Nonhuman Personhood
An Animal Rights Article from


Responsible Policies for Animals (RPFA)
May 2014

Many thanks to all who have mentioned in recent years the groundbreaking legal work of attorney-author Steven Wise seeking legal personhood for nonhuman animals. And special thanks to Betty Sherman for bringing me this week’s New York Times Magazine about Mr. Wise’s work. [Read Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) is New York Times Magazine Cover Story.] Some friends have asked what I think of the article and Wise’s strategy. I have read and followed Mr. Wise’s work since 1996, and I am glad to explain why I find it (1) important, educational, and worthy of immense respect and (2) not the most effective strategy for establishing the equal rights all animals need to lead a fulfilling life. This will help explain Responsible Policies for Animals’ strategy for establishing nonhuman personhood – as outlined in the spring 2013 issue of RPA’s newsletter Persons.
Feel welcome to circulate this RPA Update freely, and post to any list. It is crucial for rights advocates to reflect on how rights come to exist for new groups of persons, how one comes to be deemed a person. Otherwise, we are doomed to persist in advocacy that we know in our hearts is failing to remedy the animals’ steadily worsening plight.
In the law, as in the civilized (as compared with the original) human mind, nonhuman animals are not persons. “Person(s)” in the Constitution and the law applies to all human beings and no nonhuman beings. Legally, a nonhuman animal is not a person with rights like humans have under the Constitution’s rights Amendments or legal standing to sue another person or a corporation or government agency as humans can. Mr. Wise and his team have thoroughly researched habeas corpus cases – human beings challenging the their arrest or imprisonment in court. They’ve now named chimpanzees as plaintiffs in habeas cases, based on chimpanzees’ being biologically similar to human beings.
Mr. Wise is making significant progress toward eventually getting an appellate court – a court that rules on the propriety of trial-court decisions – to hear a habeas case after a lower court rules against liberty (or transfer from extremely inhumane captivity to much-less-inhumane captivity) for a chimpanzee plaintiff.  This is a brilliant, major contribution to animal advocacy. A ruling for one of Mr. Wise’s nonhuman-ape clients would break the species barrier against legal standing for nonhuman animals. Rightly alarmed are humanist-extremists concerned that nonhuman animals might no longer be deemed only to exist for humans to use or dispense with – animal abuse being a pillar of the economy.  News reports on Mr. Wise’s work – the current New York Times Magazine article is the culmination of many – help establish in the public mind the key concept that humans are not the only animals worthy of moral and legal consideration.
RPA’s strategy differs from Mr. Wise’s in two fundamental ways. As outlined in spring 2013 Persons, the rights all animals need cannot be established without human beings’ recognizing their personhood. But (1) a significant portion of the public must learn to conceptualize and perceive all animals as persons, and no animal as subhuman, before nonhuman personhood is likely to be established in the law. Law not informed by human morality affords little protection – hence recent reports that one in five women on U.S. college and university campuses endures sexual assault despite its being a crime for thousands of years. Species-based prejudice, the original invidious distinction, formalized in “the great chain of being” and other speciesist-humanist ideologies, nurture a conscious and subconscious perception of women (even sometimes in women themselves) as instrumentalities of men as nonhuman animals are viewed as instrumentalities of humans.
That brings us to the problem that (2) making chimpanzees’ personhood the nonhuman-habeas test cases based on chimpanzees’ similarity to humans perpetuates humanist bias. The prescientific ideologies that established civilization’s and courts’ humanist bias fuels the invidious distinctions that ignite human genocides and eliminationist campaigns and undermine the Constitution’s explicitly stated values: justice, liberty, equality, defense, tranquility, and the general welfare. It is unlikely so many “up and coming” young men would treat women as subhuman – as bodies existing for men to use – if not indoctrinated into humanism from birth. If establishing nonhuman personhood and rights is going to perpetuate the conflation of “person” with “human” or “human-like,” then most of the million-plus animal species can never gain the autonomy, ecology, and dignity rights they need and that is required to start protecting the living world against human depredations – environmentalism is clearly not succeeding on the humanist model (“our environment,” “our resources,” “fish stocks,” etc.).
All of this is why RPA’s strategy is to establish in the human mind the realities that in nature there are no “higher” or “lower” animals; that humanism and speciesism are figments of our species elaborate imagination; that species-based invidious distinctions undermine human wellbeing as well as that of all other animals; and that all of our institutions must cease promoting humanism and teach the new animalism – recently introduced by RPA (The New Animalism) – if humanity is to adopt a new trajectory toward wellness, peace, and stability, rather than remain on the millennia-long trajectory toward ever more illness, violence, and misery.  RPA’s strategy is manifested in its 10,000 Years Is Enough campaign to end humanist-extremist “animal science” programs at our colleges of agriculture and its endeavor to eliminate species bias from the news industry, as well as in its lectures, website, and literature.
(The new animalism (The New Animalism) – challenging the entire concept of humans as superior to other animals – acknowledges the kind of animal humans are by their biological nature: plant-foraging herbivorous apes originating on the African savanna, with no natural need of direct contact with other animals. The new animalism recognizes that humanism is a false and harmful ideology, not a sound basis for human practice, policy, law, or ways of life.  RPA’s new brochure Animal Abuse: The Whole Story summarizes the new animalism, and I am glad to provide additional details on request.  RPA’s website will soon provide a summary of the new animalism.)
RPA’s argument for nonhuman personhood is biological rather than legal.  This comports with the fact that equal human rights were established, through long struggle, based on recognition that all humans are biologically equal.  (Humanism, with its unnatural hierarchies rather than humans’ natural ones, has supplanted natural human equality with tyranny for thousands of years.)  Humans, like the other animals, are persons by virtue of their being bodies.  One definition of “person” is body.  Even the term “habeas corpus” means “you have the body” – not you have the human being.  Members of all animal species experience on average the same number of heartbeats.  All animals are genetic relatives of humans and of each other.  It is natural to care most about one’s closest relatives – kin altruism. It is not natural to devise ideologies – and to base laws on them – holding humans to be the only animals who matter. 
Humans have an innate affinity for Earth’s other beings – biophilia – which humanism undermines. So the effort to establish nonhuman personhood is best pursued through the new animalism, not through humanist bias. Once human beings grasp the harm humanism does to them and their prospects, and the full scope of animal abuse and its far-reaching consequences for all animals, establishing nonhuman personhood in the law will be less difficult – and more meaningful: the change will take place in the totality of all animals’ experience, not only “on paper.”

I hope that is useful for outlining Mr. Wise’s work to establish nonhuman personhood through the courts,  RPA’s work to establish nonhuman personhood in the human mind by changing civilization’s most influential institutions, and basic differences between the two. This is difficult to grasp. I only frame the animal-abuse disaster this way after a quarter-century of full-time animal advocacy, seeking to turn advocacy from a failing endeavor to one that eventually can create fundamental change that is needed.  All who are concerned about all animals’ wellbeing can take part in the new wave of the animal-rights movement by supporting RPA and helping to supplant humanism and the full range of bias it generates through RPA’s unique campaigns and educational materials.

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