The New Conversation about Persons
When the Nonhuman Rights Project filed its first three lawsuits earlier this month, inviting judges in New York State to recognize four captive chimpanzees as “legal persons” with the right to bodily liberty, we were not expecting to set off a worldwide conversation.
But that’s exactly what’s happened – hundreds of articles, posts, comments, videos, chat sessions, conferences and general discussions in dozens of countries.
While the legal cases work their way through the higher courts over the coming months, it seems that this new conversation is one whose time has come. Our relationship, as humans, with our fellow animals is so damaged that few issues could be more important than how we relate to the natural world in the years ahead.
No surprise, however, that as soon as you raise the question of what rights, if any, nonhuman animals should have, the usual suspects jump into the conversation, all upset and apparently confused by how "those animal rights nuts want to give human rights to chimpanzees" – as if any of us said anything about human rights for nonhumans. Or pompous assertions about how "With rights come responsibilities" – intoned by self-styled experts who haven't a clue what they're talking about. Wherever it originates, human exceptionalism is an arrogance rooted not in superiority but in deep anxiety.
Leading the way are those who believe in human exceptionalism – the notion that humans are essentially superior to all other animals and that those other animals exist primarily for our benefit.
Exceptionalism comes in many flavors: from the religious right, with its claims of having been granted "dominion" over the Earth; to those on the technological left who worship human progress and talk of giving other animals the "gift" of being "uplifted" so they can become as "intelligent" as we are.
Wherever it originates, this kind of arrogance is rooted not in superiority but in deep anxiety. In an urgent press release this week, a group called Personhood USA warned that recognition of chimpanzees as persons "denigrates the value of human life."
Likewise, an opinion column in the Boston Globe argued that:
At some point, the elevation of the moral and philosophical status of animals as “persons” can lead to the diminishment of humans as persons.
Even some of the supposedly best legal, scientific and moral thinkers of our time would deny any rights to nonhuman animals. Professor Richard Epstein, described as one of the top legal thinkers in America, has written:
“We should not undermine, as would surely be the case, the liberty and dignity of human beings by treating animals as their moral equals and legal peers.”
And in the journal Nature (p.675, 2000) Kenan Malik wrote:
“The real impact of the campaign for rights for apes is to diminish rights for humans.”
Really? Is our sense of self-worth so fragile that recognizing any other animals as "persons" instantly diminishes us as humans? Does our right to liberty really depend upon denying liberty to others? Does giving rights to others reduce our own rights? And was Abraham Lincoln, therefore, so completely wrong when he said:
“In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free.”
A hundred years ago, male exceptionalists were all upset over the emancipation of women, and 50 years ago over the idea of civil rights. Now here they are again, all prickly and insecure at the idea of a chimpanzee having the right not to spend her life imprisoned in a cage.
To be fair, all of us humans feel a bit vulnerable at the idea of seeing ourselves as naked, mortal animals. As anthropologist Ernest Becker wrote in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Denial of Death:
[Man is] ... a creator with a mind that soars out to speculate about atoms and infinity ... This immense expansion, this dexterity, this ethereality, this self-consciousness gives to man literally the status of a small god in nature.
Yet, at the same time ... man is a worm and food for worms. This is the paradox: he is out of nature and hopelessly in it ... He has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order blindly and dumbly to rot and disappear forever.
Becker explained that “all culture, all man’s creative life-ways are in some basic part of them a fabricated protest against natural reality, a denial of the truth of the human condition and an attempt to forget the pathetic creature that man is.” The conversation that's now begun about nonhumans as persons could be one of the most important we will have in the 21st Century. The conversation that's now beginning about nonhumans as persons could be one of the most important we will have in the 21st Century.
Our attempts to deny our own animal nature and to try to separate ourselves from our fellow animals have led to the disastrous relationship we now have with the rest of the natural world – to the point where we've now set in motion a Sixth Great Extinction that's unfolding even faster than the one 65 million years ago that wiped out the dinosaurs and 75 percent of all other species on the planet.
How do we get out of this mess? The answer is, for sure, not to buttress our fantasies about being masters of the universe. We'd do better to reach out to our fellow animals with some level of acceptance and humility, and to recognize that they have at least as much right to life as we do.
The conversation that's now starting about nonhumans as persons could be one of the most important we will have in the 21st Century. We're already way behind in coming to grips with the enormous challenges we'll be facing in the coming years. To accept that our closest relatives, the great apes, have the right to live their lives as something other than our imprisoned slaves would be a promising first outcome of the conversation that's now begun.