By John Rennie
Posting in Environment
Certain creatures probably deserve legal standing as more than animals. Whether they can get it is a more complicated question.
Over the weekend, I borrowed a friend's time machine and cold-bloodedly killed a Neandertal, a Homo erectus, an Australopithecus, a dolphin, a chimp, eight sentient robots, the first extraterrestrial visitor to Earth, and my neighbor with the unreasonably loud sound system. Question: in the eyes of the law, how many murders did I just commit?
Probably two is my guess, with an outside possibility of three. I might be able to spin a justifiable homicide defense around "too much Ke$ha" with respect to my noisy neighbor, but the charge would still be murder. Just 10 years ago I might have been able to argue that Homo neanderthalensis was a different species and that killing one was therefore not the same as killing a person. Recent genomic studies, though, have shown that modern humans and Neandertals interbred so heavily that it's now doubtful whether they were separate species, which isn't good for my case. That hairy little Homo erectus was clearly not one of our species, but his kind still looked and acted human enough that I wouldn't want to take my chances with a sentimental jury. So I might hang for those three killings.
On all the others, though -- the dolphin, the chimp, the australopithecine, the alien, and the robots -- I ought to be able to walk away from everything except some charges on cruelty to animals and vandalism. No matter how smart, self-aware, empathetic, or ethical they might be, those creatures and things don't qualify as persons under the law because they are not human beings. Doing awful things to them might make me a monster, but it doesn't technically make me a murderer. (And even as a human monster and murderer, I have rights that they do not.)
Science fiction scenarios aside, some scientists, philosophers, legal scholars and others are beginning to wonder whether the laws need to change for the benefit of dolphins, chimpanzees, and other highly intelligent animals. Should the law recognize a category of nonhuman persons with rights comparable to (but not necessarily identical to) those of human beings? If so, what would be the consequences and implications, not just for these animals but maybe also for humans?
Persons with blowholes
The eligibility of cetaceans (dolphins, porpoises, and whales) for legal recognition as nonhuman beings was the focus of a much discussed session last month at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Vancouver. Lori Marino, a behavioral biologist and neuroscientist at Emory University, kicked off the discussion with a review of the abundant evidence for the creatures' highly developed cognitive abilities.
It's no secret that dolphins are exceptionally good at solving problems, for example, even ones that involve some level of abstract thinking. They can recognize themselves in mirrors, which seemingly demonstrates a capacity for self-awareness. Cetaceans also communicate amongst themselves with sophisticated vocal utterances that are at least reminiscent of language (though some linguists debate the appropriateness of that label). Recent findings even suggest that dolphins may greet one another with sets of sounds that seem to act as individuals' names.
Cetaceans also live in groups with complex social dynamics, and at least some of those groups seem to have local "cultures" of behaviors that each generation teaches the next. For instance, some dolphins teach their young how to use sponges as tools while foraging along the seafloor.
Yet notwithstanding cetaceans' intellectual capabilities, throughout history and around the world, humans have used and abused these animals as a resource. The slaughter of whales for food and oils and of dolphins as bycatch in fishing nets is notorious, Marino said, but the seemingly more benign practice of keeping cetaceans at marine parks for entertainment is also bad: she pointed to research showing that such captivity was harmful to the animals.
Thomas I. White, professor of ethics at Loyola Marymount University who also spoke on the AAAS panel, has argued that living things that demonstrate self-awareness, intelligence and autonomy, experience emotions and treat other individuals with empathic respect deserve to have moral standing as persons. Cetaceans meet all those criteria, in his view.
On those grounds, White, Marino, and others met in Helsinki in May 2010 to draft a Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans that affirms their status as persons. Among the 10 provisions in the declaration are calls that "Every individual cetacean has the right to life," that no cetacean should be held captive or removed from its natural home, and that "Cetaceans have the right to the protection of their environment." The signers hope that over time enough countries will endorse the document's principles for it to acquire some international force.
Too human for comfort
Chimpanzees and the other great apes, of course, also stand out as candidates for nonhuman person status because of their high intelligence, their tool use, and their apparent self-awareness. Their evolutionary proximity to human beings also makes it easy to believe that if any nonhuman animals possess some elusive property of "being" that could justify their personhood, the apes do. Indeed, a research paper appearing last October in Current Biology by Michael Krützen of the University of Zurich and his colleagues claimed that manifestations of culture in orangutans, the other great apes, and humans share evolutionary roots.
No one seems to have yet drafted a "Declaration of Rights for Apes" comparable to the Helsinki Group's cetacean document, but The Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act (H.R. 1513/S.810) now pending in the U.S. Congress would end the use of chimpanzees in invasive biomedical research. (The U.S. and Gabon are the only countries in the world that still use chimpanzees for such studies.) [Added: But see also the update at the bottom of this page.]
Adding some momentum to that push, the Institute of Medicine released a report in December that concluded, "most current biomedical research use of chimpanzees is not necessary," though it fell short of endorsing a full ban. Meanwhile, some scientists are arguing that chimps should not be kept as pets (because they are dangerous) or used unnaturally in commercials or other media (because the practice lulls people into thinking chimps are not endangered).
Nonhumans don't get to vote
To many people familiar with the scientific evidence for sentience in animals, recognition of dolphins and chimps as nonhuman persons with certain inalienable rights might seem irresistibly logical. It would also seem to afford the creatures more complete and unassailable protection than other piecemeal conservation measures. After all, if corporations can be nonhuman persons, as the Supreme Court ruled in 2010 in the controversial Citizens United case, why not dolphins?
The idea is more complicated than it might first appear, however, and not all resistance to it is born of unwillingness to accept these creatures as our peers in some way.
For openers, considerable misunderstanding surrounds what granting rights as persons to nonhumans would mean. Some critics have dismissed the idea as absurd because the animals would not be accepting any responsibilities or obligations incumbent on them in return. But nonhuman persons would not be equivalent to humans, Thomas White says: their rights would specifically allow them to live as they historically have, without human interference. As such, their rights would only be obligations on human governments, not on the creatures themselves. (Eric Michael Johnson, author of the excellent book The Primate Diaries, has an outstanding discussion of this point and the sometimes elastic status of personhood on his blog.)
Legal theory can therefore probably support nonhuman persons fine. Yet there may be a Catch-22 problem with putting the idea into practice. The major practical motivation for declaring cetaceans and apes to be persons is to protect them more sweepingly from us. If governments wanted to do more to protect these creatures, however, they wouldn't be waiting for a declaration of rights or personhood to prompt them. True, if the rest of the world recognized whales as persons, the last few whaling nations might feel shamed into stopping. But they might instead stand pat against the idea as radical and coercive, and use that excuse to justify ignoring more moderate protective measures. The drive for personhood would then be counterproductive.
The other practical problem could be in determining eligibility for personhood. Qualities like intelligence and empathy can be hard to evaluate in creatures very different from humans. Skeptics often point out that the animals being nominated for personhood sometimes engage in behaviors that can only be called beastly: gangs of male dolphins have been observed to rape unreceptive females; dolphins will also sometimes kill porpoises; chimps are not above infanticide and cannibalism. (Let us not forget that humans commit all these crimes as well; the question is whether they are norms of behavior or aberrations.)
Holding animals to strictly human standards of morality is unreasonable. But if we're hoping to recognize nonhuman persons in part from their capacities for empathy and ethics, we will need to find a way to evaluate those qualities that doesn't just reshape itself to give whatever answer we want.
A puzzle that won't go away
The fact that working out good criteria for nonhuman persons may be difficult is no excuse for failing to do it, however. My suspicion -- and it is no more than that -- is that even if the Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans runs out of steam, the questions of whether and how to recognize persons who aren't Homo sapiens are going to keep coming up. Maybe we'll face the problem someday with digital intelligences; maybe creations from biotech labs will pose it instead; maybe someone from the stars will compel us to return to it. The sheer number of ways it can pop up makes me think it's inevitable.
My further hunch is that, notwithstanding the problems, cetaceans and at least some of the great apes will eventually be recognized as persons. In fact, this categorization will someday probably be regarded as so self-evident that future generations will look back on our ignorance of it with the incredulity that we have for societies that kept slaves.
Update (3/20): Andrew Westoll, a former primatologist and author of The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary, reminds me that the philosopher Peter Singer and other members of the Great Ape Project have in fact issued a World Declaration on Great Primates that, like the declaration for cetaceans, calls for the extension of rights to life, individual freedom, and protection from torture to the apes. One difference, though, is that the primates declaration doesn't explicitly call for them to be regarded as persons.
I'm also moved to add this: Whenever we do start to become comfortable with recognizing nonhuman persons ... wait for the fireworks to start. Politicized issues relating to pregnancy and end of life are complicated and cantankerous already. If society starts recognizing new categories of persons, then expect that concept to be brought into those conversations, too -- however inappropriately . At that point, we can only be glad the dolphins and the chimps will have the good sense to stay out of the argument.
Image: Dolphin. (Credit: Just Taken Pics, via Flickr)
Mar 19, 2012
"Over the weekend, I borrowed a friends time machine and cold-bloodedly killed a Neandertal, a Homo erectus, an Australopithecus, a dolphin, a chimp, eight sentient robots, the first extraterrestrial visitor to Earth, and my neighbor with the unreasonably loud sound system. " You had a busy weekend, it seems. Also last weekend, an ape killed another ape, and a dolphin killed a porpoise. Are you going to put them on trial for murder? Perphaps an orangutan can be the judge, and because we have a Constituional right to a jury of our peers, then perhaps you can organize a voire dire for jury selection of apes and dolphins. "gangs of male dolphins have been observed to rape unreceptive females". Hmm... can't much of animal mating be considered "rape" under this belief system? Certainly almost all observeable feline and canine mating would be considered rape by your definition. What kind of warped belief system does a person have to have to give Constituional rights to animals?
...never mind that calling corporations amoeboid would be an insult to amoebae, which after all have evolved to stay in harmony with their environment.
This post is something of a vindication for me. Decades ago (60's), when I was a senior in high school and was participating in an advanced placement college class, I predicted the day would come when there would be a serious discussion about extending "human" rights to cetaceans and great apes. I was laughed out of the classroom. Now admittedly the discussion was in the context of civil rights and my statement was in response to the inability of the class to comprehend how slavery could ever have been considered moral. My point was that "humanity" was whatever society chose to define it as (I was bright and obnoxious). Suffice it to say that I was known as "dolphin boy" for the rest of the semester. But I did hook up with some guys that bought me beer on a regular basis.
I anticipate no end to appetite of carnivores and omnivores. However, let's treat animals with respect and apply humane treatment while they are alive and practice methods of slaughter that reserve their dignity and deminish their suffering.
I am now lawyer, but by "murder" I take you mean taking the life of a living being that has a right to live in freedom in any way it so desires. So the question boils down to which beings among the ones you describe have such a right. In my mind, rights can only be exercised by moral agents that can play by societal rules and assuming the obligation to do so even when such behavior may interfere with their own interests. So tell me which of the beings you killed could have been full moral agents in a community of equals and I will give you the answer to your question. Yes, animals are wonderful creatures. Some admittedly intelligent and with rich social lives. This means we owe all of them due moral consideration. But the same moral consideration as a human being? Do they have rights? Well, can they behave against their own interests and respect my own rights? We should not confuse rights with obligations. Rights entail obligations but the reverse is not necessarily true.
It is encouraging to see so many open minds in this thread to even consider the concept of nonhuman rights. As a vegan of many decades, the concept is no longer an issue for me personally. Many people mistakenly consider some level of equivalency in rights between humans and nonhumans. In actuality, the rights in question are simply different between species. One of the great contributors to the conversation is a professor by the name of Marc Bekoff who has written much regarding the ethics and sociology of our nonhuman brethren. He is not alone in his quest for recognition of a special class of rights for nonhumans. Primatologist and noted lecturer Jane Goodall is among those who support the concept of human recognition of nonhuman rights as well. Most people have a hard time conceiving of how nonhumans could be recognized as deserving of special consideration akin to righteousness. And with so many humans who violate the basic concept of human rights for other humans, it will be hard to see how we could, as a species, share the notion of special rights for nonhumans. However, for those humans who have bought into the concept of compassion for all living creatures, the notion of rights for nonhumans is understandable and acceptable. Just for a minute, consider talking, using American Sign Language, with Koko the gorilla. Ask her anything and don't be surprised by the decidedly human response. Then ask yourself, how is it that such a nonhuman doesn't deserve some elemental level of protection within our human society. And its not just the great apes and cetaceans that belong in this category. There are birds, especially parrots, dogs, cats, elephants, and many others that have demonstrated high levels of understanding and even compassion both intra and extra-species. For those who are open to the concepts, I invite you to continue to study this issue and research the evidence in support of a human recognition of certain inalienable rights for nonhuman animals. As others have noted, perhaps one day in the future the recognition of nonhuman rights will be seen as part of an evolving history of the human species.
Does a being in question dread death and note and appreciate the effect of extra protections derived from its rights? If yes, it deserves rights. If no, it deserves to be treated in a way that minimises pain (if it is capable of experiencing something equivalent), but with no further a priori protections. "Rights" are a human construct, not a natural one ??? they are an attempt to transcend nature by imposing our moral framework on it. As a result, any protections incapable of being noted and appreciated by the entities they protect are merely a way to make us, ourselves, feel better.
So at what moment do these creatures become human-ish? Conception? Birth? Or some ill-defined, morally-convenient point in between? For the record, by my standards, many people (mostly Republicans) never do attain humanity. But as with other, lower creatures, I recognize it would still be wrong to kill them, unless I planned to eat them.
Maybe we could extend these "The rights of dolphins, chimps, and other nonhuman persons" to those of small 'pre-born' 'Human Persons' so that they would all be on a 'Level Playing Field'. Seems like a great advance to 'Human Rights' to me !!!
...to other species, it's time for humans to join other species as an equal partner on the planet. Here's how Thomas Berry, theologian puts it: A Bill of Rights For The Planet Earth 1. Rights originate where existence originates. That which determines existence determines rights. Since it has no further context of existence in the phenomenal order, the universe is self-referent in its being and self-normative in its activities. It is also the primary referent in the being and activities of all derivative modes of being. 2. The universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects. As subjects, the component members of the universe are capable of having rights. 3. The natural world on the planet Earth gets its rights from the same source that humans get their rights, from the universe that brought them into being. 4. Every component of the Earth community has three rights. The right to be, the right to habitat, and the right to fulfill its role in the ever-renewing process of the Earth community. 5. All rights are species specific and limited. Rivers have river rights. Birds have bird rights. Insects have insect rights. Humans have human rights. Difference of rights is qualitative not quantitative. The rights of an insect would be of no use to a tree or fish. 6. Human rights do not cancel out the rights of other modes of being to exist in their natural state. 7. Human property rights are not absolute. Property rights are simply a special relationship between a particular human "owner" and a particular piece of "property" for the benefit of both. 8.Species exist in the form of individuals and groupings--flock, herds, schools of fish and so forth. Rights refer to individuals and groupings, not simply in a general way to species. 9. These rights as presented here establish the relationships that the various components of the Earth have toward each other. The planet earth is a single community bound together with interdependent relationships. Every component of the Earth community is immediately or mediately dependent on every other member of the Community for the nourishment and assistance it needs for its own survival. This mutual nourishment, which includes predator-prey relationship, is integral with the role that each component of the Earth has within the comprehensive community of existence. 10. In a special manner humans have not only a need for but a right of access to the natural world, not only to supply their physical needs but also to provide the wonder needed by human intelligence, the beauty needed by human imagination, and the intimacy needed by the human emotions.
The problem with all rights is that they have to be enforced. Who will do that? What happens when the sentient creature kills a zoo keeper as sometimes happens? A great ape bit his keeper on the leg this week. He is already kept in a zoo, a kind of cage, so I suppose a jail sentence is already in effect. Please remember that most animals would kill you, given the chance and an empty belly and they are far more accomplished at bare handed or open mouthed killing. We prefer to let the butcher do our killing. I see a lot of wonderful human feeling in this project but we live in a world where women do not have equal rights in too many cultures. How do we change that inequality?
Certain humans deserve the standing of animals. For example the crazy ones going out and killing human children for kicks.There are also certain humans (fetuses) that are treated like animals and slaughtered. The chimps are no less an animal than us. They don't murder and deserve equal rights.
Evaluating personhood on animals is a tough call. For millenia man has thought himself to be above nature due to intelligence and tool usages, we call ourselves Homo Sapiens- "Man the wise" in spite of evidence to the contrary. More different species of animals are showing an ability to use tools, chimps using twigs to fish out termites and even birds using twigs to do similar things. The old view of animal behavior is that animals do everything by instinct, like they are programmed to behave in certain ways and there is no intelligence in the animal. The newer view is that there are behaviors and there are also evidence of some capacity to reason or figure out problems. Pet owners tend to agree that their pets show more intelligence than expected. As for person hood of animals, every animal I have seen has a distinct personality and abilities but to call them persons involves a change of not only how we perceive animals but also how we treat them. If you assume that the animal behaves 100% by instinct then you would treat them as things; but if you start to think that the animal has some limited capacity to think and feel then they become easier to empathize with them and treat them a little better and with more respect. The ecology of earth is very complex and delicate, mankind has been extremely successful in the ability to not only use tools but to change the environment (damming rivers, draining swamps, farming and developing crops and more). Animals may not rise to full personhood but the ecology is delicate and we are part of that ecology and should have better respect for life.
there are many animals that are more human than some people are, in that they display compassion and self awareness and love. the love of a mother for its child and the need of the child for its mother, crosses all boundaries. in the end, i'm pretty sure that the term human being is over used and misapplied because there are many who are simply two legged maggots disguised as people and hide among us humans. don't get me wrong, as i am not insulting the realm of maggots. but maggots are born with a specific purpose and unfortunately there are people that have that same purpose, but on a grander scale.
It's too premature to move definitively on whether or not all these cases deserve the rights of humans -- or perhaps superhumans in the case of aliens or machines. We as a society still haven't decided on when human life begins, or when it ends. My father suffered from Alzheimer's and at the end you wind up wondering just how much of the person you knew and loved was left. It's a hard, ugly question that this disease forces you to deal with. If you cast a wide net and say human life (and rights) begin at conception, then why does a human embryo have more rights than a grown chimpanzee? I don't know the answer to questions like this, and quite frankly I've never been convinced by the answers of others. My family had a hog farm growing up. I would say that hogs are the smartest things on four legs, and there definitely was a certain amount of intelligence in them. There's no doubt in my mind that they were self-aware, though I don't know if they could pass the mirror test. It made me uneasy at times to send them to the slaughterhouse. But if we start granting more rights to one species, where does it end?
Do all of the people who oppose voter ID realize that these animals could vote their rights into being?
is humane. not human. and yes, many animals are more humane than 'human beings'... I was thinking as i read the above article that there are many animals which exhibit behaviors and abilities that suggest they are worthy to be grouped quite closely with humans... then it dawned on me that this wasn't even a very intelligent way of looking at the issue. Why in hell would anything want to be grouped with us? Despite all the potential for rational thought and foresight that so many humans possess, we do mind bogglingly stupid, short sighted, vicious, pointless things constantly. We call many of them 'breakthroughs' or 'innovations'. (alas, poor Oppenheimer) And on top of that, we don't even fully understand many of the other animals that are considered likely candidates for this legal entities stuff. (I've seen television specials on dolphins which showed several other behaviors indicative of their high intelligence. Of great interest is the fact that they are supposedly the only other species of animal on earth which engages in sex for the fun of it. Which is to say, not for the purpose of procreation. -If they've found any others, somebody let me know.) It has been suggested by some experiments that some species of octopi are capable of working out abstract problems. Back to my earlier point; why would any of them want to be grouped with us? Why, in short, should we be the measuring stick by which things are judged? Because we are the most intelligent? I don't think we make a very good advertisement for advanced intellectual capabilities. On a side note, for anyone interested in some entertaining (fictional) perspective on the subject, check out Robert Sawyer's Neanderthal Parallax trilogy.
I don't agree that compassion and love are necessary requirements for sentience. It's fair to argue that as evolved primates these traits are necessary for the group as a whole to survive. But that's based upon the abilities, skills, and weaknesses of primates. It's not clear, for example, that intelligent beings derived from insects have to share those properties to survive. It's not clear that sentient machines will have to have these traits either. Hitler and his fellow Nazis were the worst form of human scum this world has ever seen. But in terms of sentience and self-awareness they certainly were no worse than other humans. Indeed, it's what made their actions crimes that could be judged as willfully evil. I grew up on a farm and saw hogs in a pen attack weak members of the group to the point of death if I wasn't able to intervene in time. It was exactly like the worst form of human bullying. But were these hogs "evil"?
Your point is well taken. We use the human species as the measuring stick for sentience and pretty much everything else. Regarding the animals that have sex for fun, there are many examples, the most prominent of which is the Bonobos. Bonobos pretty much use sex for every aspect of their lives. An interesting aside is that in Bonobo society, the females rule and the males are pretty much marginalized.
unlike instinctual love and instinctual compassion, i think compassion in people is a highly complex attribute which may define what being human is all about. although i can understand the vileness of hitler and nazi's; can we really be sure that they were not doing a favor to mankind? what the nazi's did was to way immorality against morality and decided that the moral good was to eliminate the jewish because in the end it was for the greater good of mankind. ultimately, is it compassion or is it ones humanity to sacrifice one's life or soul for the greater good?
Compassion is an expected human quality even though not everyone has it or even behaves that way all the time. Mark Twain in his short story "Mysterious Stranger" had that stranger say that animals may be beasts but to act beastly was a human trait that he preferred to call acting human.