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Are animals “people”?

The New York Times philosophical commentary series, The Stone, featured an article last week asking whether relatively intelligent animals — the specific example was a couple of Chimpanzees — should be considered ‘persons’ under the law (and, by implication and extension, as a matter of moral right).  Its conclusion was that we ought to believe the answer to the question is “Yes” on the law because the available alternative — treating them as “things” — is insufficiently deferential to their obvious, if limited, intellectual and emotional capacities.  On the issue of moral right, it was less adamant but clearly sympathetic to a similar conclusion.

  I responded with the following letter.  However, as it happens, The Times didn’t publish any letters on the subject: debate and commentary on the essay played out entirely in the online comments (you need to click on the cartoon speech bubble icon to see the comments).  Several people made points similar to mine (and with more detail and eloquence, if less pithiness).  Others, of course — this is The New York Times — went off on tangents about “If corporations are people…”; and not a few strode far down the path toward the enlightened inanity of “Why should we, in our arrogance, think humans are in any way superior to animals…”.

I waited the week to see whether my letter was going to be published.  Since it appears not, here it is.

8 April 2018

Ref: “Should Chimpanzees Be Considered ‘Persons’?” (Jeff Sebo; “The Stone”, 8 April 2018)

The day you can convince me that Chimpanzees — or any other life-forms, natural or synthetic — are capable of understanding the concept of “responsibilities” and accepting a moral obligation to live up to them, I will grant that they deserve the status of “personhood” and the rights that go with it.

Until then, they may well not be “things” but they are also not fully “people”.

© Copyright 2018, Augustus P. Lowell

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