The issue of basic rights for the higher animals pops up with a certain regularity, especially in transhumanist circles; here’s George Dvorsky responding to some of the more usual objections:
The rights I’m talking about have to do with protections. Nonhuman animals, like humans, should be immune from undue confinement, abuse, experimentation, illicit trafficking, and the threat of unnatural death. And I’m inclined to leave it at that for now.
While these animals may not be as intelligent or knowledgeable as humans, their cognitive and emotional capacities are sophisticated enough to warrant special consideration. These are self-aware and self-reflexive animals. They are cognizant of other minds, exhibit deep emotional responses, and have profound social attachments. That’s not to be taken lightly.
At the same time I acknowledge that there there has to be a realism applied to this issue. Nonhuman animals who qualify as persons cannot participate in society to the same degree that humans can. Thus, they should be considered and treated in the same manner that we do children and the developmentally disabled—which is that they still have rights! We would never experiment upon a 3-year old human child, nor would we force a mentally disabled person to perform in a circus. We believe this because we recognize that these individuals are endowed with (or have the potential for) the sufficient capacities required for personhood. Consequently, we protect them with laws.
For what it’s worth, I’m in agreement with Dvorsky on most of his points here, though I think the biggest roadblock to non-human rights is our incomplete provision of human rights. Until we live in a world where we genuinely treat all human beings – regardless of race, gender, physical or mental ability, attractiveness, intelligence or lack of privilege – as our equals (biological, economic and political), how can we ever hope to extend that parity to creatures whose existence we definitively can’t empathise with on the basis of experience? (Indeed, some of the more extreme animal rights advocates seem far more able to empathise with the suffering of animals than the emotions of their fellow humans, and as such have done their cause far more harm than good.)
I totally agree that we should be looking to protect non-human sentients from exploitation, but attempting to do so before we’ve flattened the human playing field is to put the cart before the horse and then wonder that the cart doesn’t respond to the whip. Look to the plank in one’s own eye, and all that.