Mainstreaming “Animal Personhood”

Original Article

Complacency is cultural subversion’s best friend. You know what I mean: When a radical proposal is voiced, people chuckle and roll their eyes, believing that it can’t happen here, saying, “What will they think of next?”

Thus, when the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals sued Sea World claiming that its orcas were “slaves” because they are kept in captivity, the typical public response was a bemused, “There they go again.”

Yes, PETA lost that lawsuit. But Sea World’s legal victory was predicated on a finding that whales cannot be “slaves” because they are not “persons.” As the judge noted, an 1864 definition described slavery as “the state of entire subjugation of one person to the will of another.”

That may sound like a rock solid defense. Animals cannot be declared illegally held slaves. But what would happen if some highly intelligent animals—such as, say, dolphins, pigs, dogs, elephants and/or chimpanzees—were ruled by a court to be persons? Not only would such animals be deemed to suffer from proscribed involuntary servitude; it would accord these “non-human persons” legally enforceable rights.

That is why we should be alarmed at the vigor with which animal personhood is being promoted in professional journals in the august fields of law, politics, science, and bioethics. So what, you say? Let radicals bloviate. Animal personhood will never be adopted through democratic means.

That’s almost surely true, and animal rights activists know it. That is why they are seeking to attain their goal by court fiat.

Such attempts are already being made. In addition to PETA’s case against Sea World, some years ago an environmental activist brought a lawsuit in the name of the world’s “Cetacean Community” to protect whales from navy sonar tests. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that whales and dolphins lacked standing to sue because they are not “persons.” More recently, several cases were filed in New York, seeking to have chimpanzees declared persons. Those cases also failed, but received a friendly reception in the courts.

This continual litigation strategy signifies the danger posed by advocates for animal personhood within the intelligentsia. Lacking explicit statutes authorizing the definition of animals as persons, judges may treat such cases as “matters of first impression.” In such circumstances, having no law to interpret, judges often turn for help to the professional literature and the testimony of “experts.”

This is why I am so worried by the increasing efforts in the professional literature and at symposia in support of animal personhood. For example, a few years ago, the prestigious American Association for the Advancement of Science featured an expert presentation in support of the Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans, which included theretofore exclusive human concepts such as the “right to life” and to the right not to be held “in a condition of captivity or servitude.” The basis for according these animals human-type rights? Whales and dolphins exhibit attributes of moral personhood.

This thinking is even being promoted in the field of international relations. Last year, Steven Wise, head of the Nonhuman Rights Project—who sued unsuccessfully in New York to have chimpanzees granted writs of habeas corpus—was given space in the prestigious Foreign Relations to argue that some animals are persons and, hence, deserving of “rights” beyond the usual welfare and anti-cruelty protections.

As is typical of animal rights fanatics, he misanthropically equates the treatment of animals with human slavery. From, “Animal Rights, Animal Wrongs”:

The roots of the animal rights movement do not lie in the anti-cruelty legislation of the nineteenth century; they reach deeper into the worldwide antislavery movements that began in the eighteenth century and flowered into the broad international human rights movement of the twentieth century.

Racists used to call African-Americans slaves akin to animals. Do that today and there would be a righteous outcry. But Wise and his fellow travelersmake the very same equation by shifting the terms the other way around—that animals are akin to human slaves—and it is published with all due respect inForeign Affairs.

The Great Ape Project, a policy initiative of Princeton bioethics professor Peter Singer and Italian philosopher Paola Cavalieri argues that all great apes—a category that explicitly includes us as well as chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas—are members of a “community of equals” entitled to (in a parody of the Declaration of Independence) the “right to life,” the right to individual liberty,” and the “prohibition of torture.”

The GAP is not a fringe movement of little known kooks. In addition to Singer—perhaps the world’s best known bioethicist—endorsers include the biologist and atheist proselytizer Richard Dawkins and world renowned primatologist Jane Goodall, who argues:

“[W]e should respect the individual ape just as we should respect the individual human; that we should recognize the right of each ape to live a life unmolested by humans, if necessary helped by humans, in the same way we should recognize these rights for individual human beings; and that the same ethical and moral attitudes should apply to ape beings and human beings alike.”

The growing support for animal personhood among the opinion shapers in science, philosophy, politics, law, media, and popular culture, are indicators of how deeply the subversive notion of animal rights and animal personhood have permeated the highest strata of the power structure. Perhaps even more alarmingly, as advocacy for animal personhood has proliferated, defenders of human exceptionalism rarely find voice in intellectual discourse, and certainly publish few articles in the popular media.

Perhaps it goes back to the complacency I referenced at the beginning of this essay, a belief that the unique value of human life is so obvious that it requires no defense. If so, that is a potentially catastrophic philosophical Maginot Line. Unless those who understand the importance of human exceptionalism engage in continual and vigorous pushback, we shouldn’t be surprised if a court one day declares that a chimpanzee or a whale is entitled to legal personhood and equal rights.

You think it will never happen? The transition from human rights to “person rights” has already commenced. In December 2014, an Argentine court declared an orangutan to be a person and granted the animal a writ of habeas corpus.

Wesley J. Smith

Chair and Senior Fellow, Center on Human Exceptionalism
Wesley J. Smith is Chair and Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism. Wesley is a contributor to National Review and is the author of 14 books, in recent years focusing on human dignity, liberty, and equality. Wesley has been recognized as one of America’s premier public intellectuals on bioethics by National Journal and has been honored by the Human Life Foundation as a “Great Defender of Life” for his work against suicide and euthanasia. Wesley’s most recent book is Culture of Death: The Age of “Do Harm” Medicine, a warning about the dangers to patients of the modern bioethics movement.