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If You Had to Choose, Would You Say Chimpanzees Are Persons or Things?

ADAM SHRIVER:  ‘In everyday speech, the term ‘person’ often means roughly the same thing as ‘human,’ which in turn refers to someone who belongs to the species Homo Sapiens… In philosophical lingo, “being human” generally is no longer considered a necessary nor a sufficient condition for being a person… So if you ask a philosopher, “is a chimpanzee a person?”, you might expect to get the familiar (and possibly slightly annoying) answer, “well, that depends on what you mean by person.”

And the philosopher might further be tempted to introduce new terminology, such as “sentient nonpersons” or “near persons” that would allow for a more precise way of dividing up different categories than simply dividing the world into “persons” and “nonpersons.” After all, it certainly would be a mistake to start a discussion about morality with an assumption that those are the only two possible morally relevant categories.

Unfortunately, however, when it comes to legal rights, the current debate about personhood does not allow for the type of free-ranging search for definitions, subcategories, and nuance that many philosophers would prefer in being asked to define ‘personhood.’ The law in the U.S. and many other countries divides the world into two categories: “persons” and “things.” Persons have legal rights. Things have none… Right now, all animals are treated as “things” by U.S. law and as such have no legal rights.

In many places, if someone accidentally kills your companion animal, that is the legal equivalent of them accidentally breaking your lamp (though there are, of course, certain laws banning types of animal cruelty)… It is against this background that a recent motion was filed in New York State arguing that two chimpanzees, Tommy and Kiko, should be released from captivity into a protective sanctuary based on the common law writ of habeas corpus. Habeas corpus rights only apply to persons’. SOURCE…


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