Are animals persons?

Margaret Somerville
27 January 2010
Reproduced with Permission

Anybody who sees the powerful and immensely distressing documentary, "The Cove", which testifies to the horrible slaughter of dolphins in Japan, should not be able to turn their backs on the brutal and cruel treatment of these animals to which it testifies. Likewise, Matthew Scully's book, Dominion, which documents the hell that "factory farmed" animals endure as well as a variety of other cruelties, elicits the same response -- that we must do whatever we can to stop these practices.

Some ethicists, philosophers and scientists have suggested that one remedial response would be to confer personhood on at least some animal species for the purpose of protecting them through ethics and law, including by attributing rights to them.

Biologist Lori Marino proposed this recently, citing philosopher- ethicist Thomas White's new book, In Defence of Dolphins. Princeton philosopher Peter Singer proposed the same in the early 1980s. While I strongly endorse their goal of preventing cruelty to all sentient creatures, and believe that we humans have obligations to protect them, I don't agree with trying to achieve that through making animals persons.

My reasons for rejecting personhood for animals include that it would undermine the idea that humans are "special" relative to other animals and, therefore, deserve "special respect."

Whether humans are "special" -- sometimes referred to as human exceptionalism or uniqueness -- is a controversial and central question in bioethics, and how we answer it will have a major impact on what we view as ethical or unethical with regard to our treatment of humans and of animals.

Currently, we use the word "person" as a synonym for human and to indicate, communicate and implement the concept that humans are different from other animals and "special." It can no longer fulfill that function if it does not refer exclusively to humans. In other words, if animals become persons, human persons become animals. The line between humans and other animals is blurred and the idea that humans are "special" and deserve "special respect" is eliminated.

That means that what we do or don't do to "animal persons" should be the same as we do or don't do to "human persons." So, for instance, if we have euthanasia for animals, we should, likewise, have it for humans. If we don't eat humans, we shouldn't eat animals.

This is Singer's approach. He argues that distinguishing humans from other animals and, as a result, treating them differently, is a form of wrongful discrimination he calls "speciesism." He rejects the stance that all human beings are persons and no animals are persons; rather, he argues some human beings are not persons and some animals are.

For Singer, personhood depends on being self aware, having a sense of one's history and, perhaps, of a future, and a capacity to relate to others. Consequently, he argues some seriously mentally disabled humans and babies are not persons and, therefore, do not have the protections personhood brings. Not being a person means that a baby, for instance, does not have a right to life and, therefore, the parents of a disabled baby could consent to her being euthanized.

In his book, Professor White takes a similar approach. He argues that dolphins should be regarded as non-human persons on the basis that they are self-conscious, intelligent, and have free will and emotions comparable to those of humans, which is at least partially correct. Note that this concept of non-human personhood makes "animal personhood" contingent on animal persons having certain characteristics or capacities to function in certain ways.

White also argues that judging non-human species using human characteristics or standards in order to judge their worth, and what we owe them ethically, is speciesism. To avoid this, he proposes, we should treat them as "alien beings" and judge whether or not they are persons on the basis of their own standards. In short, the word person no longer refers exclusively to humans or even its attribution judged by human standards. (I note in passing that this would respond to the objections of people who believe all animals need protection and it's ethically wrong to select just those we see as most like us.)

The feature of both the Singer and White approaches, however, is that whether or not a living being is a person depends on its measuring up to a certain standard, however that standard is set. This is an attribute approach to who or what is a person and, therefore, deserves the respect and protections that come with that characterization.

Applied to humans, this approach means that those who don't have a certain level of physical, mental or emotional functioning are not persons and, as a result, don't have the same rights as others. In short, it creates different categories of human beings and those in some categories are not regarded as persons.

The contrasting approach, which I believe is the one we should continue to uphold, is that all humans are persons (at least, as the law stands at present, those humans who have been born) and only humans are persons. This accounts for using the words "human being" and "person" interchangeably. Universal human personhood means that every human being has an "intrinsic dignity" that must be respected that comes simply with being human; having that dignity does not depend on having any other attribute or functional capacity. This is a status approach to who is a person.

The refusal of the courts to recognize unborn babies as persons, in order to allow abortion, shows the protective effect of the concept of personhood and that, unless expressly excluded, all human beings are persons. Currently, we also use the word person to distinguish humans from animals, in order to establish that every human deserves "special respect" as compared with animals.

We used to regard humans as special on the basis that they had a soul, a Divine spark, and animals did not. Far from everyone accepts that today. But most people at least act as though we humans have a "human spirit," a metaphysical, although not necessarily supernatural, element as part of the essence of our humanness. The beautiful Sanskrit farewell, loosely translated, "The Light in me recognizes the Light in you," captures this reality.

That all humans were seen as persons was not always the case. For instance, in Roman law free living, adult men were persons in the sense of having legal status, but slaves, like animals, were chattels, that is, property and not persons. Of course in Canada women were natural persons -- not property -- but they weren't legal persons until the Persons case of 1929.

There are also legal precedents for non-human personhood. The most common one is corporate entities -- companies -- who are referred to in the law as "non-natural persons." The reason they are deemed persons by the law is to give them standing to sue and be sued. Ships and aircraft can also sue and be sued -- that is, be named as plaintiffs and defendants -- and some legislation has conferred that possibility on other non-human entities in order to protect them, for instance a pristine Arctic environment. The questions of whether "rocks have rights" and "trees have standing" to sue, that is, be treated as legal persons, has also been explored in the environmental law literature.

The call for rights for animals, especially those we regard as most like us, the Great Apes, has been increasing, with some countries responding to it positively. For instance, New Zealand has implemented greater protections and more recently Spain. The issue is not whether animals should be protected from cruelty and have a right to some reasonable form of animal life -- they should. The issue is whether that should be done through personhood, which involves attributing rights to animals and, even, some scientists and philosophers argue, regarding them as moral agents -- that is, that apes have ethics. For the reasons I've explained, I do not believe we should do that.

We must have greater respect for all life, and I would add to that, in particular, human life. Restricting personhood to humans is one way we recognize and implement the latter. But that should not denigrate from our respect for all non-human life, and not just that which has high intelligence, self-awareness, an emotional life, ability to communicate, and so on, but all life.

What that respect requires will not be uniform for different forms of life, but asking ourselves what is required is always necessary, and respect certainly excludes wanton or reckless cruelty. Indeed, I've argued elsewhere that we will be unable to maintain respect for human life unless we implement respect for all life. And if we lose our respect for life, we lose our humanity.