The Personhood Problem

This week, a New York judge dismissed a case seeking to free and grant personhood to two chimpanzees being used in studies by Stoney Brook University. Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Barbara Jaffe issued a thirty-three page document outlining the reasoning behind her decision. A higher court had ruled on a similar case last year, so she was bound to follow suite.

The Nonhuman Rights Project, who sought to free these chimps, made arguments for personhood based on their powers of cognition and “their similarity to humans in DNA composition, communication, and self-awareness.”

There is more at stake with these kinds of decision than the rights of nonhuman animals, however. The kinds of arguments used to grant personhood to nonhuman animals also run the risk of questioning and potentially even removing the status of personhood from some humans. If we are to follow these kinds of criterion for personhood, we risk alienating young children, the elderly, and the disabled from having personhood.

Animal rights and pro-choice activists often have a similar list of qualifications for personhood that, either intentionally or unintentionally, exclude some people from personhood. In her famous argument against granting personhood to fetuses, Marry Anne Warren cites five necessary conditions for personhood:

1. Consciousness

2. Reasoning

3. Self-Motivated Activity

4. The Capacity to Communicate

5. Self-Awareness

If a being fails to meet any of one these criteria, Warren argues, that being is not a person. While her argument was designed to prove that a fetus is not a person, it is also strikingly similar to the arguments used by the Nonhuman Rights Project. Additionally, if this logic is followed, not only are some animals persons, but some humans are not persons, and these groups are already the most vulnerable in our society, especially the elderly and the disabled.

As much as I sympathize for animals used in research and kept in poor conditions, I have a responsibility as a Christian to “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow,” (Isaiah 1:17 ESV).

How can I address injustices toward animals without promoting logic that excludes some people from personhood? Is it possible to balance these two causes, or must one fall in favour of the other?

Leave a Reply

Please Login to comment
  Subscribe  
Notify of