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Philosophy and the Nonhuman Rights Movement

By Russell Tenofsky

Philosophy can be heady stuff. It’s often seen as having no real world implications and as nothing more than mere thought games played by stuffy intellectuals or young undergrads at 2 a.m. But, in actuality, its concepts are the very basis of the Nonhuman Rights Project’s arguments and what NhRP President Steven M. Wise has been telling everyone he can for years.

Studying philosophy also brought me to the nonhuman rights movement. Reading Bentham, Singer, Regan, Ecofeminists, and scores of other philosophers in undergraduate and graduate school shaped my (and thousands of other young people’s) thoughts on nonhuman rights. And it was philosophy, in fact, that first truly taught me the difference between nonhuman rights and animal welfare and compelled me to start volunteering for the NhRP back in 2012.

That is why I could have not been more delighted to learn that a group of philosophers recently submitted an amicus curiae brief in support of the NhRP’s chimpanzee rights cases. And today in The New York Times, one of these philosophers, Jeff Sebo, director of the animal studies program at New York University, published an op-ed in support of chimpanzee personhood and rights.

The philosophical constructs of the nonhuman rights movement are now often pushed to the side in lieu of activism, but activism doesn’t necessarily generally sway judges. Sometimes it’s important to go back to the basics.

With their purpose being to support “the Nonhuman Rights Project’s efforts to secure habeas corpus relief for the chimpanzees Kiko and Tommy,” the philosophers use the amicus to argue, “there is a diversity of ways in which humans (homo sapiens) are ‘persons’ and there are no non-arbitrary conceptions of ‘personhood’ that can include all humans and exclude all nonhuman animals.”

The amicus assesses the “four most prominent conceptions of ‘personhood’ found in the rulings concerning Kiko and Tommy…” Species Membership, Social Contract, Community Membership, and Capacities.

The most basic and common reasoning for denying Tommy and Kiko a writ of habeas corpus seems to be that they are not homo sapiens. The history of philosophical thought points to this being a false construct. The philosophers argue in the amicus that evolutionary biology suggests that, because of similarity across species, variation among organisms within species, and evolution, “…there are no species essences, no set of properties both necessary and jointly sufficient for an organism to be a member of a particular species.”

Judges have also cited the concept of duties as reasoning why Tommy and Kiko cannot be legally considered persons and conclude that this denies them entry into the social contract. The amicus argues, “While legal duties, legal accountability, and society responsibilities are acquired by citizens under social contracts, neither the status of citizenship nor personhood depend on the ability to bear those responsibilities.” Many humans cannot bear these duties; therefore, whether or not Tommy and Kiko can is irrelevant to their personhood.

What’s more, social contract philosophers argue that social contracts make homo sapiens citizens, not persons. The philosophers write: “Social contract philosophers have never claimed – not now, not in the 17th century – that the social contract can endow personhood on any being. The contract can only endow citizenship on persons who exist prior to the contract and agree to it. If persons did not exist before the contract, there would be no contract at all since only persons can contract. Personhood, therefore, must be presupposed as a characteristic of contractors in social contract theories.” Clearly many homo sapiens are not capable of being contractors yet are still both legally citizens and persons.

Philosophers have divided the concept of membership in the human community into two different areas: the wide view and the narrow view.

The wide view argues the human community is basically biological in nature and includes anyone who is homo sapiens. Anyone who is “embedded in interpersonal webs of interdependency, trust, communication, and normative responsiveness.” Tommy and Kiko, the amicus argues, “are embedded in interpersonal webs of dependency, meaning, and care with other human persons, and so are part of human communities.”

The narrow view is, obviously, much narrower reasoning. It concludes one is a member of the human community via biological traits (physical properties e.g. forty-six chromosomes or human parents) or psychological traits (mental capacities e.g. having believes and desires). Scientists have shown over and over again that chimpanzees (and many other nonhuman animals) are autonomous individuals with rational desires, emotions, and beliefs.

The last of the four conceptions of personhood the philosophers address in their amicus is capacities. The philosophers argue that since the Courts did not dispute the NhRP’s most fundamental claim that the “capacity for autonomy is sufficient (though not necessary) for personhood,” if chimpanzees possess similar capacities as homo sapiens, then they must be persons.

Philosophical reasoning has evolved to define persons as possessing a yet unquantified combination of the capacities autonomy, emotions, linguistic mastery, sentience, rationality, reflective self-awareness, and reciprocity. Although chimpanzees possess many (if not all) of these capacities, the NhRP has focused on autonomy, and the philosophers agree that this is a sound argument.

Traditionally, Immanuel Kant is the philosopher most associated with autonomy – more specifically, that persons are ends in ourselves. Kant’s view limits personhood because it requires one to engage in a high level of abstract thought, something most humans don’t do.

However, the philosophers cite the more modern thinkers, Tom Beauchamp and Victoria Wobber, who have evolved the concept to “an act being autonomous if an individual self-initiates an ‘action that is (1) intentional, (2) adequately informed…and (3) free of controlling influences.’” The NhRP has numerous affidavits from primatologists, biologists, and many other scientists showing chimpanzees posses all three of these capacities.

The amicus also points out that Beauchamp and Wobber’s “cluster concept” of capacities shows chimpanzees’ ability to “act intentionally (which assumes capacities to form goals and direct one’s behavior) and to be adequately informed (which assumes capacities to learn, to make inferences, and acquire knowledge through rational processes), each of which require sentience.” It follows then, that being autonomous requires other capacities of personhood, namely, sentience and rationality. Therefore, “evidence of autonomy is sufficient evidence of personhood. Thus, chimpanzees qualify as persons on autonomy grounds alone.”

The autonomy argument’s ethical connection comes full circle in that violating one’s autonomy is clearly causing harm. In a wonderful philosophically profound way, the amicus asserts, “autonomous individuals have a basic interest in exercising their autonomy, and to violate it is to violate a basic interest (Beauchamp and Childress 2001).” Tommy and Kiko, being autonomous individuals, are having their basic autonomic interests violated by being held in restrictive, isolated captivity.

The philosophers conclude their amicus strongly by stating, “Importantly, despite appeals to considerations like being human and being a member of a human community, that either have no relevance to personhood or are actually friendly to chimpanzee personhood, previous courts have never disputed the capacities account of personhood. They have, however resisted the conclusion that obviously follows from those facts…that chimpanzees such as Kiko and Tommy qualify as persons.”

So, there it is. All neatly wrapped up in a philosophical bow. Scores of scientists have proven it and now philosophers have weighed in. The amicus has shown, by using a vast array of historical and modern philosophy that, without a doubt, Tommy and Kiko (and all chimpanzees) ought to be considered legal persons by virtue of their inclusion in the social contract, their community membership, and their autonomous capacities. Hopefully, this sound, logical reasoning can sway the New York judges to see what others see as being so painfully obvious – that Tommy and Kiko (and many nonhuman animals) possess the capacities to be granted a writ of habeas corpus.

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