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Why ‘Experts’ Get So Confused about Legal Rights for Nonhumans

By Michael Mountain

Is their confusion perhaps deliberate?

Western lowland gorilla (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) mother feeding with baby investigating grass. Captive, France

An article in The Week asks: “Should Apes Have Legal Rights?” As the Nonhuman Rights Project prepares to file its first lawsuit asking a court to recognize a nonhuman as having the fundamental right to bodily liberty, this is just one of many media outlets that are increasingly posing the question and inviting “experts” on all sides to comment.

On the “yes, they should” side, this latest article notes that all the great apes can learn and use language and express emotions. The writers quote Jane Goodall of the Nonhuman Rights Project as saying that "There is no sharp line dividing us from the chimpanzee or from any of the great apes … [They] share up to 98.7 percent of their DNA with humans.”

Arguing against giving legal rights to nonhumans, Steve Jones, a professor of genetics at the University of London, says that even mice share 90 percent of our DNA. "Should they get 90 percent of human rights?" he asks. "Where do you stop?"

Human rights are for humans. Chimpanzee rights would be for chimpanzees.But wait! With almost magical sleight of hand, Professor Jones has just cleverly changed the subject. None of us have said anything about giving chimpanzees “human rights”? And that’s where the whole article goes off the rails – as these debates so often do, especially when the writers and TV hosts just swallow what these “experts” are saying without ever calling them on what they’re saying.

Nobody who’s arguing that certain nonhuman animals should be recognized as having fundamental rights based on their levels of cognition and autonomy has ever suggested that they should have “human rights.” Human rights are for humans. Chimpanzee rights would be for chimpanzees. And Dr. Jones’s argument is nothing more than a straw man.

When we talk of fundamental rights for such nonhumans as chimpanzees, we’re talking primarily about the basic rights to bodily liberty (i.e. not to be locked up for life in a cage) and bodily integrity (not to be invasively experimented on). Rights that are obviously to do with humans, like the right to vote or equal pay for equal work, are obviously completely irrelevant to nonhumans.

It’s hard to imagine that supposedly intelligent people like Professor Jones are really so confused. What seems more likely is that they’re trying to confuse the rest of us. And this becomes yet more obvious when The Week interviews another naysayer, the head of the Institute for Creation Research:

Humans have rights because we live under a moral code, said John D. Morris, an evolutionary creationist. Animals have no understanding of that code. "No ape has any awareness of right or wrong," he said. "If a loose chimp steals a picnic basket in the park, does he go to jail?"

Mr. Morris, who, according to the Institute for Creation Research, is "best known for leading expeditions to Mt. Ararat in search of Noah’s Ark," may sound like he knows what he’s talking about, but again, what he says is completely untrue. Just for starters:

* It’s not because “we live under a moral code” that we humans have granted ourselves certain fundamental rights, like the right to life and liberty. (The Founding Fathers were among those who considered certain basic rights to be "unalienable" – i.e. having nothing to do with moral codes.)

* And when Mr. Morris notes that a chimpanzee can’t be sent to jail for stealing, and therefore doesn’t deserve rights, he conveniently forgets that a five-year-old child is also not held morally accountable, and that children have basic rights irrespective of the moral codes and obligations that apply to adults.

Is Mr. Morris truly unaware of all this? Or is he, like Professor Jones, just trying to confuse us all with phony straw-man arguments?

Just for the record, the legal system in this country generally recognizes at least four different categories of rights: claim rights, liberty rights, immunity rights, and power rights. If that’s all gobbledygook to you, don’t worry about it. But people like Professor Jones and Mr. Morris, who want to exercise their right to pontificate on the rights of humans and other animals, don’t understand it either.

And when can’t demonstrate that they know what they’re talking about, the rest of us can happily exercise our right to ignore them.

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