This guest post was written by Dr. Jennifer Byrne, associate professor at James Madison University.
The issue of granting animals rights under the law has been particularly salient world-wide in the past few years. For example, Spain has granted personhood rights to apes, meaning that they cannot be used in entertainment or confined to captivity beyond those that already have homes in zoos. India has granted similar personhood rights to dolphins. Now, the United States is in the spotlight of this debate. Steven Wise, scholar of animal rights at Harvard Law School, contends that some animals, especially primates, meet the criteria for legal personhood. This means that these apes and other select animals, including dolphins, gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans, parrots and elephants, would be awarded legal protections and be free from what Wise characterizes as “serious infringements upon their bodily integrity and liberty” (2000). Though Wise has written extensively on this subject, in December 2013, he took the first steps of legal action and filed three petitions in New York State Courts on behalf of captive chimpanzees as President of the Nonhuman Rights Project. The Nonhuman Rights Project is a unique organization in that it is the only group that is fighting for legal rights for non-human species. Wise argues that complex and intelligent animals share the same abilities and emotions that humans do, such as living in complex societies, possessing and transmitting a shared culture, the ability to communicate, the ability to solve complicated problems, and the ability to love and feel loss (such as the mourning of loved ones). Therefore, they are entitled to rights under the law, should not be treated as property, and do not exist for human entertainment or consumption.
The case, which will appear in the NY State Supreme Court on May 27th, 2015 at 10:30 AM, involves two chimps, Hercules and Leo, who are research chimpanzees at Stony Brook University. Wise and his colleagues will argue the case using a common law writ of habeas corpus, which allows a petitioner to challenge their detention as unlawful. If granted, then Hercules and Leo will be freed from biomedical experimentation at the research lab and sent to a sanctuary called Save the Chimps in Ft. Pierce, Florida, that has frequently served as a retirement home to chimpanzees that were used for medical research. The writ of habeas corpus has been used in the past to give human beings, such as slaves, rights that were denied to them under the law when they were classified as property. Under the law, chimpanzees and other animals are currently considered property or “things,” which means that they lack any rights, but Wise’s team wants to change the common law status of some nonhuman animals to personhood. However, critics of Wise argue that it is inherently unfair to give rights to only certain groups of animals just because they are intelligent. Though Wise’s approach would arguably disrupt the species “barrier,” his argument confers moral value based on the basis of mental complexity rather than sentience alone, excluding most species from these legal protections.
Additional criticisms of the animal rights movement more broadly, such as those levied by British philosopher Roger Scruton, who argues that rights imply responsibilities (2000). Scruton contends that animals are unable to enter a social contract, and cannot have duties; thus, rights are something unique to the human species. Aristotle argued that animals lack the ability to reason and consequently humans were at the top of the natural order (Linzey and Clark 2004; Sorabji 1995). Another body of criticism comes from a utilitarian or rational approach to animal rights, which means that we must consider the consequences of our actions as it pertains to the welfare of animals, but also of the benefits for humans. Though the animal welfare approach takes animal suffering into account, the utilitarian nature of this approach means that potential benefits to humans may outweigh any adverse effects that actions have on animals (Regan 2004). For example, one may argue that the discomfort, or even pain, experienced by animals in laboratory test settings may be justified as vital to find cures for painful or terminal diseases for humans. Finally, there is the question of whether it is ethical to be concerned with the rights of animals as long as there is human suffering in the world. Noted primatologist and activist Jane Goodall has acknowledged that, “Anyone who tries to improve the lives of animals invariably comes in for criticism from those who believe those efforts are misplaced in a world of suffering humanity” (2000; 217).
In looking at the 8 Key Questions, one can easily see how the issue of rights applies. Do nonhuman animals have any rights under the law? This refers to rights in the legal sense, but we can also ask whether nonhuman animals have any innate or inherent rights, such as those thought to be granted to people by a deity or deities. Humans are also thought to have a basic right to dignity, but does this apply to any nonhuman animals, or perhaps to all of them? When we talk about issues of fairness, we must question whether it is just for us to grant legal rights to some animals and not others based on human ideas of intelligence, attractiveness, and feasibility. Granting rights to some nonhuman animals, such as Hercules and Leo, will involve questions of liberty, as granting a writ of habeas corpus will grant them a degree of liberty, to be free from captivity. Finally, we must also ask ourselves whether humans have any responsibilities to nonhuman animals, and if so, what? Can you think of other ways that the 8 Key Questions apply to this particular case? Which of the 8 Key Questions would you apply to come to a decision on the case?
For more information, visit the Nonhuman Rights Project’s website.