Is there any group of academics friendlier than philosophers?
In February, a group of philosophers, including me, submitted an amicus curiae brief to the New York Court of Appeals in support of legal personhood for Kiko and Tommy. (Members of the group contributed to this article as well.) The court is considering whether to allow the case to proceed.
Kiko? Tommy? They’re philosophers’ friends too.
The Nonhuman Rights Project does. Since 2013, the group has been working on behalf of two chimpanzees, Kiko and Tommy, currently being held in cages by their “owners” without the company of other chimpanzees. It is asking the courts to rule that Kiko and Tommy have the right to bodily liberty and to order their immediate release into a sanctuary where they can live out the rest of their lives with other chimpanzees.
That’s right, Kiko and Tommy are chimps, and chimpanzees are not humans. But are they “persons”?
The problem is that under current United States law, one is either a “person” or a “thing.” There is no third option. If you are a person, you have the capacity for rights, including the right to habeas corpus relief, which protects you from unlawful confinement. If you are a thing, you do not have the capacity for rights. And unfortunately, even though they are sensitive, intelligent, social beings, Kiko and Tommy are considered things under the law.
In response, the Nonhuman Rights Project is taking a bold position: It is arguing that if every being must be either a person or a thing, then Kiko and Tommy are persons, not things. I agree, and many other philosophers do, too.
See? Are philosophers friendly or what? The rationale is that chimps possess certain intellectual abilities that make them more than mere “things.”
There is nothing special about species in and of themselves. They are morally arbitrary taxonomic categories. There is a great deal of variability within species, similarity among species and change in species over time.
The not-too-subtle undercurrent is that the dismissal of chimps as “persons” mirrors the rationalization for treating some of our own species as subhuman in the past.
Yet while humans might not have moral or legal duties when we lack these abilities, we can clearly still have moral and legal rights. This is why many judges and legal experts now rightly reject this exclusionary view of personhood as fundamentally at odds with contemporary standards of human rights.
But now suppose we accept a more inclusive view of personhood, according to which humans are persons because we have some or all of the features mentioned before: conscious experience, emotionality, a sense of self or bonds of care or interdependence. This view is more plausible than the opposing view, in part because it includes all humans within the scope of personhood.
If you are willing to consider your baby, or grandpa, humans, and all they do is drool and make incomprehensible sounds all day long, why not chimps? If you accept the premise that species is just a social construct, then aren’t chimps just grandpa after senility takes hold? And you still love grandpa, provided he doesn’t give you that disgusting wet kiss, right?
Of course, the notion raises “difficult” questions. If chimps have the right to liberty, what other rights do they get? And if chimps are “persons,” why not pigs, or dogs. or that delicious chicken?
These questions are unsettling. They are also reasonable to ask. After all, we might think that we need to draw the line somewhere. So if we decide not to draw the line at species membership — if we decide to accept that at least some nonhumans can have at least some rights — then it is not immediately clear where to draw it instead, or even, on reflection, whether to draw this particular kind of line at all.
But does our inability to have clear answers mean we shouldn’t ask reasonable questions? Have we learned nothing from our own experience?
[T]he fact that a question is reasonable is not a justification for doubling down on our current answer. Some lines need to be either redrawn or eliminated. The history of human rights struggles (to say nothing of contemporary human rights struggles) is evidence enough of that.
But if we free the chimps, because they’re “persons” and you can’t keep persons in cages, will their philosopher friends take them in, give them a bed to sleep in, food to eat? Jeff Sebo’s argument isn’t entirely off-the-wall, but being a very friendly guy isn’t sufficient to overcome the 800-pound gorilla in the room; they’re chimpanzees.