The PJ Tatler

Does a Chimpanzee Deserve to Be Called a 'Person'?

The idea that a chimp or whale (or elephant) should be granted the rights of “personhood” lampoons itself. Animals in no way should be recognized as anything except what they are: dumb beasts with few legal rights compared to humans.

But in the last 20 years, science has made epic leaps of knowledge in our quest to unravel the mysteries of the brain. And the surprising discoveries that have been made challenge our notions of what defines a “person” and whether a select group of animals might qualify under that definition.

We’ve known for decades that chimpanzees share 98.7% of their DNA with humans. More recently, we’ve made the startling discovery that chimps and other great apes are “self-aware” — that they have a sense of individualism and an awareness of their existence in time and space.

But does this mean we should grant animals who demonstrate varying degrees of consciousness and self-awareness binding legal rights? This is more than idle speculative chatter, in that many of these animals are used in science and commerce for experimentation and study. If they are self-aware, does that mean they have free will? And if they are determined to have free will, what right do we have to force them into captivity and use them as we see fit?

These are ethical and scientific questions that we’ve only begun to address. And this weekend at Yale, a conference is underway to wrestle with the question of “What is a person?”

A conference on “Personhood Beyond the Human” will be held at Yale University, on December 6-8 of 2013 . The event will focus on personhood for nonhuman animals, including great apes, cetaceans, and elephants, and will explore the evolving notions of personhood by analyzing them through the frameworks of neuroscience, behavioral science, philosophy, ethics, and law.

The conference will be co-sponsored by the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies in collaboration with the Yale Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics, Yale Animal Ethics Group and endorsed by the Nonhuman Rights Project.

Special consideration will be given to discussions of nonhuman animal personhood, both in terms of understanding the history, science, and philosophy behind personhood, and ways to protect animal interests through the establishment of legal precedents and by increasing public awareness.

By the close of the conference, attendees will have gained an enhanced understanding of the neurological, cognitive, and behavioral underpinnings of personhood and those traits required for such consideration; personhood theory; the history of personhood consideration and status (both in terms of philosophical and legal conceptions); and the legal hurdles and requirements for granting personhood status outside of the human species.

The Nonhuman Rights Project will be presenting some research from the past five years including research on the varying legal causes of action that the Nonhuman Rights Project will use to argue legal personhood for specific nonhuman animals.


The Sensuous Curmudgeon makes the rationalist’s argument:

Animal “personhood” is something we haven’t really thought about — nor do we need to do so. If we accept the premise that an elephant is a person, then it should also have the right to own property, to vote, etc. Because the premise leads to an absurd conclusion, it must be abandoned. Reductio ad absurdum.

The Curmudgeon would be correct — if we were discussing human rights. As far as I can understand this worldwide movement (Spain has granted personhood rights to great apes), this is a special legal classification that stops far short of the slippery slope of voting rights for elephants, but grants some animals a protected legal status.

Is it necessary? Ethical questions about the treatment of sentient, self-aware animals should concern us, but I can’t see the necessity of creating one more protected class of individuals. As a practical matter, it wouldn’t be the animals themselves who would be suing for protection under any statutes that were passed. It would be their human advocates — open to the temptation of using the courts for fundraising, self-aggrandizement, and other selfish pursuits. Conscious though they may be, they are still unable to communicate their wishes to us — at present. Twenty years from now, who knows?

There are laws already on the books to deal with those who mistreat animals. True, they don’t address the fundamental question of whether sentient creatures deserve to decide their own fate regarding their freedom or captivity. But we are just beginning this journey of discovery regarding the secret lives of animals. It may be that someday, attitudes will be forced to change as a result of information revealed that proves animals are more like us than we had previously imagined.