Who Is a Person?
Animals: Tradition - Philosophy - Religion Article from All-Creatures.org


Stephen Kaufman, M.D., Christian Vegetarian Association (CVA)

Who Is a Person?

United States law recognizes humans as persons, which makes sense. In addition, corporations are persons in the eye of the law, with the right to sue and be sued. In other words, they can wrong other persons (including other corporations) and be wronged. However, in the eyes of the law, nonhumans are not persons. They do not have standing to sue other persons if they are wronged in ways not proscribed by law. Further, they do not enjoy the basic rights of a person, such as the right not to be physically abused and killed. Should we regard nonhuman beings as persons?

I think that any individual who can be wronged should be regarded as a person with basic legal rights. While certain rights such as freedom of religion or the freedom to vote obviously must be restricted to humans, all persons should have the right not to be abused or unnecessarily killed. Which living beings should be regarded persons? I think those with feelings – who can suffer and/or experience pleasure – are persons. I don’t think there is any compelling evidence that plants can have such experiences, and I don’t regard them as persons. I’m very skeptical that insects and mollusks meet this criterion, but I think there is compelling evidence that birds, reptiles, and fish do, as well as mammals.

If we are to work toward recognizing the personhood of nonhumans, I think it would be helpful to refer to them as nonhuman persons I’m told that an early, but perhaps not the first, reference to this term is in the book In Defense of Dolphins (Blackwell Publishing, 2007), written by Thomas L. White.]. Calling them “animals” seems to describe humans and nonhumans as fundamentally different from each other, a view contradicted by both biological science and Ecclesiastes (3:19). Consequently, I think it is easier to justify abuse of “animals” than “nonhuman persons.”

I am also concerned about the effectiveness of the popular term “nonhuman animals” in part because it sometimes scandalizes those who deny that humans are animals. So, when possible, I will endeavor to use the term “nonhuman persons” whenever possible.

Go on to: Review Essay: The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen by Anthony Appiah
Return to: Reflection on the Lectionary, Table of Contents

Return to Animals: Tradition - Philosophy - Religion