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Chimpanzee Rights: The Philosophers’ Brief

By Lauren Choplin

In February of this year, after the Nonhuman Rights Project filed a motion for permission to appeal to the New York Court of Appeals in the cases of captive chimpanzees Tommy and Kiko, a group of philosophers submitted an amicus curiae brief in support of the NhRP’s efforts to secure recognition of our clients’ legal personhood and rights. An amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) assists a court by offering information, expertise, or insight that has a bearing on the issues in a case; whether to consider the brief is at the discretion of the court. In May, a judge on New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, favorably referenced the philosophers’ brief in an opinion seen as a historic mark of progress in the fight for nonhuman rights, with the judge concluding (for the first time anywhere in the US), “there is no doubt that [a chimpanzee] is not merely a thing.”

Now, we’re delighted to say, thirteen of the philosophers who co-authored the brief have expanded it into a newly published book: Chimpanzee Rights: The Philosophers’ Brief. I talked by email with three of the co-authors—Kristin Andrews (York University), Andrew Fenton (Dalhousie University), and L Syd M Johnson (Michigan Technological University)—about the book and their work:

Why was it important to you to co-author an amicus brief in support of Tommy and Kiko’s bid for personhood and rights, and how did this group of philosophers form? What compelled you and your colleagues to turn the brief into a book?

Syd: Working on the amicus brief was a way to make my work as a philosopher impactful and publicly engaged. My tendency, as a bioethicist, is to focus on real-world, real-people issues, and I also have a longstanding personal interest in issues that affect nonhuman animals. In some ways, writing the brief was an extension of my teaching—I introduce animal ethics to my students, and here was a chance to introduce animal ethics in a meaningful yet accessible way to the judges. Of course, we all hoped it would be convincing enough to sway the judges, and get an opinion favorable to Tommy and Kiko. One of the handy side benefits is that the amicus brief will be a really nice introductory text for students in my ethics and political philosophy classes.

I think most philosophers tend to be rather prolix—writing the brief was a difficult exercise in adhering to a word count that actually had the force of law! The opportunity to expand on the brief, and write a book in which we could include all the things we didn’t have space for in the brief was irresistible. It was also a chance to continue working as a group, which I certainly welcomed.

Andrew: During my dissertation years, I focused on what we could call chimpanzee epistemology [theorizing about what it would mean to see chimpanzees as epistemic subjects (or as knowledge producers and evidence gatherers)]. My views about the moral significance of chimpanzees, and a whole lot of other animals, grew out of that work as I studied what scientists were discovering about chimpanzee, and many other animals’, cognitive and social capacities. The brief offered me a practical opportunity to put my training and moral views of chimpanzees to work in support of bettering the lives of Kiko and Tommy.

I attended a symposium co-organized by Lori Marino at Emory University in February of 2017. I was Lori’s discussant after her presentation. As I had the chance, I asked her how philosophers could be more useful to those, like Lori, seeking to get animals like orcas to sanctuary. Steve was there for that symposium and asking him that question over some beverages after that day’s presentations led him to suggest an amicus brief. He was in Halifax within a month of that symposium for a panel on Unlocking the Cage, and Letitia Meynell and I met him for breakfast the next day to chat about an amicus brief. From there we inquired among friends and colleagues about their interest in such a venture so that when Steve gave us the green light we could start reaching out to various folks. The rest is history.

Kristin: The first paper I ever published, back while I was an MA student, was on the topic of ape personhood (“The First Step in the Case for Great Ape Equality: The Argument for Other Minds” Etica & Animali: The Great Ape Project, August 1996: 131-141). I was inspired to write that paper after reading The Great Ape Project, edited by Paola Cavalieri and Peter Singer, with essays written by an array of famous scientists, philosophers, and public intellectuals, all arguing for personhood rights for apes. When Steven Wise published Rattling the Cage a few years later, I taught his book as part of my course on animal minds and moral standing. By the time Andrew approached me about joining as a co-author for the amicus brief in support of Tommy and Kiko, I had long been convinced that some nonhuman animals should be granted personhood rights, and I was happy to have the opportunity to offer arguments in a venue that might have more of an impact than a philosophy journal.

We decided to turn the brief into a book in order to reach a larger audience. The book is short enough to be read as part of an applied ethics course, and is written at a level that is accessible to the general public. I think it is really important to communicate these arguments to the general public, given that the common law is meant to take into account evolving public opinion and the debate about nonhuman rights is already moving into legislatures in other countries and will soon do the same in the US. If society is going to help determine the transformation of chimpanzees from property to person, society needs to hear the arguments.

Andrew: Kristin is the mastermind behind the book. A contact at Routledge had reached out to her to do something on the brief and so she, in turn, reached out to the group to weigh interest in turning the brief into a short book. It’s a wonderful opportunity to get our work on the brief out to a wider readership that, we hope, can use the book to think through re-imaging how we co-exist with chimpanzees like Kiko and Tommy.

From the outside looking in, I’ve been struck by how extraordinarily well you all seem to work together. Am I correct? If so, how do you explain that? In terms of process, how did you deal with disagreement?

Kristin: We do work well together! And it was a big surprise, since I didn’t know more than half the people in the group when we started working together. I still haven’t met some of them. We quickly came to know one another’s strengths, and divided up the work based on what each of us is best at. I feel so lucky to be working with this great group of people! When it comes to the arguments, as you would expect we did disagree from time to time. But, we were able to find premises that we all agreed on, and from those premises we were still able to make these strong arguments for chimpanzee legal standing.

Syd: Philosophers are not necessarily known for being prosocial, collaborative, and agreeable people! The authors of the brief and the book represent diverse philosophical views—but all of us share a commitment to justice for humans and nonhuman animals, and I think that commitment was motivating enough for us to work through our disagreements, and reach a consensus that we were all comfortable with. As one might expect with such a large and diverse group, sometimes there were strong disagreements, but we worked through them by trying different ways of saying things. As in the law, sometimes a single word can make all the difference. For me, there were times when I got annoyed or frustrated, but I was always keenly aware that there were two lives—Tommy’s and Kiko’s—that were very much at stake, and that we were doing this for them, and not for ourselves.

Andrew: I think we have worked well, even while disagreeing (and, as Syd notes, getting frustrated) from time to time. Philosophers are trained through critically engaging texts, profs, colleagues, and, as we get to know each other, friends. Disagreement isn’t personal, so it doesn’t preclude working together to achieve a common goal (including running departments!). As in many areas of applied ethics, folks can disagree about abstract theories, certain concepts, and even how to defend certain fundamental ethical commitments, and yet share very similar views about what we should do and what we should not do. You start there and work backwards, looking for arguments or analyses that you can all agree on. I think Syd is right, a common unifier through this journey was Kiko and Tommy and our shared desire to see them have a chance to flourish as chimpanzees with other chimpanzees.

How did you, as a philosopher, come to turn your attention to nonhuman animals?

Kristin: My earliest interest in philosophy as a teenager was on the relationship between how one sees the world and what exists. You might call it the social construction of the world. From the beginning I already knew that the way I see the world, the way my family members, my fellow countryfolk, my fellow humans, see the world differs, and I
expected that other animals see the world differently. Early on I was hoping that we could communicate with other animals so they could teach us how they see the world, and I spent a year at a dolphin lab assisting with research on artificial language in bottlenose dolphins. While there, I soon became concerned about keeping these four individuals captive in order to learn how to communicate with them. I also realized that captive animals might have less to say than wild animals, given the kinds of lives they lead.When I went to graduate school in philosophy following the stint at the dolphin lab, my newfound knowledge about the scientific research shaped the philosophical questions I was interested in. I turned to work in the philosophy of science and the philosophy of mind, and my research has been focused on showing what animal minds, cultures, and behavior have to offer to traditional questions in philosophy. In my book The Animal Mind (Routledge 2012), I bring together years of work to demonstrate how what we know from the science can help inform philosophical debates about the nature of consciousness, mental representation, communication, perception, social cognition, and even ethics.

Syd: I went vegan in 1986, because of an intuitive (but not very informed) sense I had that it was morally right and consistent. Those were still early days for the animal rights movement and animal advocacy, and I was involved with organizations working on a variety of issues back then. When I went to grad school to study philosophy, I focused on other things, but eventually was able to do some writing, speaking, and teaching related to animal ethics. The personal interest was always there for me, but it took a while for me to find (or make) opportunities to act on them in my work as a philosopher. My work as a bioethicist has primarily focused on brain injuries and disability, and especially severe disability. There was, for me, an overlap between that work and the work on the brief, because thinking a lot, as I have, about the status of people who are unconscious—and whose moral status is sometimes challenged—has always been informed by my thinking about the contested moral status of nonhumans. In writing the brief, I was especially interested in the way that the previous courts had twisted themselves into knots to make sure they included infants and comatose humans in the sphere of “persons.” If those humans, whose personhood is contested, qualify as persons, then why not chimpanzees? It was an opportunity to coax the judges along, to ease them into consistency with their own intuitions and settled beliefs, but also to help bridge this gap that sometimes exists between those who advocate for animals, and those who advocate for oppressed and vulnerable humans.

Andrew: See my first response (🙂). I’ve had various nonhuman animals in my life since I was quite young, but I haven’t always treated them very well. My thoughts on their importance to how we do philosophy and how we should regard or treat them only began to take on any real depth during my PhD studies. I did a paper on chimpanzees for a graduate class in action theory. We’d been studying Donald Davidson’s work and I just didn’t buy his view of other animals (Davidson denied that non-language users have beliefs or desires). I picked up a book from the University of Calgary’s bookstore: a collection titled Chimpanzee Cultures, edited by Wrangham, McGrew, de Waal, and Heltne. If you have never looked it over, I’d still recommend it. Many of the chapters in that book shaped my thoughts on chimpanzees and my arguments against Davidson.

The brief has already made an impact in the New York courts. What do you hope the book will achieve?

Syd: The impact of the brief has been really gratifying, and I hope that as a legal document, it will continue to have an influence. The book will perhaps have a wider impact. I think it’s a really nice introduction to some of the major philosophical arguments for chimpanzee personhood — arguments that can easily be extended to other nonhuman animals — and it will be useful both to students, and to thoughtful public readers who are interested in animal rights. Many people intuitively understand that animals are more than just things — I hope the book gives them some powerful and relatable arguments to back up those intuitions.

Andrew: I hope readers will reason, along with us, about how best to regard animals like Kiko and Tommy under law. Kiko and Tommy aren’t things. To treat them as if they are is wrong. Given who they are, they should enjoy certain very basic protections that are geared toward their interests not only as sentient beings, but beings who can form deep social bonds, navigate quite complex social contexts in order to satisfy their preferences of treatment, and enjoy rich and complex emotional lives.

Kristin: I hope the book will be a piece of a larger social movement that transforms our thinking about apes and other animals.

What’s next for you (individually and/or as a group)?

Syd: We’re working on an amicus brief for the NhRP’s case on behalf of Minnie, Karen, and Beulah. Andrew, Adam Shriver, and I are editing a book on neuroethics and nonhuman animals. It looks at neuroscientific research on nonhuman animals—what we’ve learned about animal minds through neuroscience, and what the ethical implications of that knowledge might be. I’m also writing a book about disorders of consciousness. I hope I can incorporate some of what I’ve learned from my fellow philosophers in this group into that book, bringing things full circle.

Kristin: As Syd noted, the group has been working on an amicus brief in support of three elephants. I’m working with elephant cognition researchers and people working in elephant rehabilitation to learn more about the capacities of elephants, since I don’t have expertise in Asian or African elephants. And, along with Andrew, I’m quite keen to help move the individuals who are not not currently in sanctuary out of biomedical labs and non-accredited roadside zoos and into sanctuary settings. Many chimpanzees who have been retired from research following the NEH’s decision to end biomedical chimpanzee research are still waiting for sanctuary space, and the sanctuaries need our help.On the more traditional academic side of things, I’m writing a short book on the sciences of animal minds for Cambridge University Press. You might be surprised to learn that there is no one discipline that studies animal minds, and that there is no real unifying set of principles that animal mind scientists share. Some scientists work on animal minds, but still think animals might not be conscious! This little book proposes to unify the sciences and offers principles and guidelines for doing ethical and scientifically respectable work on animal mind, behavior, and culture.

I also am working on a large project on the evolution of morality. Given what we have learned about wild chimpanzees in the last fifty years, and given philosophical analyses of the nature of social norms, I argue that chimpanzees, like humans across cultures, live by social norms that differ from group to group.

Andrew: As Syd has noted, Syd, Adam Shriver and I are co-editing a book on animals and neuroethics. We’ve almost finished the brief to support the NhRP’s efforts to get three elephants—Beulah, Karen and Minnie—to an adequate sanctuary. I can’t speak for the entire group, but I hope to continue to lend my support to the Nonhuman Rights Project’s efforts to get various captive animals to sanctuaries where they have a chance to live lives worth living.

The NhRP would like to once again the philosophers who co-authored the brief:

Chimpanzee Rights: The Philosophers’ Brief is available now via Amazon and Routledge.

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