Animal Personhood: Journal of Evolution and Technology
An Animal Rights Article from All-Creatures.org

FROM

Karen Davis, PhD, United Poultry Concerns (UPC)
October 2014

The problem includes but goes beyond the quandary of nonhuman animal diversity in anatomy and physiology mentioned earlier. The minds and personalities of chickens, chimpanzees, and other nonhuman animals will never be able to compete against the dazzle of computers and digital wonders that intoxicate so many of the kinds of people whose power and ambition are charting the course of the planet. How can nonhuman animals, whose intelligences however “high” are deemed inferior to ours, even by many of their so-called defenders, compete with machines that so many enthusiasts tout as even “smarter” than we are?

"The Provocative Elitism of 'Personhood' for Nonhuman Creatures in Animal Advocacy Parlance and Polemics," as published in Journal of Evolution & Technology, Vol. 24 Issue 3 - September 2014, pp 35-43

Abstract

Animal advocates cannot allow the idea to take hold that only the great apes and certain other “higher” animals are fit to be “persons.” Working to change the moral status of the great apes or sea mammals, for example, is a legitimate and important undertaking, but it should not be done at the expense of other animals. Such thinking is not only disconnected from real animals in the real world; it perpetuates the view that beings belonging to species deemed “nonpersons” or “merely conscious” are of lesser, or no, moral significance until or unless, through an institutionalized system of painful, stressful, and demeaning experiments over decades or centuries, some of them might “prove” themselves worthy of being called persons or semi-persons or sort-of-persons entitled to whatever privileges such designations may confer.

The conclusion of this article considers the prospect of “enhancing” other animals’ intelligence genetically and conferring “personhood” on robots:

At the 2013 Personhood Beyond the Human conference at Yale University, some presenters suggested that scientists might “engineer” animals genetically to be more intelligent than they already are, while others suggested that certain technological inventions of ours – the artificial intelligences – might eventually qualify for moral considerateness and even the status of “personhood.” Considering that we know almost nothing about the ways in which other animals’ intelligences relate to the totality of their being including their own well-being and sense of self, and considering that we are nowhere near to granting legal or moral considerateness or even a modicum of compassionate treatment, let alone “personhood,” to billions of sensitive and intelligent birds and other creatures suffering in laboratories and factory farms, these prospects prompt a legitimate concern.

In that an animal’s brain is an integral part of an animal’s body, the idea of genetically engineering other animals’ brains to “enhance” their cognitive capacities seems more like anthropomorphic arrogance than an advancement of ethics or empathy. The idea contradicts and subverts the Nonhuman Rights Project’s goal of obtaining legal recognition and protection of an animal’s fundamental right of bodily integrity and liberty.

The notion of a brain disconnected from the animal in whom it is situated is implicit in proposals to “enhance” the mental capabilities of other creatures via surgical or genetic manipulation. In “Brains, Bodies, and Minds: Against a Hierarchy of Animal Faculties,” David Dillard-Wright rejects the “decapitation” theory of consciousness as “a static entity or essence in-residence,” observing, rather, the intricate processes and intelligences of the body and the continuity of body and brain, the brain itself being a body part as much as our blood, lungs and kidneys are (Dillard-Wright 2012, 204). Biological situation of brains within and as constituents of bodies, which are themselves environmentally situated and interactive with their surroundings, integrates with all of the evidence we have of evolutionary continuity among animal species and a reasoned belief that other animals’ minds are not mere “precursors” of human ways of knowing but “parallel” ways of being mentally active and alive in the world (Dillard-Wright 2012, 207).

It might seem that proposals to enhance the cognition of nonhuman animals are in opposition to proposals to expunge their cognition in order to fit them “more humanely” into our abusive systems. Philosopher Peter Singer, agribusiness philosopher Paul Thompson, and architecture student Andre Ford are among those who have variously supported “welfare” measures which they claim would reduce the suffering of industrially-raised chickens by inflicting injuries that include de-winging, debeaking, blinding, and de-braining them (Broudy 2006, Thompson 2007, Solon 2012). Proposals to enhance or expunge animal consciousness actually have much in common. Both proceed from presumptions of human entitlement to reconfigure the bodies and psyches of other creatures to fit our schemes and satisfy our lust for manipulating life to reflect our will. Both involve rationalizations that the animals targeted for these procedures are not victims but beneficiaries of the suffering (the injury, wound, harm, trauma) that our species sees fit to impose on them “for their own good.”

It is not unreasonable to worry that robots could be granted a status of legal and ethical “personhood” long before, if ever, chickens and the majority of nonhuman animals are so elevated. The problem includes but goes beyond the quandary of nonhuman animal diversity in anatomy and physiology mentioned earlier. The minds and personalities of chickens, chimpanzees, and other nonhuman animals will never be able to compete against the dazzle of computers and digital wonders that intoxicate so many of the kinds of people whose power and ambition are charting the course of the planet. How can nonhuman animals, whose intelligences however “high” are deemed inferior to ours, even by many of their so-called defenders, compete with machines that so many enthusiasts tout as even “smarter” than we are?

At the same time as these worries loom over nonhuman animals, there are signs pointing in a different direction that could lead to a different conclusion. In “According Animals Dignity,” published in The New York Times, Op-Ed columnist Frank Bruni draws attention to what he sees as “a broadening, deepening concern about animals that’s no longer sufficiently captured by the phrase ‘animal welfare’” (Bruni 2014, A27). Citing examples, including the Nonhuman Rights Project, Bruni argues that we are entering an era of “animal dignity” in modern society. The signs of this era, he says, are “everywhere.” The attribution of dignity to nonhuman animals by a respected writer in a prestigious, internationally read newspaper is encouraging. It is one of the promising signs of which Bruni speaks, and I hope that his words are prophetic.

Karen Davis’s entire article can be read here on the website for Journal of Evolution & Technology.


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