THERE IS, I have recently learned, at Sepilok, in the jungles of Sandakan, in the Malaysian state of Sabah a half-way house for orangutans. In fact there are four such centres in Malaysian Kalimantan, whose purpose is to rescue orangutans from poachers, wild-life dealers and rural families who keep them as entertaining pets, to re-accustom them to life in the wild, and set them free once more to roam their native trees. The orangutan is a protected species, and the Malaysian government is working hard to preserve a good breeding community in forests which are still extensive enough and remote enough to sustain them.

But there is a new and sinister threat to this laudable programme of conservation. From Sepilok alone, it appears, three or four baby orangutans disappear every month. And their whereabouts is now known. Childless couples in remote villages take them and raise them as their own. They shave them to make them look more human. One family from which an ape was recently returned to the wild had dressed her in a tee shirt and nappies.

Conservationists are understandably incensed. Apes, they reasonably maintain, have their natural locus in the wild. It is demeaning to their dignity and destructive of their well-being to rear them in the style and manner of a species to which they do not belong. It can only end in tears. ‘The problem usually begins when an orangutan gets older’, says Edwin Bois, Sepilok’s administrator, ‘at that time it will bite and become too active for human care’. Sometimes, out of irritation with their orangutans, people will ‘hack them to death’.

I pass on this curious vignette of life in the Ulu because it seems to me to be something of a cautionary tale. It demonstrates with picturesque clarity that original sin is at home with the noble savage; and coincidentally that where sin is ubiquitous no sin is truly original. The mountains of Borneo have a dangerous beauty. Here is a place, the tourist brochures will tell you, to get away from it all. But it is all there already. The hubris which marks out humanity is alive and well in every inhabited clearing and secluded settlement.

Of course the shame of a barren womb is as old as the hills, and so are the various ruses adopted to mitigate it. Childlessness is one of the recurrent themes of the patriarchal histories, interwoven, not without purpose, with the theme of the divine choice of the younger son. Ever since Sarah employed Hagar, women have approached the problem with a mixture of chicanery and technology.

What is remarkable about the events in the biblical-sounding state of Sabah is the manner in which they have been reported. Here, by all accounts, are men and women so distressed by their inability to beget children that they have exposed themselves to the possible derision of their neighbours by a self-deluding ruse which they cannot hope to sustain and which will inevitably come to grief. Yet the Director of the wild-life sanctuary, and the news agency which reports him, point our sympathies not to the people but to the apes.

Is ours, I wonder, the first age to see such an event through the eyes of another species – to be so blinded by an abstract notion of the rights of animals that we can be insensitive to the pain of human beings? If so we are certainly not the first generation to view childlessness as a disease or a misfortune. In this story the two elements come poignantly together. Those who cannot bear the pain of infertility inflict it upon the innocent, and reap only ridicule for themselves. It is a bitter tale in which there are no winners.

And yet it is a tale from which we are unlikely to learn. The contorted morality of ‘rights’ has wreaked havoc with our good sense. When it comes to reproduction atavistic urges, both to give birth to life and to destroy it, have opened up a nightmare world where the maltreatment of the occasional primate is the least of our worries. From hired wombs and surrogate parents to abortion on demand, appetites masquerading as fundamental rights (fuelled by a technology of which Sarah and Hagar and the Dyaks of Borneo never dreamed) have created a world where solutions are scientific and pain, deep human pain, goes unacknowledged and unassuaged.

For the morality of rights is in truth the law of the jungle. It is a perpetual warfare of priorities, a battleground of absolutes. Just as the rights of the villagers of Sabah to rear children conflict with the rights of the orangutan to the dignity of its natural and distinctive life, so it is in many another circumstance. The rights of genetic parents conflict with the rights of the surrogate mother; the right to generate children bizarrely conflicts for funding, in a Health Service stretched for resources, with the right to end the lives conceived. And all three beg the question, in what we still call a Health Service, of what we mean by health and what we mean by service.

The attempt to make sense of the world by an abstract notion of fair-play, and worse still, the superstition that that way lies happiness, is a poison of the Enlightenment which still infects the post-modern world. It will always be delusive. We need to learn again what our forebears knew so clearly. Not that ‘all men are created equal’, but that all men are equally created. Not that ‘liberty’ is conducive to ‘the pursuit of happiness’, but that service is perfect freedom. Not that ‘vices belong less to man than to man badly governed’, but that sin is the inevitable consequence of a man seeking to govern himself.

In every place, from Sabah to Surbiton, where appetites are transmogrified into rights the moral world is an irrational field of battle and pain, real or imagined, is the result. Happiness (or rather contentment, for ‘happiness’ has about it just that ersatz quality one associates with the Enlightenment) comes only when the wrestling is seen to be futile, and when, with world-weary Job, we look towards Heaven: ‘Naked came I from my mother’s womb and naked I shall return thither; the Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord’.

Geoffrey Kirk is Vicar of St. Stephen’s Lewisham in the diocese of Southwark.