The Rights of a Nonhuman Person
What rights might a chimpanzee or a dolphin have when we consider these nonhumans as persons with the capacity for legal rights. Eric Michael Johnson writes about this in his “Primate Blogs” at Scientific American:
Americans take their rights seriously. But there is a lot of misunderstanding about what actually constitutes a ‘right.’ Religious believers are correct that they have a right to freely express their beliefs. …
… However, as a result, devout believers feel it is a violation of their rights when intelligent design creationism is forbidden in the classroom or when prayer during school sporting events is banned.
This, he explains, is where we begin to misunderstand the nature of legal rights.
… The key point is that rights are obligations that require governments to act in certain ways and refrain from acting in others. The First Amendment obligates the government to protect the rights of all citizens from an establishment of religion. You may have the right to freely exercise your beliefs, but that doesn’t give you the right to impose your views on others in public school.
Having explained that “rights are obligations that require governments to act in certain ways and refrain from acting in other ways,” Johnson then delves into what kind of rights would be appropriate to certain nonhumans like chimpanzees and dolphins. They wouldn’t have the right to vote or attend public school since these are specifically human rights that pertain to persons who are part of human society. But as part of the wider society of living beings, primate and cetacean persons would have, for example, the right to liberty, which would obligate governments to protect them from slaughter or abuse.
Johnson points out that the courts have never equated being a person with being a human.
Dating back to the 1600s, corporations were viewed as “artificial persons,” a legal turn of phrase that offered certain rights to the companies but without the full rights of citizens.
And he notes the rather odious decision of the Supreme Court case in 1894 (Lockwood, Ex Parte 154 U.S. 116) where the court ruled that it was up to the states “to determine whether the word ‘person’ as therein used [in the statute] is confined to males, and whether women are admitted to practice law in that commonwealth.”
No nonhuman animal has ever yet been recognized by a court as a person. But there’s a growing drumbeat toward knocking down the legal wall that separates all humans from all other animals. Their time is surely coming.
Read the whole article here.