Animal Rights: Gorilla Sued for Sexual Harassment

[This post is the sixth in our new series of Thinking in Action posts, the series being devoted initially at least to discussion of talks at the Cognitive Disability conference in NYC in September.]

In a two previous post I argued against Peter Singer’s position that humans with profound intellectual disabilities should be considered nonpersons without moral status or fundamental rights. In this post, however, I want to support his concern for about the treatment of nonhuman animals and endorse his view that some fundamental rights should be recognized for nonhuman animals. In supporting his view that nonhuman animals deserve greater respect and better treatment, however, I do want to suggest that the arguments that he presents against respecting the moral status of humans hurts rather than helps progress in improving the status and treatment of nonhuman animals. Here are five reasons why.

In this video Peter Singer describes speciesism and compares it to racism.In Singer suggests that anyone who believes in universal human rights is a speciesist, which he considers to be as bad as being a racist.

Reason 1. Dr. Singer uses that the fact that many parents choose to abort fetuses with disabilities and some parents and physicians choose to let children with disabilities die as evidence that children with disabilities do not have moral status or rights. While it is true that about 85% of mothers who are informed that they are carrying a fetus with Down syndrome choose to abort it, it is also true that about 98% of adults choose to eat other mammals. While about one out of six Americans disapprove of hunting as a sport, as of 2006, “Eighty percent of respondents indicated that ‘hunting has a legitimate place in modern society,’” according to the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The hunting of elephants, gorillas, and other large and frequently endangered species of mammals is a choice that many people continue to exercise in spite of attempts to control or prohibit these hunts. For example, see this August 2007 News story on Gorilla hunts in a nature reserve with graphic photos. Farmers, veterinarians, and even animal welfare organizations euthanize millions of mammals each year for a wide variety of reasons, and only a tiny minority has terminal or untreatable diseases. Most are killed because they are no longer wanted as pets, not potentially profitable as livestock, or exhibit behaviour unacceptable to their owners. In addition, many owners of show animals and companion animals choose to mutilate their animals though tail docking, ear cropping, and other surgeries solely for cosmetic purposes. The American Veterinary Association opposes these practices, but the Breeders and Kennel Clubs continue to promote them.

Applying Professor Singer’s principle, and paraphrasing his statements about children with disabilities, we might say “choice ought to have an important role in decisions, at least in decisions for nonhuman animals.” We might conclude the if some small minority wants to refrain from eating other mammals, or treat animals as if they had the right to survival and protection from cruelty, “that’s fine for [the small minority] who have this view and make that choice obviously, but there is also the contrary view…”

Reason 2. Dr. Singer presents a philosophical argument that in order to recognize the moral status of some nonhuman animals, we must first deny the moral status of some humans, with profound intellectual disabilities. This sets up unnecessary conflicts with two groups of people: (1) a small group of people of people who care about the rights of people with profound intellectual disabilities, (2) a very large group of people who care about human rights. Following Dr. Singer’s logic, as the father of a son with a profound intellectual disability, I would have to deny my own son’s right to survival as well as his other fundamental human rights in order to advocate for animal rights. NO, thank you. While Dr. Singer assures people with connections to people with less severe intellectual disabilities, that this is not relevant to them and they need not be concerned, I strongly disagree. If society once accepts the principle that human worth is based on an IQ score, there is no reason why the cut off point can’t be adjusted to any point on the continuum. There is a very old joke in which a man tells a woman how beautiful she is and goes on to say he would give a million dollars to spend the night with her. She is flattered and says, “for a million dollars, I’d take you up on that.” He then offers her $50 for an hour of sex, and she responds angrily, “what kind of woman do you think I am?” He replies, “we’ve already established that, now were just negotiating on price.” The same principle applies here. If we accept the premise that the moral value of an individual depends on an IQ score, the precise score is ‘negotiable” depending on “market conditions.”

Dr. Singer implies that this denial of moral status does not apply to people with Down syndrome, for example, because they do not have profound intellectual disabilities. While it would be correct to say that most people with Down syndrome to not have profound intellectual disabilities, studies suggest that about 20% of people with Down syndrome have tested Is below 25, Dr. Singer’s criterion for denial of moral status. Is he unaware of this fact or merely trying to undermine the resistance.

In addition, a vastly larger group of people believes that universal human rights are important, and are not likely to want to give up centuries of progress in order to improve the status of animals. Human rights advocates recognize that as soon as human or personal rights are limited to those who meet some specific criterion, the door is open to a wide variety of other criteria. Singer’s contention that being a speciesist is no different than being a racist is both silly and offensive. Singer’s same racist-speciesist-equivalent argument is frequently made by white supremacists, who argue for example that electing an African-American President is equivalent to electing an ape. Call me a speciesist, but I am completely comfortable with an African-American President or interracial marriage, but can’t think of a single gorilla, elephant, dog, or cat that I would want to elect or marry.

Reason 3. What do we do about nonhuman animals with intellectual disabilities? If we can’t assume that all humans deserve moral status and rights simply because they are members of specific species, we can certainly not assume all members of any other species qualifies simply by virtue of species membership. Professor Singer suggests denying moral status to individuals with IQs below 25. Put another way this is roughly equivalent to the cognitive development of a typical child would reach somewhere between 3 ½ and 4 ½. Human children typically have a lot of skills at this age, and very few nonhuman animals would be able to successfully meet this criterion. Of course, it is almost virtually impossible to accurately test the IQ of nonhuman animals, and it is unclear exactly how human and nonhuman intelligence could meaningfully be compared. Many nonhuman animals are better than humans at some tasks. For example, dogs don’t just have bigger better noses, they have better brains for processing olfactory information. Many birds are great at processing visual information (I can personally attest to seeing some ducks that could read at least a few words). Using currently available tests, however, even with reasonable efforts to fairly accommodate for physical differences, most apes, elephants, dolphins, etc., would be diagnosed with profound intellectual disabilities, even though they are sentient, self-aware, and have a host of impressive skills. According to the Gorilla Foundation, Koko has a receptive vocabulary of about 2000 words and a tested IQ of 70 to 95. I would like to know more about the testing, but I’ll take their word for it. However, I will point out that many adult humans with IQs below 25 have a receptive vocabulary of at least 200 words.

Reason 4. Using higher cognitive function as indicated by IQ tests to determine the moral status of nonhuman animals is in itself speciesist. Professor Singer suggests that we look to what is special about humans and tells us that this is our higher cognitive powers and then goes on to say that some nonhuman animals deserve to be given moral status because they are like humans. To use Singer’s racist-speciesest analogy, this is a “you’re-white-to-me” argument. It suggests that we can accept some other animals only to the extent that they resemble humans or the human trait that he argues makes humans special. It does not value other life forms in their own right. Frankly, I doubt that pigs or orangutans or other nonhuman animals worry much about their IQ scores. We should respect nonhuman animals for what they are, not for how well they resemble what we are?

Reason 5. While animal rights should be promoted and recognized in some form, the notion of identical rights for human and nonhuman animals may be impossible and certainly will be close impossible to achieve. With all the focus on a few impressive individuals like Koko, the Gorilla, and her impressive abilities she is not treated the same way as humans might expected to be treated, and it is difficult to imagine how she could be treated exactly the same. While Koko is described as having a normal human IQ she is also described as having a caretaker or a trainer (who is human). Three employees of the Gorilla Foundation sued over employment practices, two alleging sexual harassment and wrongful termination and one alleging she was forced to do work outside her job description and these suits were settled by the foundation, not by Koko. While Koko was accused of pressuring the employees to show her their nipples, the actual claims were that it was her trainer who led Koko into this behaviour. The San Francisco Chronicle provides an alleged quote from Dr. Francine Patterson:

On one such occasion, Patterson said, ‘Koko, you see my nipples all the time. You are probably bored with my nipples. You need to see new nipples. I will turn my back so Kendra can show you her nipples.’

Note that it is Dr. Patterson, not Koko, who is quoted. If we truly believe that apes, chimpanzees, and other mammals are equivalent to humans, should we not hold them to the same standards. Should we expect lions and tigers to become vegetarians when we recognize their moral status? Chimpanzees not only sometimes hunt and eat humans on occasion, they also hunt and eat other chimpanzees. Would we arrest them and put them on trial for these offenses? In fact, advocates for animal rights recognize that nonhuman animals are different from humans in many essential ways. They DO deserve our respect and better treatment, not because they are so much like humans, but because they are important in their own right. Endangered species need to be preserved because they are unique and valued for what nature made them, not because they are quasi-human persons.

The Gorilla Foundation is collecting donations to fund a 70-acre Ape preserve in Hawaii for Koko. I do not doubt their good intentions, but Koko is not treated like a person with equal rights. She is not free to quit and take another job, or choose her own mate, or hitchhike across the country. Take a look at Koko’s Wish List. Is it Koko who actually is wishing for video surveillance equipment so other people can keep an eye on her? Is it Koko who is actually wishing for a “Volunteer Executive Personal Assistant for Dr. Penny Patterson, President & Research Director” or 1500 square feet of office space near Redwood City California? Please don’t misunderstand. I believe that Koko is treated well, and the intentions of her human caretakers are probably very good ones, but whose intentions are they? And whose intention is it to deny moral status and protection to humans with profound intellectual disabilities. I have never met Koko, but I find it difficult to believe that she would love or protect a human or a nonhuman animal with an intellectual disability and less than one with a PhD or an IQ of 160.

For all of these reasons, I believe that the animal rights movement can progress and will progress more rapidly without denying universal human rights. Historically, the advancement of animal protection and animal rights has moved forward along with the expansion of human rights, not by conflicting with them. For example, Henry Bergh, who founded the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1866, was also a major force in the founding of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children in the 1870s and connected both of these movements to the abolition of slavery less than a decade earlier. Rather than compete with each other, movements for expansion of human and animal rights have benefitted from each other. Suggesting that animal rights will be served in some way by the denial of human rights to children with disabilities hurts both causes.


Because the majority of you are here because you have a concern with people with cognitive disabilities, those who are working with people with cognitive disabilities, or those who are the care or the relatives of people with cognitive disabilities will say, “well, that’s not like the people I work with or care for”. That’s true. And obviously the questions get more complicated once we move to issues about mild disability and so on. But, let me say, these are the people that I’m focusing on when I’m talking about those with cognitive disabilities. For the moment, I have in mind those with profound mental retardation as defined here and later we will have time for discussion.

It’s simply speciesism in nicer terms to say, “Just being a member of the species homo sapiens, just being born with human parents, gives you moral worth and dignity.” I don’t see that the argument is really different from a white racist saying, when it comes to a question about how one should treat people of different races, “well, whose side are you on? We’re the ones who are doing the judging here. Why don’t we simply prefer our kind because it is our kind?” I don’t think we can rest on species membership and such, and say that’s some sort of biological thing that we all have in common and that’s why we’re entitled to give ourselves a superior status to those who are not members of our species.


8 thoughts on “Animal Rights: Gorilla Sued for Sexual Harassment

  1. If society once accepts the principle that human worth is based on an IQ score, there is no reason why the cut off point can’t be adjusted to any point on the continuum.

    Likewise if worth is based upon membership in a particular group (i.e. the human species), there is little reason why that group can’t narrow to, say, a particular race or gender within that group.

  2. Well, there is a bit of a difference. Human versus nonhuman is a dichotomy not a continuum. IQ score is a continuum. As log as we recognize human rights for all humans there is little gray area because race or gender are not points on the continuum of humanness.

  3. I can see your point, and there are perhaps two points I’d like to make.

    First, what we call ‘human’ is indeed a continuum. Would you say a Neanderthal, if they existed, was a human? Human doesn’t necessarily reflect the species Homo sapiens, and even if it did, species is not a clearly defined boundary, as any taxonomist would tell you. And it has been argued, many times, that women or non-white races are indeed less human or subhuman.

    Second, Singer and other utilitarians don’t make the argument that IQ score is a base for rights, but rather something like self-awareness or painience. It would appear to me that there are no degrees of self-awareness – that one is either aware of one’s own self (or one’s own pain), or not.

  4. Joshua,
    On the second point, I agree that arguments that appeal to person as a moral category make more sense when they are based on a property like self-awareness, sentience, or sapience. But note that, as the clips from Singer show, Singer DOES pretty clearly–in invoking the clinical category “profound mental retardation”, which is defined in part in terms of IQ–appeal to IQ either as a partial criterion for (if one takes him literally), or as at least a defeasible marker for, (if one interprets with more charitable slack) being in the category “person”, and therefore being due certain kinds of moral considerations.

    I think that’s in part because, if you’re gunna be answering important questions, questions like “Who can you kill, or simply allow to die, with moral impunity?”, you want to base that answer, once you’ve asked the question, on something with intersubjective, and perhaps scientifically validated, appeal. I don’t think appeals to self-awareness, sentience, or sapience alone will do that.

  5. At some points, Singer does seem to claim that self-awareness or sentience are the important criteria, but he is very clear in this presentation that he considers anyone with an IQ below 25 (roughly the mental age of a four-year-old) to have no moral status. Clearly, four-year-olds and the vast majority of people with profound intellectual disabilities are both sentient and self-aware.

  6. Indeed, while I (approximately) agree with Singer’s criteria, if a profoundly-retarded human being is indeed self-aware, then I cannot agree with Singer that such a person (and they would be a person) has no moral status.

  7. I want to respond to each of Dick’s reasons, so this will be a fairly lengthy comment. First, there are a couple of preliminary comments. I don’t think it’s the case that Singer believes people with profound intellectual disabilities have “no moral status”. As a utilitarian, Singer thinks that every being capable of experiencing pain and pleasure has a moral status. This certainly includes every human and nearly every non-human animal. However, self-conscious beings that understand their lives as forming a narrative — including a past, a future, and goals — are capable of experiencing a unique form of wrong (i.e., having that narrative prematurely cut off). Singer thinks the ability to understand your life as forming a narrative merits a unique moral status for those capable of it, one that makes it wrong to kill or let die the self-conscious being. There is an important difference between having no moral status and having a different moral status.

    Reason 1: I don’t think Singer uses the fact that many women choose to abort fetuses with disabilities as evidence that children with disabilities have no moral status or rights. I think what he is suggesting is that this is evidence that the views he holds are not as monstrous or radical as some have claimed. Moreover, as far as I know, Singer doesn’t actually think that eating meat is wrong. The problem is not with killing animals and eating them, it is with how the animals are raised and the suffering that animals experience as a result of factory farming. So it is fine if people make the choice to eat meat, but it is not fine if people cause unnecessary suffering in the lives of animals, which our current practice of factory farming inevitably does.

    Reason 2: You suggest that Singer believes it is necessary to deny rights to some humans in order to extend rights to non-human animals. I don’t think Singer holds this position. As I’ve said before it is about consistency, not an attempt to achieve a particular goal like respecting animal rights. Singer thinks it is inconsistent to hold 1) that it is wrong to kill a human being, and 2) that it is morally acceptable to kill a non-human animal. This can be resolved either by saying 1) it is wrong to kill any sentient being (where sentience means the ability to experience pain and pleasure and has nothing to do with intelligence), or 2) it is morally acceptable to kill some human beings as well as non-human animals. I just don’t see Singer setting up the zero-sum understanding of rights that you claim he does. Second, I don’t think we can simply adjust the relevant IQ score according to “market conditions”. As Joshua pointed out, self-consciousness verses non-self-consciousness is a dichotomy not a continuum. While it’s true, as Rob pointed out, that Singer relies on IQ as a way of determining the presence of self-consciousness, there is nothing in Singer’s argument that would allow for someone to insist on an IQ score of 120 as a prerequisite for personhood. You could say that IQ cannot adequately test for the presence of self-consciousness, and even that there is no reliable way of testing for self-consciousness, but this only means that we can’t guarantee accuracy when we distinguish between human beings and persons, not that there isn’t a relevant moral distinction between them.

    Reason 3: Singer would happily exclude animals with intellectual disabilities from the category of person. Nothing in Singer’s argument says that all apes, for example, are persons and deserve a unique moral status; he just says that some apes qualify and some humans don’t.

    Reason 4: I think I addressed this one off the top. It is the ability to understand your life as forming a narrative that opens up the possibility of making it wrong to kill a being. If you disagree, Singer would probably ask you to say why it is intrinsically wrong to kill any living being (i.e., say why it is wrong without referring to the pain you will cause those who love the being or depend on it). He thinks it is wrong because you prematurely end the narrative. The implication of this is that it is only intrinsically wrong to kill those beings that can experience their lives as forming a narrative. So if you want to say that cutting off a narrative has nothing to do with why it is wrong to kill a being, then Singer would ask you what does make it wrong.

    Reason 5: I don’t think Singer calls for humans and non-human animals to possess the same rights. I think part of the difficulty here is that while Singer’s arguments concerning animal rights and persons with intellectual disabilities are related, they are not actually interconnected. On the one hand, Singer thinks most of the current treatment of animals is wrong simply because it causes unnecessary suffering in beings capable of suffering. In a completely separate argument, Singer thinks it is morally acceptable to kill or let die some human beings. One of the ways he makes this latter argument is by arguing that some humans and some non-human animals cannot be distinguished in any morally significant way, so if we accept that it is okay to kill animals, and Singer accepts this, then it is equally acceptable to kill some human beings. None of this suggests that respecting animal rights requires denying rights to humans, or that animals deserve to be treated as humans are treated.

    My goal in clarifying Singer’s position is really to move the discussion forward, even if it looks as though it’s aimed simply at shooting down your arguments. Intuitively, I don’t like Singer’s arguments any more than you do, and I’d like to see some good reasons for rejecting them, but I think the 5 reasons offered don’t accurately characterize Singer’s position, and so they can’t be used to refute it.
    Marc Workman

  8. I won’t respond to each of these points now, but I will make a couple of points.
    I disagree with your reason 5 argument. I think what you suggest it is perhaps the argument that Singer SHOULD BE making, but it is not. He is clearly making the argument that moral status should not be based on being human and that people with IQs below 25 do not have the cognitive abilities that he thinks are necessary for personhood or moral status. He’s actually pretty explicit about that in this lecture and elsewhere.
    Narratives imply shared meanings, how much is in the individual and how much is in others is highly variable. Like Koko the gorilla, the narratives of people with profound disabilities is constructed through interactions with others and the boundaries between who produces how much of the narrative is vague.

    The standard generally used for judging self-awareness in animals is the mirror test. Most people with IQs below 25 who have vision pass it easily as do most typical 18 month old infants.. Most researchers who have tested gorillas say that gorillas consistently fail this test although at least one has passed with training. Why would we protect all gorillas because one is self-aware and fail to protect all people with profound intellectual disabilities because a few may fail?

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s