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Posts Tagged ‘animals’

I’d always taken it for granted that palliative care is a good thing when it is available, but I hadn’t gone the extra step to think about whether someone has a right to receive it, or whether it would be a duty for an individual or hospital or state to provide it.

Prof John Keown addressed these issues last month in a meeting at the House of Lords put on by the Anscombe Bioethics Centre. His argument was fairly simple. There are many different ethical systems, and they would lead you to conflicting conclusions about many moral issues. But despite this, there would be a consensus about the importance of the relief of unnecessary human suffering and the provision of holistic support for those with serious health issues. And Keown concluded that it would be unethical to fail to meet the need of palliative care when it can reasonably be met, e.g. in countries like the UK with good healthcare resources.

Here is a definition, from NICE, quoted on the National Council for Palliative Care website:

Palliative care is the active holistic care of patients with advanced progressive illness. Management of pain and other symptoms and provision of psychological, social and spiritual support is paramount. The goal of palliative care is achievement of the best quality of life for patients and their families. Many aspects of palliative care are also applicable earlier in the course of the illness in conjunction with other treatments.

Is it also a human right? Keown argued that there is a duty to provide palliative care because of the internationally recognised right to healthcare. So the lack of access to palliative care should be seen as a global human rights issue. This might seem a bit extreme, but he pointed out that there is already a right to avoid ‘degrading treatment’ inscribed in the European Convention on Human Rights, Article 3. And he went on to explore the different ways in which civil and criminal law in the UK already implicitly recognise the duty of providing palliative care.

At the end of his talk Keown speculated about how much palliative care could be improved if the provisions that presently applied to animals in this country (through the 2006 Animal Welfare Act) could be extended to human beings. This summary is from the Freshfields Animal Rescue site:

Owners have aDuty of care” to the animals they keep which is a legal phrase meaning that owners have an obligation to do something.  Prior to the Animal Welfare Act 2006, people only had a duty to ensure that an animal didn’t suffer unnecessarily. The new Act keeps this duty but also imposes a broader duty of care on anyone responsible for an animal to take reasonable steps to ensure that the animal’s needs are met. This means that a person has to look after the animal’s welfare as well as ensure that it does not suffer.

The Act defines “animal” as referring to any living vertebrate animal, although there is provision to extend this if future scientific evidence shows that other kinds of animals are also capable of experiencing pain and suffering.

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We have just begun the second semester at the seminary, and I started teaching a new course entitled ‘philosophical anthropology’. It’s about the nature of the human person – not from the perspective of faith (that comes later), but just from the perspective of philosophy, reason, science, experience, etc.

I start with Hamlet (Act 2, Scene 2):

What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god – the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals!

But then I go on to explain how difficult it is today to justify this classical view that the human being has these unique qualities. The thrust of so much science and philosophy is to prove that there is simply a sliding scale of natural skills, and that the differences between human beings and other animals are differences of degree and not of kind.

Dolphins in the Red Sea by Tom Weilenmann.

As an example of this type of thinking I brought out an article by Jonathan Leake and Georgia Warren from the Sunday Times from a couple of weeks ago, giving evidence of human-like traits in the animal kingdom. Here are some quotes:

In the past few years researchers have been finding similar examples of sentience and self-awareness across the animal kingdom in species ranging from elephants and dolphins to crows and parrots. Even sheep, cows and pigs appear to be far more self-aware and to lead more emotionally charged lives than we have previously understood.

It means that humans, used to regarding ourselves as unique in our ability to think and feel, are not so special. Increasingly scientists believe we are merely at the top of a spectrum of intelligence across the animal kingdom, rather than standing apart from it. We may be better at thinking and more able to articulate our feelings — but animals can do all the same things…

Last year that was topped by Alex Kacelnik, a professor of behavioural ecology at Oxford, who discovered that crows are capable of using multiple tools in complex sequences, the first time such behaviour had been observed in non-humans. In an experiment seven crows successfully reeled in a piece of food placed out of reach using three different lengths of stick.

Crucially, they were able to complete the task without any special training, suggesting the birds were capable of a level of abstract reasoning and creativity normally associated only with humans.

Last week it emerged that researchers from Padua University in Italy had found that birds were able to read numbers from left to right, as humans do, and count to four even when the line of numbers was moved from vertical to horizontal. They also showed that birds performed better in tests after a good night’s sleep.

All this is powerful evidence against the idea that people are unique and, some argue, also undermines the idea that humans should have “dominion” over animals, as the Bible puts it.

This has traditionally been the justification for the exploitation and abuse of animals in many different ways, the most emotive of which is animal experimentation, particularly involving primates…

Such ideas suggest that the cognitive abilities of animals and humans lie on a spectrum. The skills of humans may be at the top end but they are no different in kind from those of many animal species.

Thomas White, professor of ethics at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, believes that some animals are bright enough to merit human rights. He suggests that hunting dolphins or capturing them for aquariums is “roughly the same thing whites were doing to blacks 200 years ago in the slave trade”.

This is the question of whether there are non-human persons. 

So I have the next eleven weeks to explain how much of this is true, but that there are still some unique qualities about human reason, freedom and moral conscience that set us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom.

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