Short Take: Monkey In The Middle

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.

58 thoughts on “Short Take: Monkey In The Middle

  1. Norahc

    If chimps are found to have rights, then it won’t be long before some are elected to public office….

    Oh wait, too late.

        1. SHG Post author

          Have a cup or two, focus on the coffee rather than the cleft, then give it another go. I have faith in you.

  2. Richard Kopf


    Fun facts about modern philosophy plus a warning:

    The first modern philosopher, the acclaimed Rene Descartes, didn’t believe animals had souls and could not feel pain as they lacked human consciousness. Animals were machines. To test his theory, he nailed his wife’s dog to a board and chopped it open while the pup was still alive.

    Beware of middling philosophers bearing monkeys.

    All the best.


    1. SHG Post author

      With a few prime adjectives, a good philospher can turn any animal into a gourmet meal.

      –Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche

      1. Richard Kopf


        Perhaps having words with Kiko and Tommy would be a suitable substitute. Or, perhaps, I misread your intent.

        All the best.


  3. Erik H.

    under current United States law, one is either a “person” or a “thing.” There is no third option.
    Although I hate to inject facts into this, this statement isn’t really accurate as applied. Many animals, including chimps, are in a special category. It’s hard to give credence to an argument which rests in part on such an argument.

    A pet snake is a “thing.” If you decide you’d like to eat it or dissect it, you’re welcome to do so.

    A dog is not a person…but a dog is not merely personal property. Unlike a snake or a garden hose, you can legally be stripped of ownership or even jailed for mistreating your dog, which puts it in a special category of protection.

    A chimp is not a person, but they are even more protected than dogs. You can’t even own one unless you have special permission, and if you manage to acquire one, you are subject to a host of specific laws designed to protect the chimp above and beyond the level of a dog.

    These folks think those laws are inadequate–which may be correct–but they are wrong to ignore the different treatment. This isn’t a black and white situation.

    1. SHG Post author

      But it’s not that dogs have special rights. It’s just another reason to imprison people. Dogs, et al., may not be chattels anymore, but not because they’re persons. It’s just because they’re beloved and adorable. Don’t give it more thought than it deserves.

      1. Erik H.

        How can I not give my puppy a lot of thought when he is, right now, looking at me all cute-like and asking, in his mournful puppy way “don’t I get rights too? Why does SHG hate me?”


          1. Mike G.

            Never tried fried puppies. Now Cats scattered, smothered and chunked on the other hand, it’s the bomb.

          2. Casual Lurker

            …”I love puppies. Especially fried”.

            Many years ago, when I still had teaching responsibilities, I would use a similar line with parents on the annual “bring your kid to work” day. (At the time, someone with authority thought it was a good idea to allow young children into the lab area).

            Often, their sticky-fingered offspring would start pawing everything in the neurobiology lab within arms reach — a place filled with plenty of dangerous and toxic materials. — After much yelling to “put that down”, the parent usually asks something along the lines of “why don’t you like children?” The stock reply was “hey, I have the heart of a child!…… It’s right here in this jar”. (Grabbing a Formaldehyde-filled jar with some bio-matter in it). The horrified look was priceless.

            My second favorite, before the parent could get a word out, is to look the child right in the eye and say “so you’re the new test subject, eh? Have a seat right next to that ECT machine”. (Said with a perfectly straight face).

            The child, not knowing what an ECT machine is, dutifully starts walking over. The parent, with a look that says “Nooooo! Not my Johnny!”, usually says something like “this was a mistake!”, while trying to grab their kid and exit.

            Yes, half-ass, but effective behavior modification. In subsequent years, suffice to say, the recidivism rate was near zero.

            On only a slightly more serious note, as the New York Times accurately pointed out*, when a dog appears to be smiling**, it’s “an expression that actually indicates that the creature is scared or worried“.

            The problem is we humans view most creatures through our own, very narrow lens of what constitutes intelligent (or, at least, sentient) life, and tend to anthropomorphize most living creatures. Unfortunately, it’s only when someone starts to anthropomorphize non-living objects that I get to strongly recommend (Rx) our “top shelf” happy juice. 😉

            While there are different measures of intelligence (too long to get into), on several survival-relevant, problem solving scales, pigs are significantly smarter than dogs. With that in mind, I’ll leave you with a Winston Churchill quote:

            “A dog will look up to you, a cat will look down at you, but the pig will always think of you as his equal”.

            If you have any doubts, just ask Arnold Ziffel:

            *Twice a day, even a broken clock…

            **New York Times
            March 27, 2018
            “Is This Dog Actually Happy?”

            (No, I haven’t forgotten the link rule. It’s solely for your convenience).

    2. Kevin Schneider

      You are categorically wrong. Simply being an endangered species, or being covered by a welfare law, or any other statute, does not create rights or personhood for any nonhuman animal. Every single nonhuman animal in the world is considered a legal “thing” no matter what your sentiments for them, dogs, elephants, and chimpanzees included. If you don’t believe this, read any legal decision dealing with the wrongful death of a dog or cat. There is no “third option,” you’re a thing or a person (as corporations have been for hundreds of years under common law). The only exception thus far, it would appear, is in Argentina, where a chimpanzee named Cecilia was declared a “persona non humana” and sent to a sanctuary in response to a writ of habeas corpus (or its functional equivalent in Argentina, and Amparo) in November, 2016.

      1. SHG Post author

        I don’t think Erik meant it to be taken as an official “third category,” but rather to raise the problem that if a dog is a thing, then its owner should be entitled to do with it as he pleases without consequence. If we can abuse our other possessions to our heart’s content, but not our pets, then they may still be “things,” but things of a different nature than other “things.”

  4. wilbur

    That the NYT would print this load of … intellectual drippings reflects worse on them than the ol’ philosopher himself.

    As my first wife used to say “Que come mierda!”

  5. Nigel Declan

    While I am a staunch defender of due process, this seems like a case where a form decision to the effect of “Maybe you should be talking to a different branch of government” might be in order.

      1. Bruce Godfrey

        Because hate speech is murder, you have just killed Kiko & Tommy with your abusive use of the “b-word”. A tasteless appropriation of chimp person culture.

  6. Jyjon

    If you accept the premise that species is just a social construct

    That is the whole problem with the argument.
    Species is a scientific classification, not social construct.
    Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species.

    The schools really need to teach science properly. This crap these teachers spew and call science is Rediculus.

    1. CAB

      Scientific classifications are social constructs. Otherwise, you are arguing that scientific classifications–here, Linnaean taxonomy–have an existence unto themselves, “out there” in reality and independent of human thought, and did not need to be invented by humans. By this understanding, there would be no other, possible way to organize life-forms besides the Linnaean system; it would be like claiming that there is an alternative to breathing or to gravity (or, well, whatever that thing is that makes things fall that we humans understand through the concept of gravity). But this is patently absurd. We know that Linnaean taxonomy had to be invented, because we know who invented it and when: Carl Linnaeas in 1751. We also know that there are other ways to organize life-forms. Aristotle wrote a taxonomy that was very different from Linnaeas’.

      The “whole problem” with the argument isn’t accepting the premise that species is “just” a social construct. It’s assuming that, since species (like all scientific classifications) is a social construct–i.e. a humanly created way for organizing reality, so that we humans can deal with reality predictably and meaningfully–the distinction we’ve drawn between humans and chimpanzees is necessarily a meaningless one. We can admit that humans created systems for organizing reality and still acknowledge that we created them (at least in part) to deal with differences that we actually did encounter within reality.

      (It’s definitely the fault of the academy that this is so muddled. A lot of my fellow sociologists and scholars in the humanities throw the term “social construct” around in wildly irresponsible ways that fail to recognize that social constructs do, indeed, have to have some relation to the real world. Although I’m glad he did, since it is a useful theoretical frame, I can understand why Peter Berger’s said that he regrets ever coining the term.)

      1. SHG Post author

        An excellent explanation, and point, about the irresponsible use of the phrase to conflate constructs that reflect organized reality with arbitrary constructs.

      2. Charles

        There is great irony in your claim that “the distinction we’ve drawn between humans and chimpanzees is necessarily a meaningless one” is followed by the sentence, “We can admit that humans created systems for organizing reality and still acknowledge that we created them (at least in part) to deal with differences that we actually did encounter within reality.”

        1. CAB

          Perhaps I should have written that sentence without the explanatory clause in the middle. Those two sentences therefore would have read: “The ‘whole problem’ with the argument isn’t accepting the premise that species is ‘just’ a social construct. It’s assuming that, since species (like all scientific classifications) is a social construct, the distinction we’ve drawn between humans and chimpanzees is necessarily a meaningless one.”

          I hope this clarifies.

    1. SHG Post author

      Pretty much the same as when your son is expelled from college for sexually assaulting a chimp.

  7. Skink

    I’m a busy lawyer. I have a dog. She digs me, so I tried to get her to help out. No go–all she wanted to do was lick clients. I’ve seen them. I wouldn’t. But, if this works, I think I can teach a monkey to do my work. I’m thinking the 9th Circuit.

    1. Billy Bob

      Just beeecause you say you are a busy lawyer, does not mean you are a “busy lawyer”. We know your type! (Busy like bees, much ado about nothing! Taking more honey/money out of the comb/safe box than you put in.)
      You bill by the minute,… and in your sleep. And we’re not talking Billary Clintons, those crooks. You do not kneed a dog to lick your clients. They [your stewpid, decrepit clients] lick themselves–into the proverbial corner–aka “brought it upon themselves,” as a disgusting, miscreant lawyer recently told me, BB, recently. Say what?!? What are you talking about? I hate you lawyers, truly, I do. You dress funny, act funny, talkz all over us nonstop and are always hanging outside courtrooms trying to attract future clients from the pool of desperate misbegotten on earth. (To hell with current and past clients! They can wait?)

      Do you guys ever bathe? Ninth Circuit, what’s that? A Beatle’s song just discovered in somebody’s basement! John Lennon-breath-of-fresh-air. Finally, nine lives are better than nine dogs, or nine chimps, if you catch my drift? Better dayz are comin’, or my name is not BB.

  8. KP

    They might just get this through before we have to tackle the personhood of artificial intelligence and the robots..

    ..and the genetic engineering that will combine humans and animals, or humans and machines. I mean, will a person with a pig’s pancrease any less human because he’s part animal?? What if they had pig DNA inserted to overcome some genetic disorder?

    So much to work on!

    1. Casual Lurker

      “I have met a few people who were borderline things”.

      That explains a lot with regard to your diorama. 😉

  9. Billy Bob

    Okay HAL-breath. We were wondering,… if you like to become a screenwriter for our next sequel to 2000 and One, a “Space Catastrophe Second to N0ne”? Artificial intelligence(s), so-called, have no rights. And neither do r0b0ts… Only warm-blooded animals, including whales in the ocean, have rights. And if those rights are violated,… well, let me say this about that: Go see the new movie Cappaquiddick, and draw you own conclusions–as if any were necessary and/or sufficient. Irregardless, to you, Mr. SHG, notwithstanding.

    2001 A Spaced-Out Movie was the greatest, but I’m dating myself like a Shakespearean thespian, whatever that is! Help me, Judge?

    1. Billy Bob

      Did not think you would really post my rants from last nite. Am very sorry this morning.
      Look, I have to go to court this morning without the help of any lawyer. The local nonprofit legal services rejected my pleas for help. (Their funds are limited and they cannot take every case.) Consequently, I have to stand there and represent myself. Not to worry, we’ve learned a few tricks over the years, some of them from this very blawg site.

      While preparing myself for this important day, we may have imbibed to excess, which explains the nonsense above. Oh, and the plaintiff is unrepresented as well. How weird is that? Lawyers, lawyers everywhere, but none are ever available. Go figure! We want lawyers without borders, and perhaps an emergency room for lawyers. You herd it hear first.
      Yes, I know this is all “off-topic.”

      1. SHG Post author

        I can be a benevolent dictator at times. Hope all goes well for you Bill. Protip: Don’t call the judge “x-breath.”

  10. PseudonymousKid

    Dear Papa,

    Be careful what questions you ask. Life is precious as far as anyone can tell, so the reasons we slaughter animals without pause aren’t very clear or as you might say “principled.” These nonhuman rights people are probably correct. The more ethical life is with a plant-based diet. God help those of us already tainted by chicken wings; we might already be lost.

    The vegans were right all along. Damnit.


    1. SHG Post author

      There is a food chain, PK. Whether we’re at its top or not is a debatable, but nature is cruel as anyone who has watched a lion take down a beautiful gazelle. Domesticated animals may hold a dear place in our hearts, explaining why cruelty to them has been acceptably criminalized even though they are no less chattel than any other critter, but humans were meant to be carnivores, and are no less hungry than the lion. It’s brutal, but its natural.

      Don’t feel badly about eating bacon. It’s delicious. There are somethings in life that we must do and shouldn’t think too hard about. Save the thinking for things that we ought not do instead.

      1. PseudonymousKid

        Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart, and the fall through the air of the true, wise friend called Piggy.

        Are we humans or animals or savages? I don’t know. That helps me make it through OK.

        1. SHG Post author

          We struggle enough not to be savages to ourselves, and fail too often. There’s a reason he was called “piggy” and not “chimp.”

  11. David

    Re “But if we free the chimps, because they’re “persons” and you can’t keep persons in cages, …”

    I take it this was your characteristically subtle way of noting that right now the persons we do keep in cages (prisoners, immigration and other detainees, etc.) are thus treated more like unpersons than persons…

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