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The Limits to Rights

BBC Radio 4's Law In Action
Tuesday 20 January 1600 GMT
On Radio 4 and online

Law in Action returns with a special edition which boldly goes into the outer limits of the concept of human rights.

Clive Coleman is joined by a distinguished panel of guests who discuss whether we should recognise the rights of animals, of the environment and even of robots.

He's joined in the studio by the philosopher Jo Wolff and the writer Kenan Malik, and from California by the legal scholar Christopher Stone.

They hear from the controversial ethicist Peter Singer, who argues passionately that great apes are at least as deserving to have rights as are human infants.

Jonathan Wolff
Professor of Philosophy Jonathan Wolff
This is more than just theory. A new Swiss law has conferred rights on animals as social species, saying they will be victims of abuse if they don't cohabit or at least have contact with others of their own kind.

Professor Wolff is skeptical. "On a choice based theory of rights, it makes no sense to give animals rights if they don't make choices," he says.

The panel next hears from the celebrated South African environmental lawyer Cormac Cullinane, who says that ecological systems deserve the protection of rights.

Kenan Malik questions his entire use of the language of rights in this context.

Christopher Stone
Legal scholar Christopher Stone
"If you believe as I do that the heart of rights is the existence of humans as moral, autonomous beings," he says, "then the extension of rights to entities that are not moral and autonomous then necessarily degrades the notion of rights as it applies to humans."

Professor Stone, who is considered the grandfather of the environmental law movement, comes out in support of Cormac Cullinane.

"This whole debate about the debasing of human rights by extension sounds to me like the flap about gay marriages; there are those that say, well, if gays can get married it will dilute the meaning of marriage."

Kenan Malik
Writer and broadcaster Kenan Malik
The last topic discussed is whether robots deserve rights protection. A recent report on robo-rights said "If granted full rights, states will be obligated to provide full social benefits to them including income support, housing and possibly robo-healthcare to fix the machines over time."

Kenan Malik points out that the question is a staple of science fiction.

He adds: "In principle, if robots happen to be moral, autonomous creatures and we could show that, I'm not averse to giving them rights"

Coming Up

Next week we'll be asking if the combination of an economic squeeze and new technology will mean a revolution for the legal profession.

The limits to rights - your thoughts

Pain as a concept is a human invention distinguished in language. While I advocate treating animals appropriately there is no "pain" for the dog it just a bunch of automatic responses to physical stimuli. Humans call that pain but not the dog who reacts like a machine. The same is true of humans of course, but then because we have language we give these physical reactions a name which distinguishes them from anything else. What it is like to be an entity without language cannot be described as it requires language to do so. Whether you call it rights or not there is an appropriate way to deal with animals and even objects. What we consider appropriate behaviour in regard to animals or other objects is certainly a matter that we must agree on and legislate about.

Robert Walker

The programme I've just listened to was fascinating but bizarre. Surely rights go together with responsibilities . A mountain cannot have either rights or responsibilities. It may require protection but it cannot be sued if it falls on your head! Rights are an artificial construct and require a system, or civilisation, of some sort to both afford them to its members and to defend them. For the system to have any chance of working, rights have to be balanced with responsibilities don't they? A right that cannot be exercised is of little value.

Alison Clarke

It would surely be much simpler if, instead of giving legal rights to animals, plants etc, we imposed upon ourselves legal responsibilities, ie a detailed duty of care for the welfare and well-being of the "community" - Gaia, if you will - that we dominate.

Vivienne Metcalf

Your programme on rights for non-human entities shows how hilarious lawyers can be when they carry absurd concepts to ludicrous lengths.

Questions: why did nobody stand up for the rights of the smallpox and polio viruses when a decision was taken to eradicate them for the planet? Is one of your contributors daft enough to call this genocide?

Question: what is a species? There are several different concepts: which one do your guests have in mind?

Question: if you give a cat the right not to be chased by a dog, and a dog chases a cat, do you prosecute the dog or its owner? If the latter then you have proved that all this hot air is really only about the HUMAN vision of what constitutes a right!

Frank Odds

It seemed to me that yet again the lawyers are tapping into a licence to print money in the defence of animal rights. I live in an area where our local tennis club has three times been denied the erection of flood lights because they may disturb the crested newts. This is laughable because in the village in which I live which it about a mile and a half away from the tennis club. I have crested newts walking down my drive at night in the full glare of my security light. And I'm not even anywhere near a pond.

Libby Bowles

I thought I had tuned into the wrong programme when I picked up the item on rights for robots in Law in Action. That this sci-fi fantasy can even be considered on what purports to be a serious programme says a lot about the law, which, as has been famously said, "is an ass".

Ann Keith

Contact the programme

If you have thoughts on any of the topics we've covered, or any other legal issues, you can contact us by email at, or by post at Law In Action, BBC White City, Wood Lane, London W12 7TS, or you can call us on 020 8752 5646.

Law In Action is broadcast on Tuesday 20 January 2009 at 1600 GMT on BBC Radio 4.

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