Bad Argument of the Week VIII

By Dario Battisti

If I could walk with the animals, talk with the animals, grunt and squeak and squawk with the animals… I would need to ask for their permission before deciding to film a wildlife documentary. That is the verdict of the University of East Anglia’s Dr Brett Mills, who suggests that rights to privacy should be extended to animals, and therefore they should not be filmed (unless they give consent, somehow).

Animals’ right to privacy needs to be taken more seriously by wildlife documentary makers, suggests research.

The ethics of the media and privacy should be extended beyond humans to the animal world, suggests Brett Mills at the University of East Anglia.

Dr Mills says animals should not be seen as “fair game” for filmmakers.
He says it might be acceptable to film “public events” such as animals hunting – but questions more intrusive recording.

This may seem absurd to some, but fortunately, Dr Brett Mills is perfectly qualified to make such a proposal, specialising in the field of Film and Television Studies, having written a few books on sitcoms. This puts him at the forefront of discovery on matters of ethical consideration and animal behaviour.

Discussing his research, Dr Mills elaborates:

“It might at first seem odd to claim that animals might have a right to privacy…

It does.

Privacy, as it is commonly understood, is a culturally human concept…

It is.

The key idea is to think about animals in terms of the public/private distinction. We can never really know if animals are giving consent, but they often do engage in forms of behaviour which suggest they’d rather not encounter humans, and we might want to think about equating this with a desire for privacy.

We mightn’t.

"Wait 'til my lawyer hears of this."

Having initially noted that the right to privacy is a culturally human concept, Mills decides to ignore this fundamental aspect of the principle in the interests of relativism, assigning to animals an understanding of ‘public’ and ‘private’ sphere distinctions, and of privacy issues overall.
However, I would contend that these are notions specific to human society, rather than universal ones. Generally, when we speak of such rights and distinctions, we are referring to them in the context of what we in our own society understand to be our appropriate roles and responsibilities as citizens. With regard to rights to privacy, this relates primarily to quite understandable concerns about what purpose such information is to be used for by those amassing it, and the possibility that information might be exploited for political ends. Directly implicated in this are additional questions of individual liberty, of the citizen as an entity sovereign from the state in distinct respects. For such reasons, this seems to me a very human affair indeed.

“When confronted with [animals’] ‘secretive’ behaviour the response of the wildlife documentary is to read it as a challenge to be overcome with the technologies of television. The question constantly posed by wildlife documentaries is how animals should be filmed: they never ask whether animals should be filmed at all.”

Again, Mills assigns anthropocentric motivations where there are none. To describe animal behaviour as ‘secretive’ is somewhat misleading: it is highly doubtful that animals, when moving out of sight, are actually being ‘secretive’ in their behaviour. Does Mills suppose that animals are actively choosing to act inconspicuous so as to not reveal intimate details to wildlife paparazzi? That this is simply fight-or-flight behaviour, or possibly a search for shelter and food, is the far more likely explanation, so much so that it really shouldn’t need pointing out.

Nevertheless, Mills seems genuinely surprised that most others do not share his views:

We have an assumption that humans have some right to privacy, so why do we not assume that for other species, particularly when they are engaging in behaviour that suggests they don’t want to be seen?

…perhaps there is an argument for some species, in some circumstances, not to be filmed. At the moment it seems that such arguments are never put forward.

Forgive me for detecting a hint of self-flattery in these statements, but the impression is of someone who presumes that challenging an accepted perception automatically makes him a radical, original visionary and maverick, rather than, say, a pseudointellectual with too much time on his hands (for example).

Following this new definition of privacy, might one assume that in Dr Mills’ topsy-turvy universe, Bill Oddie is a voyeuristic pervert, “Inside Nature’s Giants” is  a televised snuff film, and The Jungle Book, a gritty social realist drama?

Moreover, should all animals equally have the same regard for privacy rights, despite that many obviously could not care less whether they intrude on others without consent? Perhaps we can mount false advertising lawsuits against camouflaged animals for misrepresenting themselves to their prey. We could encourage pets to register to vote and democratically elect their owners, rather than condemning them to the domestic dictatorship of strangers.

Of course, where animal behaviour is to be documented– something which has enlightened many of us on the beauty of the natural world; thanks especially to the contributions of people like Sir David Attenborough in bringing this rich vista to the wider public — then we should strive to do this in a non-intrusive a manner, diminishing chances of disturbing an animal’s habitat wherever possible. Yet to argue that the right to privacy ought to be applicable to animals is frankly laughable, overlooking the conditions which give such rights their meaning; not to mention the impracticalities of who would enforce such rights, or how one would. Or, for that matter, why. Remind me again?

Sadly, I can’t help but wonder what else Mills objects to on the subject of animal rights– would he oppose animal testing outright, for example? After all, he finds the filming of wildlife documentaries objectionable for hurting animals’ imagined sensibilities!

Dr Brett Mills’ prize, should he wish to accept it, is a modest smattering of headlice: an organism which has no qualms whatsoever about invading your private space. Dr Mills, just give us the word, and we’ll have a little envelope of ‘nits’ on its way to you post-haste.

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0 Responses to Bad Argument of the Week VIII

  1. Les says:

    I loved this wee article. Cheers, Dario.

    Of course, animals don’t shy from videographers and photographers because they don’t want to be photographed. It’s because they don’t want to be eaten! If the animal can even be said to have “concerns” then the capturing of images is not one of them.

    In fact, this is so obvious that I’m surprised the BBC even published this man’s ramblings. Was he drunk?

  2. Mike says:

    I have no problem giving (non-human) animals rights, but you do it according to their level of consciousness. I don’t want to go all Peter Singer on you, but we rarely worry about the right to privacy of babies being filmed by their parents.

    If an animal expresses a desire not to be filmed then we should respect that of course, but most animals don’t even understand what it means to be filmed so I don’t see that happening any time soon. When being filmed is clearly causing a disturbance and altering an animal’s behaviour, then I think that’s morally wrong – as you say, studies should be done in as unintrusive (or ‘trusive’) a way as possible, both out of respect for the animal and for the sake of scientific objectivity.

    One other comment I’d make about Dr Mills’ argument is that it seems to lack priority. Why is he so concerned about an animal’s right to privacy because it has the right to life and liberty?

  3. Mike says:

    That should read “*before it has the right to life and liberty?”

  4. Pingback: The 21st Floor » Blog Archive » Bad Argument of the Week XXVII

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