Humanity of Non-Humans: Should They Have Rights?


Julian Omidi discusses the human qualities of non-humans, as well as the desire by some advocacy groups to have basic legal liberties granted to chimpanzees.

We love to anthropomorphize our pets.  We give them particularly human dispositions and sometimes even attitudes and opinions that they couldn’t possibly have. (Does your Chihuahua really feel stylish in that sweater?)  But even though we place personalities upon animals, animals are independent beings with, some argue, a past, present and future perspective that might entitle them to personhood rights.[1]

It may seem ridiculous to bestow the right to vote or own property on an animal, but some activists are lobbying for chimpanzees’ right to be classified as legal persons.  This right would afford them the ability to be released to sanctuaries and not enclosed in laboratories, zoos or facilities that restrict their natural freedoms.

One lawsuit on behalf of several chimpanzees – one held by a private couple, and four held in Universities and private sanctuaries – argued that personhood rights ought to be bestowed onto chimpanzees.  These rights would be limited to bodily liberty, or the right to not be forced into a captive environment.  The lawsuit, which was filed by Steven M. Wise for the animal advocacy group The Nonhuman Rights Project, was dismissed.  Mr. Wise plans to appeal.

The core of the nonhuman rights argument is the fact that, while we will never really know what a chimpanzee is thinking, they do have a concept of themselves, their circumstances and future.  They are able to recognize their own reflections.  They can plan for future events (they can save food and create tools).  They can strategize for fights with other primate species.

The concept of nonhuman rights poses difficult questions.  Although most of us can agree that scientific and medical experiments on chimpanzees and other primates are brutal, we must nonetheless ask ourselves: What exactly would be the consequences of issuing liberties to chimpanzees?

If the results are the protection of endangered animals and the release of suffering captive animals to sanctuaries, then those would definitely be happy outcomes.  However, since chimpanzees aren’t the only highly intelligent animals in the wild or captivity, why should they be the only nonhumans to be afforded these rights?

Would the capture and training of whales and porpoises for waterpark zoos be prohibited because these water mammals are of exceptional intelligence?  Should we force the owners of parrots, ravens and other intelligent birds to surrender their animals, as well?  Should pigs, probably the most intelligent domesticated animal (and also an animal that has a concept of its past, present and future) no longer be used for food?

There are no easy answers to these questions, certainly.  But there is time enough to debate the philosophical arguments for animal liberties, there is more immediate work that needs to be done.  For the time being, it might be enough to concentrate our efforts on the grossest abuses of animal welfare – poaching, the capture of wild birds, puppy mills, horrible animal warehousing facilities and animal sports.

[1] Gorman, James: Considering the Humanity in Nonhumans New York Times 12/9/2013


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