"'Non-Human Animal' Personhood and the IEET"

Dianne N. Irving
Copyright May 28, 2011
Reproduced with Permission

"Non-Human Animal" Personhood and the IEET


If you think that only human beings should be defined as "persons", think again. If you think that only a tiny minority of people agree that apes and chickens are "persons", think again.

Given the current efforts globally to secure "personhood" for all human beings, whether sexually or asexually reproduced, the persistent and very influential efforts of those like transhumanists, futurists, eugenicists, genetic engineers, and animal rights advocates to secure "personhood" for non-human animals should not be overlooked. A perfect example is the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET). (How do they define "ethics"??).

A. "Personhood" and Peter Singer

There is nothing more that these proponents of non-human "personhood" and of human "non-personhood" would like better than to have prolife "personhood" bills and other legal documents define "person" in ways that would at least "include" non-human animals. Example: if "person" is defined as "including all human beings" -- where human persons are included but the legal door is left open for non-human persons to be "included" as well. Or: "Person" is defined simply as a "rational animal" -- where Singer et al could argue that many non-human animals are even more "rational" than many adult human beings - and thus are "persons" too. This is why "personhood" legislation needs to be very careful to include the qualifier "human". "Human personhood" should be the goal - not simply "personhood".

The following description of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET) website and its contents (copied below) should suffice to explain better than I why the current "personhood" movement must use the qualifier, "human". It should also suffice to explain why "human personhood" should be based on the nature or the kind of thing a human being is -- not on mere adult capacities or functions, which themselves are simply powers that depend upon and flow from that very human nature. The IEET is essentially following in Peter Singer's footsteps (who is essentially following in Descartes' footsteps), and defining "person" only in terms of certain adult functions and activities. Singer is a "preference" utilitarian, one of several forms of international bioethics. He has long defined "person" only in terms of the active exercising of "rational attributes" and/or "sentience". "Rational attributes" include autonomy, consciousness, knowing, willing, thinking, relating to the world around one, etc. "Sentience" includes the ability to feel pain and pleasure. Singer et al conclude that, given this definition of "person", even some adult human beings are not "persons", but some non-human animals are "persons" -- and "persons" alone deserve legal rights and protections.

B. Consequences of "Non-human" Personhood

Note that Singer's and the IEET's definition of "non-human animal" persons inherently includes denying "personhood" to many young and adult human beings. One automatically goes with the other. Can't have one without the other. We are not just talking about feeling sorry for poor abused animals here or "saving the Species".

Note too that, as Singerites have long acknowledged, the following list of human beings are not "persons" according to their definition: the unborn, young born children, drug addicts, alcoholics, the mentally disabled (e.g., those with Down's Syndrome, the mentally ill, the mentally retarded), the physically disabled (e.g., paraplegics, those with nerve disorders, etc.), the comatose, patients undergoing surgery using anesthetics, etc. None of these human beings are actively exercising "rational attributes" or "sentience". (And as Bishop Mersenne jocularly rejected Descartes' similar definition of "person" centuries ago, "that would even include Descartes while he was sleeping!" And, that would even include Peter Singer while he was sleeping!

Consider also that, if none of the innocent living human beings just noted above are not "persons", then they can be killed, mutilated, raped, enslaved, used in experimental research "for the greater good of society", be euthanized, have their organs removed for transplantation, etc. If these human beings are not "persons", then let the imagination roll. They are just "biological materials" that could "ethically" be used by real persons for a myriad of transhumanist, futurist, eugenic purposes. The IEET website contains exhausting lists of possibilities.

C. The IEET Website and Personhood

If you go to the IEET website (http://ieet.org), you will meet George Dvorsky, who serves on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, and also heads their Rights of Non-Human Persons program. Mr. Dvorsky also produces Sentient Developments blog and podcast. He also makes it abundantly clear what his and the IEET's position on "personhood" is:

To reiterate an important point, we at the IEET do not feel that the circle of nonhuman persons stops at Great Apes, cetaceans, and elephants (or even advanced artificial intelligence). Because personhood follows a spectrum based on capacities, I fully expect entire sets and subsets of nonhuman person types to be included as time passes. What we're doing is a start. Initially, we're looking for buy-in on the concept of nonhuman persons and to get certain species protected by human-equivalent rights. Once we reach that milestone our efforts will not stop; the IEET will continue to work towards the extension of legal protections to more and more animals. [http://ieet.org/index.php/IEET/more/dvorsky20110505]

And let's remember that a "buy-in" for their definition of "non-human" animal persons is automatically a "buy-in" for the acceptance of "human non-persons"!

The quickest way to get a handle on just what Mr. Dvorsky is talking about, what the IEET is planning for "personhood", and just how they are going about it, take a look at the extensive IEET Rights of Non-Human Persons Program already set up. I leave you here to discover for yourself their Brave New World. [All hyperlinks have been removed, so to access many of their items online you really need to go to their website].


Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET) IEET Rights of Non-Human Persons Program

Rights of Non-Human Persons

The Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET) is committed to the idea that some non-human animals meet the criteria of legal personhood and thus are deserving of specific rights and protections.

Mission Statement

Owing to advances in several fields, including the neurosciences, it is becoming increasingly obvious that the human species no longer can ignore the rights of non-human persons. A number of non-human animals, including the great apes, cetaceans (i.e. dolphins and whales), elephants, and parrots, exhibit characteristics and tendencies consistent with that of a person's traits like self-awareness, intentionality, creativity, symbolic communication, and many others. It is a moral and legal imperative that we now extend the protection of 'human rights' from our species to all beings with those characteristics.

The IEET, as a promoter of non-anthropocentric personhood ethics, defends the rights of non-human persons to live in liberty, free from undue confinement, slavery, torture, experimentation, and the threat of unnatural death. Further, the IEET defends the right of non-human persons to live freely in their natural habitats, and when that's not possible, to be given the best quality of life and welfare possible in captivity (such as sanctuaries).

Specifically, through the Rights of Non-Human Persons program, the IEET will strive to: Investigate and refine definitions of personhood and those criteria sufficient for the recognition of non-human persons.

Facilitate and support further research in the neurosciences for the improved understanding and identification of those cognitive processes, functions and behaviors that give rise to personhood. Educate and persuade the public on the matter, spread the word, and increase awareness of the idea that some animals are persons.

Produce evidence and fact-based argumentation in favor of non-human animal personhood to support the cause and other like-minded groups and individuals.

Below is a beginning set of resources for gaining background and learning more about issues of concern to the IEET's Rights of Non-Human Persons program.

Key Rights Links

Books (non-fiction)

Books (fiction)


Articles and Papers

Upcoming Events


Programs and Activities


The IEET has adopted four main programmatic foci for its work: culture critics, artists, writers, filmmakers and consumers to explore the biopolitics implicit in depictions of technology in literature, film and television.

Cyborg Buddha Project - IEET Executive Director James Hughes and IEET Board members Mike LaTorra and George Dvorsky are collaborating on the IEET Cyborg Buddha Project, to promote discussion of the impact that neuroscience and emerging neurotechnologies will have on happiness, spirituality, cognitive liberty, moral behavior and the exploration of meditational and ecstatic states of mind. Hughes is a former Buddhist monk and is writing a book tentatively titled Cyborg Buddha: Using Neurotechnology to Become Better People. LaTorra is a Zen priest, author of A Warrior Blends with Life: A Modern Tao, and runs the Trans-Spirit list promoting discussion of neurotheology, neuroethics, techno-spirituality and altered states of consciousness. Dvorsky writes and podcasts frequently from a rationalist, transhumanist, and Buddhist point of view, winning him an award this year as one of the best Buddhist blogs.

Rights of the Person - Through the Rights of the Person program we engage the human rights community, legal scholars, reproductive rights activists, the transgendered community, and advocates of public health approaches to illicit drugs in a campaign to deepen and broaden the concept of human rights.

Rights of Non-Human Persons - The IEET is committed to the idea that some non-human animals meet the criteria of legal personhood and thus are deserving of specific rights and protections. Owing to advances in several fields, including the neurosciences, it is becoming obvious that the human species no longer can ignore the rights of non-human persons. A number of non-human animals, including the great apes, cetaceans, elephants, and parrots, exhibit self-awareness, intentionality, creativity, and symbolic communication. It is a moral and legal imperative that we now extend the protection of 'human rights' from our species to all beings with those characteristics.

Longer, Better Lives - With the Longer, Better Lives program we seek to make the case for longer healthier lives, addressing objections to life extension, from the alleged problem of overpopulation to the threat of ennui. We are coordinating and developing consultation with senior citizens groups and organizations of the disabled to help them challenge ageist and ableist attitudes that discourage the full utilization of health technology.

Securing the Future - Under our Securing the Future research program we are assembling interdisciplinary teams of natural scientists, social scientists, humanists, historians, engineers, and futurists to work in goal-oriented projects aimed at proactively mitigating existential risks to humanity and to the biosphere.


The IEET has built a network of the most visionary thinkers and activists working on the policy implications of human enhancement and other emerging technologies.

Research Grants - The IEET is soliciting funds for a grants programs to support the research of IEET Fellows and interns on the ethical and policy issues of human enhancement and other emerging technologies.

Fellows and Interns - Since 2004 IEET Fellows have written hundreds of op-eds, journal articles and book chapters, and the IEET has promoted their work through the IEET website and publications. About ten interns have worked with our thirteen fellows, doing research, editing manuscripts and assisting with IEET projects.

Media outreach - Through targeted press releases and the provision of qualified spokespersons, the Institute disseminates key policy ideas that address emerging technologies. The Institute sponsors the weekly syndicated Changesurfer Radio, and will develop other educational materials for radio, television and the web.

Networking Scholars and Organizations - In each of our programmatic areas we are building a database of scholars and networking with organizations working on similar topics from similar points of view.

Conferences, Speaker Tours and Speakers Bureau - The IEET often organizes events, conferences and one day seminars in Europe and North America to promote discussion of techoprogressive policy ideas.

The 2005 and 2006Transvision conferences (Caracas Venezuela, July 22-24, 2005; Helsinki Finland - August 17-20, 2006) focusing on human enhancement technologies, were co-sponsored with the Humanity Plus Human Enhancement Technologies and Human Rights (Stanford University Law School, California USA, May 26-28, 2006), co-sponsored with the Center for Cognitive Liberty and Ethics, and Stanford Center for Law and Biosciences.

21st Century Rights (United Nations Plaza, NYC, NY USA, May 11-13, 2007) co-sponsored with the IHEU- Appignani Humanist Center for Bioethics

Preventing Extinction (Computer History Museum, Mountain View, California, USA, Nov 14, 2008) co-sponsored with the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology


The IEET solicits articles from recognized experts and thinkers for publication in the IEET's Journal of Evolution and Technology, at the IEET website, in booklets, and in newspapers and magazines that reach a broad and informed audience.

White Papers In each program area we have outlined a set of position papers that need to be written that address the benefits and risks of emerging technologies.

Books Collectively IEET Fellows and staff have authored dozens of books on technoprogressive themes, and many are working on book projects currently. We are also working on two IEET-related books Technoprogressive: Policies for a Brighter Future, a public policy handbook from a technoprogressive point of view, directed at everything from health care and science funding to employment, pensions and space policy, and Cyborg Buddha, a book project of Dr. Hughes' on the uses of neurotechnology for the enhancement of moral behavior.

The Journal of Technology and Evolution is a scholarly peer-reviewed journal, publishing academic-quality research since 1998. JET welcomes submissions on subject matters that many mainstream journals shun as too speculative, radical, or interdisciplinary on all issues relating to the future prospects of the human species and its descendants. Since its inception, JET has had five editors-in-chief: Dr. Nick Bostrom, Dr. Robin Hanson, Dr. Mark Walker, Dr. James Hughes and currently Dr. Russell Blackford.

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