Aping Persons Pro and Con
In PAOLA CAVALIERI & PETER SINGER (eds.), The Great Ape Project
New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 1993, pp. 269-277
  Acrobat version
On reviewing the preliminary list of eminent contributors to this volume, I had to wonder what I might add that would not be merely redundant. When I was originally contacted by Paola Cavalieri for a little article on chimpanzees and 'human rights' for Etica & Animali, the concept of personhood had a prominent place in her concerns, as it does in much of moral philosophy. That concept is not employed in the Declaration on Great Apes, but I would still like to say a few words about it. Discussing personhood will lead us to a presumption - a kind of intellectual bias - which underlies this focus on great apes and which I find morally objectionable. Naturally, I will want to say a few words about that - every volume needs a bit of the gadfly. Next, I have a few thoughts, of a 'yes-and-no' nature, to contribute to the discussion of whether our relations with nonhuman great apes should be governed by the same basic moral principles or rights as govern our relations with human beings. Having laboured these theoretical points, I will, of course, want to change gear and conclude with a few political comments.

Speciesism Revisited- The Intellectual Bias of Persons

To begin with, then, what about 'personhood'? Would it make sense, even though it would certainly sound strange, to say that nonhuman great apes are persons?

'Person' has both a descriptive and an evaluative meaning. In the evaluative sense of the term, 'person' refers to beings whose interests are morally or legally protected against routine exploitation by those whose actions can be directly influenced by moral or legal concepts. Persons are those whom morality or the law indicates we, as moral or legal agents, must treat fairly: must not, as Kant would say, treat as mere means to the satisfaction of our interests.[1] I think - and have argued at length for this conclusion elsewhere[2] that we should regard all beings with interests (i.e. all beings with feelings) as persons in this evaluative sense of the term. That is, I think we should treat all beings with interests fairly, regarding none of them as mere means to the satisfaction of our interests. That is what animal liberation is all about.

Very briefly, the argument for this conclusion runs as follows. Morality is goal-directed activity which aims at making the world a better place in terms of reduced suffering and frustration, increased happiness and fulfilment, a wider reign of fairness and respect for others, and enhanced presence and effectiveness of such virtues as kindness and impartiality. Through our exploitation of nonhuman animals we detract from all of these moral goals. Factory farming, fur trapping and other exploitations of nonhuman animals increase the suffering and frustration in the world and reduce happiness and fulfilment - the exact opposite of our moral goals. In using our vast power over nonhuman animals to make them bear burdens and suffer losses so that we may be comfortable and prosperous, we extend and enforce a reign of tyranny and disregard, verging on contempt, for others - again, the exact opposite of our moral goals. Finally, by giving revulsion at and compassion for the suffering of nonhuman animals the demeaning labels of 'squeamishness' and 'sentimentality' and by conditioning children to disregard such feelings as they learn to hunt, butcher or vivisect nonhuman animals, we limit and inhibit the virtues of which we are capable again, just the opposite of our moral goals. Consequently, in all these ways our goal of making the world a morally better place will be more effectively pursued by liberating from human exploitation all those capable of suffering and happiness and of being treated fairly and virtuously.

Nevertheless, there is a strong tendency, even among advocates of animal rights, to retain a close association between 'person' in the evaluative sense and 'person' in the descriptive sense, where it is just another name for human beings. Some writers, such as Tom Regan,[3] suggest that only the more intellectually sophisticated nonhuman animals merit the protection of their interests against human exploitation, and others, such as Peter Singer,[4] maintain that more intellectually sophisticated lives have a higher value than do less intellectually sophisticated lives. It is not surprising that intellectuals retain a bias in favour of the intellectual, but this bias opens the door to critics, such as J. Baird Callicott,[5] who contend that animal rights remains an anthropocentric value system. Instead of being human chauvinists, these critics maintain, animal liberationists are human-like chauvinists, but that represents only a minor change.

Focusing animal rights concern and activity on nonhuman great apes and other nonhuman primates expresses and continues this bias. We are called on to recognise that harmful experiments on nonhuman great apes are wrong because these apes are genetically so much like us or because they are so intelligent, again like us. Such calls clearly retain an anthropocentric view of the world, modifying it only through recognising that we are not an utterly unique life form.

Rejecting our species bias - overcoming speciesism - requires that we also reject our bias in favour of the intellectual (at least as a criterion of the value of life or of personhood in the evaluative sense). Overcoming speciesism requires going beyond the modest extension of our moral horizons to include intellectually sophisticated, nonhuman animals, such as chimpanzees and whales. It requires recognising not only that the origin of value does not lie in anything that is peculiarly human; it also requires recognising that the origin of value does not lie in anything that is human-like or that humans may be assured they have the most of (because they are the most intellectually sophisticated beings around).

An affective value theory can provide the needed foundation for such an unbiased world view. Such a theory holds that values originate with feelings, such as pleasure and pain, fulfilment and frustration, joy and sorrow, excitement and depression, and so forth. Without such feelings there are only matters of fact and definition, i.e. physical and conceptual configurations and changes. Consider a piece of paper you have crumpled and thrown in the wastebasket. It may uncrumple a bit and change its position in the basket. You may even hear this happen, but as long as you don't care about it and as long as this change doesn't impact on the feelings of any other being, there is no value here. But when feelings become involved, these configurations and changes can take on value: they can become contributions to or detractions from a world which is pleasant or painful, fulfilling or frustrating, joyful or sorrowful, exciting or depressing, and so forth. That paper's uncrumpling may flip it out of the basket on to the floor, where you have to pick it up and throw it away again - how annoying for you! The change has acquired value.

Now, feelings are not peculiarly human nor peculiar to human-like animals. Both behavioural and physiological evidence indicate that feelings are part of the psychology and worlds of a wide variety of nonhuman animals, including fish and reptiles as well as birds and mammals. Furthermore, there is no reason to believe that intellectually sophisticated beings have feelings to a quantitatively or qualitatively greater degree than do intellectually unsophisticated beings. Jeremy Bentham, who maintained that all moral values derive from contributions to or detractions from happiness, noted seven dimensions to the value of feelings: intensity, duration, certainty, extent, fecundity, purity and propinquity.[6] So, even if intellectually more sophisticated beings can enjoy a wider variety of feelings, those who are intellectually less sophisticated can compensate for and even overcome this deficit through greater intensity, duration, purity, extent, etc., of their feelings. Next time you go to the beach or the park, take a look around and see who is happiest and enjoying the day to the fullest. Is it the intellectually sophisticated human adults, or is it the children and the dogs?

Consequently, if we recognise that all beings with feelings should be liberated from human exploitation precisely because they are feeling beings, we will have overcome speciesism and freed our morality from anthropocentric prejudice. In such a morality we are called on to recognise not only that the exploitation of human-like animals, such as nonhuman great apes, is wrong (prima facie] but also that the exploitation of rats, lizards, fish and any other kind of feeling being, humanlike or not, intellectually sophisticated or not, is wrong (prima fade).

Rights Revisited Taking Differences Seriously

Now, if we should treat all feeling beings as persons in that evaluative sense, does it follow that we should treat them as we do human beings? Does it follow that we should extend 'human rights' to nonhuman beings? Is that what would be involved in welcoming nonhuman great apes into the community of equals?

Protecting the interests of nonhuman animals against human exploitation requires extending to them the same basic rights as humans currently (are supposed to) enjoy only if nonhuman animals have the same basic interests as we do and only if extending rights is the appropriate way to secure that protection. It is not obvious that either of these conditions is the case.

Whether nonhuman animals have the same basic interests as we do depends not only on what their and our interests are but also on how they are characterised. We can describe interests in a sufficiently general way, so that all feeling animals can be described as (normally) having the same basic interests as we do. For example, we can say that we all have interests in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and, therefore, that we all need the same sorts of protection for our interests. The three principles or rights mentioned in the Declaration on Great Apes - the right to life, the protection of individual liberty and the prohibition of torture are of this very general sort.

However, we can also describe interests more specifically. This can lead us to conclude that we have interests nonhuman animals do not, and vice versa, and, consequently, that we need protections they do not, and vice versa. For example, part of the pursuit of happiness for many humans is the freedom to pursue their religious beliefs, and they need a right to religious freedom (or some other moral/legal instrument) to protect that interest. Nonhuman animals do not appear to have any such interest and, consequently, do not need that right. Conversely, part of pursuing happiness for some nonhuman animals is being able to stretch their wings; so they need a right (or some other moral/legal instrument) to protect that interest. Lacking wings, we need no such right.

Thus, the answer to whether nonhuman great apes should be extended the same basic moral and legal rights as humans depends in part on whether these basic rights are being formulated in a general or specific manner. In developing moral and legal codes which people would be supposed to follow and to which they could be held accountable, specific formulations would have to be employed. Consequently, at this level the answer must be 'no': even in thoroughly non-speciesist, animal-respecting moral and legal codes, nonhuman great apes need not have the same basic moral and legal rights as humans.

And vice versa, let us not forget. There is a tendency to think that if we conclude that nonhuman animals are not to enjoy all the rights of humans, it is because they are entitled only to a few of those rights. However, basing moral and legal protections on specific interests can also lead to the conclusion that nonhuman animals should have rights that humans do not need. So, specific nonhuman and human rights can be different without the former being merely a subgroup of the latter, and, consequently, without suggesting that the nonhumans are morally or legally less worthy beings.

However, the development of these specific, animal-respecting codes would be directed by those more general formulations of rights, such as extending to nonhuman great apes the same sorts of moral and legal protection of their interests in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that humans currently (are supposed to) enjoy. So, at this level of principle, the answer to our question could still be 'yes'. In the Declaration on Great Apes the idea of a community of equals is defined at this very general level, where the often misleading claim of, or call for, human/nonhuman 'equality' makes sense.

Still, I say only that the answer to our question about extending basic human rights to nonhuman animals 'could be' yes, for there are still other complications determining the final answer to that question. For example, when discussing the interests of nonhuman animals we ordinarily focus on things that these animals can take an interest in, such as food and exercise. But in addition to these, there are things that nonhuman animals cannot take an interest in but in which they none the less have an interest, since these things impact on their feelings. Consequently, developing moral and legal codes to protect the interests of all feeling animals would require considering things in which nonhuman animals have an interest even though they cannot take an interest in them.

Voting is an example of this. Nonhuman animals cannot understand what voting is all about and how it affects their interests. Consequently, unlike humans, nonhuman animals do not feel vulnerable or demeaned because they are not allowed to vote. None the less, which politicians are elected and which are not can critically affect their interests. For instance, it would benefit the interests of nonhuman great apes if politicians who oppose harmful experiments on nonhuman primates were elected. Thus, nonhuman great apes have an interest in voting, even though they cannot take an interest in voting. So, if we are to extend to nonhuman great apes the same sorts of moral and legal protections of their interests that humans currently (are supposed to) enjoy, then this interest in voting must enter into our deliberations.

We might conclude that nonhuman animals need the right to vote -through a concerned, informed guardian - in order to protect their interests in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. However, the difficulties of implementing such a right are so great as to render that conclusion thoroughly implausible. How are nonhuman animals to be counted and registered, and how are human proxy voters to be selected and nonhuman proxies assigned to them? Also, in the case of children, whose interests are also affected by voting, we do not conclude that protecting their interests entails that they have the right to vote. By analogy, protecting the interests of nonhuman great apes would not entail such a right.

Such cases indicate that it is simplistic to infer that because something has an impact on the basic interests of members of a group, and those interests should be protected, we must conclude that members of that group have a right to (or against) that something. There is a tendency, especially in the United States, immediately and vociferously to employ the concept of rights whenever questions of protecting interests arise. But that concept does not readily fit all such situations, especially when the interests in question are not those of normal, human adults, i.e. those of intellectually sophisticated, autonomous agents. Consequently, morally and legally protecting the basic interests of nonhuman animals may involve some ingenuity and thoughtful working with a variety of moral and legal categories, rather than automatically demanding rights for nonhuman animals to (or against) those things which (can, will, would) have an impact on their basic interests. For example, the Declaration on Great Apes defines the community of equals in terms of 'moral principles or rights', and among the three principles enumerated, only one is identified as a right, the others being a 'protection' and a 'prohibition'.

In developing and deploying these categories, however, it must be clearly understood that they afford the same level of protection for the interests of those who are not intellectually sophisticated, moral and legal agents as rights provide for the interests of such agents. That is, when the interests of a being protected by one of these categories conflicts with the interests of an agent protected by a right, the right cannot automatically override the other category. To avoid the sham protection of our contemporary 'humane' values and laws concerning nonhuman animals - a protection that is easily overridden even by the trivial desires to eat pale veal and to save a few pennies on a dozen eggs -the moral and legal categories to be developed and deployed in liberating nonhuman animals from human exploitation must share the exalted status that only the concept of rights currently commands. This is another aspect of overcoming the intellectual bias in our speciesism: currently our most powerful moral and legal concept, 'rights', is one which is suited to the capacities and conditions of intellectually sophisticated agents; in a liberated ethic, concepts suited to the capacities and conditions of feeling beings who are not intellectually sophisticated agents must enjoy equal status and power with the concept of rights.

To summarise, while nonhuman great apes should be persons in the evaluative sense of the term - which is to say that they should enjoy the same level of moral and legal protection of their interests as humans do (or are supposed to) this protection need not take the form of assigning rights in every case. Thus, liberating nonhuman great apes from human exploitation need not take the form of extending 'human rights' to them. These apes will not need some of the rights humans do, if they do not share in all human interests, but they may also need some rights that we do not, if they have interests which we do not share. Also, other moral and legal protective categories may be more appropriate than rights to the capabilities and conditions of these apes. Finally, from the perspective of liberation moral theory, nonhuman great apes do not obviously have any more claim on personhood and this protection of interests than do other, less intellectually sophisticated, nonhuman animals.

Liberation Revisited The Real Pursuit of Ideals

None the less, from the perspective of liberation moral practice it may be appropriate and even politically astute to emphasise the human-like characteristics of nonhuman great apes and to seek the moral and legal protection of their interests as persons before seeking such protection of interests for all feeling animals.

We humans have social instincts: we tend to divide up the world into 'us' and 'them' and to feel much more strongly obligated to those whom we consider kin. So, to the extent that we can bring people to recognise that nonhuman great apes are members of our biological 'family' and can thereby bring people to extend their fellow-feelings to embrace these extended family members, we are more likely to secure for nonhuman great apes the protection of their interests against human exploitation that they morally deserve and desperately need. In this way there may be a practical, political pride of place for nonhuman great apes - similar to that for companion animals, who are members of our socially extended families - even though ultimately, without reference to human instincts and propensities, there is theoretically no obvious pride of place for them, or for any other feeling species.

This practical conclusion should not be condemned as a compromise of liberation ideals. Too often when doing moral philosophy we forget that it is supposed to be a practical science, i.e. a study whose conclusions are not theories but actions. Ideals are needed to guide moral action, but we cannot deduce what is to be done from ideals alone. In addition to ideals, action is determined by the material with which we have to work to realise those ideals. And the material for animal liberation - as for all moral change - is human beings as they currently are, with their native (in)capacities and (in)sensitivities, established cultures, contemporary (im)moral beliefs and practices, current economic dependencies and present world views. Developing and deploying concepts and arguments which will move people as they are to make the world a better place is the proper conclusion of moral philosophy, and moving them to make the world a better place for nonhuman animals is the proper conclusion of animal liberation philosophy. Developing moral theory and ideals, as has been done in this chapter, is only a means to that end.

Ideals must be kept in view if our efforts for nonhuman animals are not to be co-opted and to effect merely rhetorical, complacent changes -as when vivisectors now readily agree that nonhuman animals have rights but then go on to assert that those rights are respected in humane laboratory sacrifices of nonhuman animals. On the other hand, those who insist that all animal liberation projects focus exclusively on the ideal, and disdainfully reject all accommodation of liberation ideals to current realities, will likely succeed only in feeling that their hands are clean and their consciences are pure. Wilfully out of touch with many of the forces that move and shape reality, they are not likely to succeed in helping nonhuman animals, and their cherished, beautiful ideals will likely remain mere ideals while nonhuman animals continue to suffer and die without relief.

So, engaging in campaigns - such as this one to extend protective moral and legal principles and rights to nonhuman great apes - which take advantage of anthropocentrism and other human imperfections and which, consequently, fall short of the ideals of animal liberation, is not compromising those ideals. It is implementing and pursuing those ideals in the world as it is. That, rather than theoretical precision and purity of conscience, is what moral philosophy and animal activism are finally all about.


[1] 'Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only.' Immanuel Kant, Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. Lewis White Beck (The Library of Liberal Arts, Indianapolis, 1959), p. 47.

[2] S.F. Sapontzis, Morals, Reason, and Animals (Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 1987).

[3] T. Regan, The Case for Animal Rights (University of California Press, Berkeley, 1983).

[4] P. Singer, Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals (New York Review of Books, New York, 1975/1990).

[5] J. Baird Callicott, In Defence of the Land Ethic (State University of New York Press, Buffalo, 1989).

[6] J. Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789), chapter IV.