They are all interconnected. They all should be decided by each person and by society, on the basis of logical deduction from fundamental principles and after thoughtful meditation and prayer.



Abortion and civil rights -- A woman's right to terminate her pregnancy does not necessarily conflict with the right of an unborn baby to live.

Hawaiian Bones -- The 3 Rs -- Rites For the Dead, Rights Of the Living, and Respect for All



** This article was originally published in the New York Times and republished in many other newspapers.
Seattle Times, Tuesday December 3, 2013

Group asks N.Y. court to recognize chimp as legal person
The Nonhuman Rights Project, led by Steven Wise, filed papers Monday in New York, demanding that a chimpanzee known as Tommy be recognized as a legal person, with a limited right to liberty. The petition asks the court to remove him from his owners and place him in a sanctuary.

The New York Times

This has been quite a year for captive chimpanzees in the United States, with one federal agency taking steps to retire most chimps owned by the government and another proposing to classify all chimps as endangered, an action that would throw up new obstacles to experiments even on privately owned chimps.

Activists have relished their successes, while some scientists have deplored restrictions on the use of the animals, which have played a crucial role in some biomedical research, such as work on hepatitis C vaccines.

All the activity so far has focused on the welfare of the chimps. Now, an animal-rights group has heightened the crusade by taking action to try to establish legal rights for chimpanzees, something far more controversial.

The Nonhuman Rights Project, led by Steven Wise, filed papers Monday in a state court in Fulton County, N.Y., demanding that courts in New York recognize a chimpanzee known as Tommy as a legal person, with a limited right to liberty. The petition asks the court to remove him from his owners and place him in a sanctuary.

Tommy is a privately owned chimp in Gloversville, N.Y., that the group says "is being held captive in a cage in a shed at a used-trailer lot." The group said it intended to file suit later this week on behalf of three more chimps in New York, also demanding their freedom.

Two of the chimpanzees are believed to be owned by the New Iberia Research Center, at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette, but are housed at Stony Brook University for a study of locomotion. The fourth is owned by Carmen Presti, of Niagara Falls, N.Y., according to the rights project, who runs the Primate Sanctuary, a nonprofit organization that displays apes.

Patrick C. Lavery, the owner of Circle L Trailer Sales in Gloversville, where Tommy lives, said he had heard about the petition from reporters. He said from his home in Florida that he had complied with all state and federal regulations, that Tommy had a spacious cage "with tons of toys," and that he had been trying to place him in sanctuaries but that they had no room. He said he had rescued the chimp from a bad situation. He said of the group filing the petition, "If they were to see where this chimp lived for the first 30 years of his life, they would jump up and down for joy about where he is now."

Lavery said he had not seen or been officially notified of the petition.

The use of habeas corpus actions is a time-honored legal strategy for addressing unlawful imprisonment of human beings.

Wise, who has written about the use of habeas corpus in the anti-slavery movement, makes an argument in a 70-plus-page memo rich with legal, scientific and philosophical references that being human is not essential to having rights. He argues that captive chimps are, in fact, enslaved, and that the same principles apply to their cases as to those of humans who were enslaved.

"This petition asks this court to issue a writ recognizing that Tommy is not a legal thing to be possessed by respondents, but rather is a cognitively complex autonomous legal person with the fundamental legal right not to be imprisoned," the court filing says.

David Favre, a professor at Michigan State University College of Law, who teaches animal law but is not associated with the rights project or the legal action, said he was familiar with Wise's arguments, which he called "a serious legal strategy."

He said such a strategy had not been tried before in the United States. "It is unique," Favre said.

Chimps were granted certain legal rights by the Spanish Parliament in 2008, and efforts have been made in other countries to give them rights.

Wise is not asking the courts to declare the chimps equivalent to human beings. But in New York, animals are considered legal persons to allow them to be beneficiaries of trusts, Wise said. (In a similar way, a corporation is also considered a legal person.)

Because the rights group has set up a trust for all four chimps, they are already legal persons, he argues.

He also marshals evidence from various scientists that a chimpanzee has qualities, including awareness of self, past and future, that should provide it with a right to bodily liberty.

The request is not for the chimps to be set completely free, either in Africa or New York, but to be moved to one of the eight sanctuaries in the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance.


Honolulu Star-Advertiser, September 9, 2017, Hawaii News| Ocean Watch

Disturbing truth makes seafood unappealing

By Susan Scott

Last week when our Sydney taxi driver asked the carload of us where we were from, we shouted in unison, "Bangladesh! France! Guatemala! Hawaii!" We were in Australia attending a wedding, the groom Bangladeshi, the bride French-Guatemalan.

One of the places the French wanted to visit the following week was the Sydney Fish Market, a shore-side facility famous for artful displays of edible marine animals. Many are still alive, the bride told me. You choose something and they cook it for you. Given my interest in marine biology, she was sure I would want to go.

Oh, dear. This brought up my dilemma regarding marine life. It feels wrong to eat the animals that give me so much pleasure when I see them alive in their natural environments.

Seeing them suffocating in tiny tanks and twitching on beds of ice makes my stomach hurt. Plus, I'm aware of stock depletion, habitat destruction and the wasteful ways we catch fish.

On the other hand, it feels equally wrong not to eat marine life that someone, whose livelihood depends on fishing, has already caught. And then there are the markets and restaurants whose owners and employees earn their livings by cooking and selling fish.

According to Sylvia Earle, an oceanographer who has spent more than 50 years working to save the world's oceans, we who have choices should stop eating all marine animals.

I can practically hear the gasps from island residents, where catching and eating fish, lobster, shrimp and crab is part of daily life. But Sylvia isn't a fanatic. She's a scientist who knows the data.

Factory ships put out enormous nets and lines 50 or 60 miles long, and bottom trawlers scoop up entire ecosystems. Humans' ability to kill wildlife has far surpassed the oceans' ability to keep up. Even more disturbing is that much of what's caught is thrown out.

Many people think that marine animals' sole purpose in existing is to feed us. Not so. Their roles in ocean ecosystems far outweigh our need to eat them.

This wedding, where people of several races came together to celebrate the union of two people from different cultures, was a good example of a changing world. With 7 billion people on the planet, and the oceans in trouble, I'm changing, too. I'm not a vegetarian, but more and more I'm choosing to eat plants over animals.

Except for my visit with those special friends at the Sydney Fish Market. I ordered eel because it was already dead. I had recently written about it. (I didn't like it.)

The bride picked a slipper lobster known as a Balmain bug. When she passed me her plate for a taste, a silver gull swooped down, snatched the entire lobster tail and flew off with it.

Fair enough, I thought. Seabirds don't have many choices.

Fortunately, we Americans do.

** Ken Conklin's online response(s):

Susan Scott thinks people shouldn't eat seafood. She thinks that way because she studies sea creatures, knows their lifestyles, and appreciates their beauty.

But Susan is ignorant about the lifestyles and beauty of the plants she eats; so she feels comfortable about eating them. Her ignorance is the basis for her morality. She judges the worth of a living being according to her self-absorbed perception of its beauty and way of life.

Susan needs to watch and listen more attentively to the living plants she disrespects. I guess she has never heard the shriek of pain when a grape is plucked off her vine, or a carrot has his roots ripped out of his home in the ground. Has Susan never seen the comatose tomato on her kitchen sink squirming and writhing as she ruthlessly stabs it with her knife?

Wild creatures don't have many choices what to eat. Fortunately we "civilized" humans do. When Susan hurts one creature in the great Web Of Life, she hurts us all.


My response to Susan's article is, of course, intended to be humorous. In logic it's called "reductio ad absurdum." Of course I eat vegetables. And also animals, except for primates, whales, or other species recognized as having high levels of sentience. My underlying belief is that each individual creature should be presumed to have approximately the level of sentience generally ascribed to its species (yes, similar to racial profiling but applied to animals instead of humans); and that humans are entitled to dominion over all animals and plants because we have the highest level of sentience (or, if you're a Jew or Christian, because God gave us dominion over all the creatures of the Earth). I live in hope that the superhuman Andromedans will never discover Earth -- they might drop us into pots of boiling water for dinner (When I lived in Boston I imagined I heard the lobster screaming when my friend did that to it).


I think animal rights activists should consider why it's OK to eat or enslave or torture plants but not animals, because I think the activists will eventually come to my conclusion about levels of sentience (see other comment).

I enjoy poking fun at self-righteous leftwing "social justice" people who snobbishly display how morally superior they are to everyone else, and then they hear the applause and take a bow. I remember someone like that who once told me "I'm so proud of the fact that I am humble." !!!

The Economist (international edition), December 22, 2018, pp. 84-85.

Do They Have Rights? (Animals and the law)
Gradually, nervously, courts are granting rights to animals
Chimpanzees and elephants first

Happy was one of seven Asian elephant calves captured, probably from the same herd, in Thailand in the early 1970s. Named after Disney's seven dwarves, they were shipped to America and sold to circuses and zoos. Happy and Grumpy ended up in the Bronx zoo, where they lived in an enclosure for 25 years. In 2002 they were transferred to a larger enclosure with a second pair of pachyderms, Patty and Maxine. Their new environment was a little closer to the wild one, in which elephants form large families. But Patty and Maxine charged at Grumpy, injuring her. Unable to walk and with suppurating wounds, Grumpy was euthanised.

Happy was then paired with a younger female elephant, Sammy. She died of kidney failure in 2006. But meanwhile Happy had become a scientific celebrity. In 2005 she became the first elephant to pass the "mirror self‐recognition test", an indicator of self‐consciousness. Scientists painted a white cross over her left eye, and led her to a large mirror. Happy repeatedly touched the marking with her trunk, showing that she recognised herself. Most animals (and human infants) cannot do this.

Now Happy is stretching the limits of people's understanding of animals once again. On December 14th a court in New York state heard a request to grant her a writ of habeas corpus. Steven Wise, a lawyer, argued that, as an intelligent, self‐aware being, Happy is entitled to the full protection of the law. Habeas corpus, an ancient common‐law principle, guards against arbitrary imprisonment. So far, all applications for habeas corpus relief for animals have been turned down in American and European courts. However, in a case in May 2018 involving Tommy, a chimpanzee, one of the judges said he thought the main argument for denying habeas corpus to chimps was wrong. This is that they lack the capacity to carry out legal duties or be held accountable for their actions. As the judge pointed out, "the same is true for human infants and comatose human adults, yet no one would suppose it is improper to seek a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of one's infant child." Happy's case is likely to drag on for a while. When it is resolved, it could fundamentally alter the way some animals -- especially great apes -- are treated in law.

Over the past few decades, the science of animal cognition has changed people's understanding of other species. In several, researchers have discovered emotions, intelligence and behaviour once thought to belong exclusively to humans. But the law has changed slowly, and in one respect barely at all. Most legal systems treat the subjects of law as either people or property. There is no third category. Legal persons possess rights -- guaranteed protections. Property does not. Because domesticated animals are economic assets, the law has always regarded animals as property.

Some lawyers and animal‐rights advocates say the time has come to change that, arguing that it is justified both by science and by rising concerns about animal welfare. Opponents reply that to give animals rights would not only be unprecedented but, by erasing distinctions between them and people, would undermine something fundamental to being human.

For years, people seeking to improve the lives of animals have sponsored animal‐welfare laws. In November, voters in California passed a ballot initiative (a referendum) that requires larger minimum spaces for caged farm animals. In the past decade the European Union, India, Colombia, Taiwan, seven Brazilian states and California have all banned the testing of cosmetics on animals. New York and Illinois banned circus elephants, while voters in Florida banned greyhound racing. Recently, animal advocates have tried to push existing welfare laws into new areas. In Iowa, the Animal Legal Defence Fund sued a private zoo for infringing the Endangered Species Act, which protects wild animals. It won, and the us Department of Agriculture revoked the zoo's licence. The same organisation, arguing that Oregon law permits victims of violence to sue for redress, filed suit for damages on behalf of an eight‐year‐old racehorse, Justice, who had been found severely frostbitten and malnourished and whose owner had been convicted of neglect. The suit was denied but is the subject of an appeal.

At least eight jurisdictions have written into law that animals are sentient beings, including the eu (in one of its foundational documents, the Lisbon treaty) and New Zealand. These "sentience laws" have had surprisingly little impact. No cases have been brought in New Zealand, for example, which amended its animal‐welfare act to say animals are sentient in 2017. But three American states have passed pet custody laws which give the idea of sentience practical meaning. These laws say that if a couple divorces and cannot agree on the terms of separation, the interests and feelings of any animals in the household must be taken into account. Animals are thus treated more like children than furniture.

To some animal advocates, expanding existing welfare laws or writing new ones does not go far enough. They argue that such laws fail to protect animals from captivity and that some highly intelligent species, such as great apes and elephants, should not be treated as property at all, but as beings with rights.

Animals have appeared in court before. At Clermont in France, a pig was tried and convicted of killing and eating the baby of Jehan and Gillon Lenfant on Easter Day, 1494. It was executed by strangulation. At Autun, in the early 16th century, Bartholomew Chassenée defended rats against a charge of destroying the barley harvest. He persuaded an ecclesiastical court that, since it would be dangerous for the rats to travel to court, they could legally ignore the summons. What has changed is that animals are plaintiffs, not the accused, and lawyers are demanding they be granted the status of legal persons.

That idea is not quite as far‐fetched as it might sound. A legal person does not have to be human. Companies have long been legal persons, able to act in court in their own right. In 2017 New Zealand granted legal personhood to the Whanganui river, in order to boost the power of local Maoris to protect it. In the same year, the High Court of the Indian state of Uttarakhand gave legal personhood to the Ganges and Yamuna rivers in its territory, though this ruling was reversed by India's Supreme Court.

Activists have tried to give animals protection under ordinary laws, not just animal‐welfare rules. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (peta), an activist group, sued a photographer, David Slater, who had been taking pictures of wild macaques. One day, the macaques used his camera to take selfies (see picture) which Mr Slater published. peta sued in America's federal courts, saying Mr Slater had infringed the monkeys' copyright. The suit was kicked out, with the judge opining: "I am not the person to weigh in on this. This is an issue for Congress and the president."

Other cases have got further. India's environment ministry said in 2013 that cetaceans (a group that includes dolphins and whales) were "non‐human persons" with "their own specific rights". The ministry told state governments to reject any request to keep cetaceans for entertainment. The following year, India's Supreme Court ruled that all animals have an inherent right to life under the constitution, though they can still be property. The case concerned a custom called jallikattu in which men tame young bulls, often by mutilating them. The court ruled that "every species has a right to life and security [and] that, in our view, "life" means something more than mere survival...or instrumental value for human beings." Still, the court said it was up to parliament to write laws safeguarding those rights and it did not change animals' status as property.

The boldest legal challenge has come from attempts to give animals habeas corpus rights. In 2005 animal‐rights organisations in Brazil applied for habeas corpus protection for Suiça, a chimpanzee in a zoo. She was found dead in her cage before the court could rule. In 2007 Austrian activists applied to make one of their number the legal guardian of Hiasl, a chimpanzee who had been released from a pharmaceutical laboratory. The case ended in the European Court of Human Rights, which rejected the application.

Reversals have been frequent. In 2015 a court in New York issued a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of two chimpanzees, Hercules and Leo, but the judge changed her mind the next day, deleting the reference to habeas corpus. Another New York court threw out similar applications for Tommy and Kiko, two more chimps.

A Happy ending?

In the past few years, however, animal‐rights lawyers have started to win cases. In 2014 the criminal appeals court of Argentina said Sandra, an orangutan in the Buenos Aires zoo, was a non‐human person—though the court has jurisdiction only over animal‐cruelty cases, so this was a ruling on welfare, not habeas corpus. The biggest victory came in 2016, when a judge in Mendoza, also in Argentina, ruled that Cecilia, a chimpanzee, was a non‐human person who had been arbitrarily deprived of her freedom by being placed in the city's zoo. He ordered her to be taken to a sanctuary in Brazil, where she remains. It was the first ruling of its kind. It was followed in 2017 when Colombia's Supreme Court ruled that Chucho, a spectacled bear, was a non‐human person and ordered him to be taken from Barranquilla zoo to a wildlife reserve.

But so far, except in South America, objections to animal legal rights have carried the day. These are: that it is unclear which species should get protection and which rights they should get; that giving great apes rights could hamper medical research; that giving some animals limited rights might open the door to giving farm animals a right not to be eaten; and that, if consciousness and cognition give rise to rights, they would apply to artificially intelligent machines, too. The upshot is that "the law is a patchwork," says Kristen Stilt, who teaches animal law at Harvard Law School. Animals still lack rights, but the bright line separating them from people has been dulled by sentience laws and rulings in India, Argentina and Colombia. As the judge in Tommy's case said, "the question will have to be addressed eventually...Should such a being be treated as a person or as property, in essence a thing?" Meanwhile, Happy awaits the result of her day in court in solitary confinement, an unnatural state for an elephant. She is, when all is said and done, just somebody's property.


Ross Andersen, "What the Crow Knows" The Atlantic, Vol 323, No. 2, March 2019, pp. 38-49.
A lengthy article also published online with title and subtitle
A Journey Into the Animal Mind
What science can tell us about how other creatures experience the world
[includes many beautiful photos and a related video]

** Excerpts
The bird hospital is one of several built by devotees of Jainism, an ancient religion whose highest commandment forbids violence not only against humans, but also against animals. ... Jains move through the world in this gentle way because they believe animals are conscious beings that experience, in varying degrees, emotions analogous to human desire, fear, pain, sorrow, and joy. This idea that animals are conscious was long unpopular in the West, but it has lately found favor among scientists who study animal cognition. And not just the obvious cases--primates, dogs, elephants, whales, and others. Scientists are now finding evidence of an inner life in alien-seeming creatures that evolved on ever-more-distant limbs of life's tree. In recent years, it has become common to flip through a magazine like this one and read about an octopus using its tentacles to twist off a jar's lid or squirt aquarium water into a postdoc's face. For many scientists, the resonant mystery is no longer which animals are conscious, but which are not.

"A few days after the crow arrived, it started using a special call when it wanted food," Singh said. "None of the other birds do that." The bird's call was not an entirely unique case of bird-to-human communication. A grey parrot once amassed a 900-word vocabulary, and in India, a few have been trained to recite the Vedic mantras. But birds have only rarely assembled verbal symbols into their own, original proto-sentences. And, of course, none has declared itself conscious.

Tool use is an instructive case. Australian "firehawk" raptors sometimes fly bundles of flaming sticks out of forest fires and into neighboring landscapes, to flush out prey. Maybe that means the raptors are capable of considering a piece of the physical environment, and imagining a new purpose for it.

Crows are among the most sophisticated avian technologists. They have long been known to shape sticks into hooks, and just last year, members of one crow species were observed constructing tools out of three separate sticklike parts. In Japan, one crow population has figured out how to use traffic to crack open walnuts: The crows drop a nut in front of cars at intersections, and then when the light turns red, they swoop in to scoop up the exposed flesh. ... In 2008, a magpie--a member of crows' extended family of corvids, or "feathered apes"--became the first non- mammal to pass the "mirror test." The magpie's neck was marked with a bright dot in a place that could be seen only in a mirror. When the magpie caught sight of its reflection, it immediately tried to check its neck.

But new evidence indicates that fish have minds rich with memories; some are able to recall associations from more than 10 days earlier. They also seem to be capable of deception. Female trout "fake orgasms," quivering as though they're about to lay eggs, perhaps so that undesired males will release their sperm and be on their way. We have high-definition footage of grouper fish teaming up with eels to scare prey out of reefs, the two coordinating their actions with sophisticated head signals. This behavior suggests that fish possess a theory of mind, an ability to speculate about the mental states of other beings.

Wasps, like bees and ants, are hymenopterans, an order of animals that displays strikingly sophisticated behaviors. Ants build body-to-body bridges that allow whole colonies to cross gaps in their terrain. Lab-bound honeybees can learn to recognize abstract concepts, including "similar to," "different from," and "zero." Honeybees also learn from one another. If one picks up a novel nectar- extraction technique, surrounding bees may mimic the behavior, causing it to cascade across the colony, or even through generations.


Send comments or questions to: