Can a Non-Human Be a ‘Person’?

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Can a Non-Human Be a ‘Person’?

By Michael Mountain, Earth in Transition
August 2011

“After all,” he said, “the Germantown Quakers were coming out against slavery in the 1690s, and it wasn’t to end for another 170 years. If it’s going to take 170 years, then let’s start now. Like Moses, we won’t see the Promised Land, but somebody will, and they’ll see it because we started it.”

Last week, I spent three days at a conference in New York City that was about our relationship to the other great apes.


Photo of young chimpanzees by Delphine Bruyere

I say “other great apes” because we humans are the close cousins of chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans, and it’s always a mistake to think of them as being “animals” and ourselves as being separate or “higher.” (Just for starters, we share about 96 percent of our DNA with chimps.)

The conference was hosted by the Arcus Foundation, which also focuses on social justice issues for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered humans.

Indeed, linking social justice and non-human rights is important in itself. Only 200 years ago, human slaves who were brought to Europe and America from Africa had no rights at all. They weren’t even considered “persons” in the legal sense of the word, but rather just legal “things” that were owned by humans. And it took a landmark court case in England in 1772 to set a precedent by establishing that one young man, James Somerset, who had been captured in Africa and taken to America as a slave, was not a “thing” but a “person.”

We’ve come a long way since then … but not quite far enough. The legal system still considers our fellow great apes to be “things.” And while laws can be passed protecting them from certain forms of cruelty, this is granted as an act of kindness, not as an inherent right. To this day, no non-human enjoys any legal right – any more than James Somerset did 240 years ago, or, Jews, gypsies and other “sub-humans” did in Nazi Germany.

At last week’s Arcus meeting, there were presentations about chimps in the wild, chimps in captivity, how humans and other animals interact in different parts of the world where they share the land, and about the ethics of using animals in research and entertainment.

One talk that stood out to me was by attorney Steven Wise, founder and director of the Non-Human Rights Project. Wise is widely credited with having put the field of animal law on the map, as a field that’s now studied at major universities all across the country. One of his books, Though the Heavens May Fall – The Landmark Trial That Led to the End of Human Slavery, tells the story of how James Somerset was transformed from being a “legal thing” to a “legal person.” Another, Drawing the Line – Science and the Case for Animal Rights, explores the notion that certain animals clearly meet the legal criterion for personhood.

For several years, Wise has been preparing to go to court on behalf of a single non-human being – probably a chimpanzee – to make the case that, just like James Somerset, he or she meets the legal criteria for consideration as a person.

Wise knows he has an uphill battle. We humans will not easily let go of the superiority we have granted ourselves, any more than white Europeans and Americans would 250 years ago. Our self-esteem is fragile, and we cling to the notion that we are not “animals” – we are the only “people.”

But he’s confident that sooner or later, we will put a crack in what he calls “the ancient, high and thick legal wall that separates humans from nonhumans.”

And, just as happened with slavery and other social justice issues, that first crack will set a precedent that will be important not simply for chimpanzees but also potentially for other animals like dogs and cats who are still “invisible” to the legal system.

You shouldn’t have to be human in order to enjoy some measure of legal standing.

Still, making that first crack in the wall will be neither easy nor quick. Years of work have already gone into preparing the case, and it will not be brought for a few more years yet. Meanwhile, you can read more about the Non-Human Rights Project on their site. And you’ll be seeing more about it here on Zoe. That’s because I’m joining the team myself as part of the working group that will be drawing public attention to the case and to the overall issue of personhood.

In the coming weeks, I’ll be writing more about other animals as “persons” – and how attorneys, lawyers and philosophers define the different levels of personhood.

The more we come to understand that you shouldn’t have to be human in order to have some measure of legal standing, the more we can build relationships with other animals that are good not only for them, but also for ourselves.

All of this will take time, but it will be worth every minute. Steve Wise knows that in a campaign like this you don’t necessarily win the first argument. But you keep going, and sooner or later you will prevail.

“After all,” he said, “the Germantown Quakers were coming out against slavery in the 1690s, and it wasn’t to end for another 170 years. If it’s going to take 170 years, then let’s start now. Like Moses, we won’t see the Promised Land, but somebody will, and they’ll see it because we started it.”