Persons, Personhood, and Primates

Back in December of 2013, Steve Phillips wrote a splendid blog on the legal case in New York that sought to establish rights for non-human primates (specifically, chimpanzees) based upon the concept of personhood. It captured the essence of the issue effectively enough that, with uncharacteristic wisdom and restraint, I felt no need to add to the discussion.

This issue is not, of course, closed to future revisits in the legal system and in the courts of public opinion. It seems there is little need in this forum to warn against the too-speedy dismissal of crackpot ideologies, because such things seem to be quickly codified these days. Legislation and (heaven help us) judicial review gestate the inconceivable into bouncing-baby “settled law” all-too-quickly. The judges in the New York case, not yet ready to jump this shark, unanimously took the prudent view that chimpanzees are not “persons.”

Many would say, “Of course!” This was a case too edgy, too “out there,” to have a chance. I doubt anyone pressing the case ever really thought that its arguments would prevail in the current environment. Its purpose was to create headlines and start to chip away at societal and legal norms. There are hints of the latter already starting with one judge:

“The court transcript reveals a sympathetic jurist. ‘Your impassioned representations to the court are quite impressive,’ Justice Sise said. ‘You make a very strong argument. However, I do not agree with the argument only insofar as Article 70 applies to chimpanzees. Good luck with your venture. I’m sorry I can’t sign the order, but I hope you continue. As an animal lover, I appreciate your work.'”

But around the same time of the court decision, a meeting was going on that ought to have received more coverage. The estimable Dr. Peter Singer, who I have admired for his consistency as I have stridently disagreed with his positions, was the keynote speaker at the “Personhood Beyond the Human Conference,” held this past December at Yale University, and discussed in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. This conference served as a strategy session for making the philosophical and legal case for their understanding of persons and personhood. Its arguments were based on the rejection of speciesism and the embrace of the utilitarian conception of “interests” based on cognition:

“Rejecting speciesism requires equal consideration for similar interests of beings that do, in fact, possess interests, according to Dr. Singer, describing these beings as conscious creatures with subjective awareness and capable of feeling pleasure and pain. He says research supports the notion that elephants, chimpanzees, and dolphins satisfy these standards…”

Using chimpanzees as the animals most like humans for the models in this argument, Singer said “they can serve as bridge over what is now a very wide and deep gulf that we have in our conceptions between humans and nonhuman animals.” The philosophical framework was—and is—in place.

A large part of the legal argument for their case relied upon the wide definitions of “persons” that courts have allowed, perhaps best illustrated recently in the “Hobby Lobby” case where closely-held corporations, it was determined, ought to be granted the rights of the persons who own them. As a small business owner, I support a view that there is a right for my business to reflect the personal morals, objectives and temperaments of me, its driving force and the one in which, in its present form, the business lives or dies. But the philosophical concept of “personhood” is distinct from the legal definition of “person” (whatever one thinks of that), and efforts to conflate the two seem a bit too clever by half. Legally, an unborn fetus may never have the legal protections for, say, free speech that my business does, but that is a legal understanding, not an ontological conception of what sort of beings possess personhood. And, notably, in the United States at least, each definition of “person” includes actual human beings at the center.

Even as Singer and Nonhuman Rights Project founder and president Steven Wise, the leader of the Conference, fused their arguments of what should constitute personhood (again, in their view, the ability to cognitively perceive pain) and the legal idea and precedents for persons, we should on guard of false equivalencies. Even a high view of the moral status of non-human animals (and primates in particular, a view that I hold) can recognize human exceptionalism and the vital significance of true “personhood.” Sometimes we need to separate the lawyers and philosophers, and know that some very bright people, like Dr. Singer and Mr. Wise, will seek to blur definitions across different disciplines to advance their cause.

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Mark McQuain
Mark McQuain

Nicely summarized.

It is troublesome that any portion of the Venn diagram of a circle representing human beings can be drawn outside of the circles representing either personhood (ontologically) or person (legally). Until those philosophical issues and legal matters are rectified, I remain frustrated by those like Singer and Wise who wish to debate the relative location of any other circles representing non-human beings.