When does an animal count as a person?
- URL to a fascinating article from io9
This has been a recurring theme in SF for many years. The earliest I can
recall is RAH's Gerry Was a Man. Others?
This looks like a good summary of the arguments pro and con.
(I reject your reality and substitute my own)
When does an animal count as a person?
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A grassroots movement has recently emerged in which a number of
scientists, philosophers, ethicists and legal experts have rallied together in
support of the idea that some nonhuman animals are persons and thus deserving of
human-like legal protections. Their efforts have subsequently thrown
conventional notions of personhood into question by suggesting that humans
aren't the only persons on the planet. So what is a person, exactly? We spoke to
two experts to find out.
To help with the discussion, we spoke to Lori Marino, Senior Lecturer in
Neuroscience at Emory University and the Science Director for the _Nonhuman
Rights Project_ (http://www.nonhumanrightsproject.org/) (not to be confused
with the _IEET_ (http://ieet.org/) 's _Rights of the Nonhuman Persons
Program_ (http://ieet.org/index.php/IEET/RNHP) , of which I am the founder and
Chair), and John Shook, a Research Associate in Philosophy and faculty
member of the Science and the Public EdM online program at the University at
As we learned through our conversations with them, it may be some time
before we reach consensus on what truly constitutes a person, but it's becoming
increasingly clear that many nonhuman animals are smarter and more aware
than previously thought — what will certainly upset our notions of their
legal and moral standing.
The kind of beings that we are
Lori Marino, through her efforts with the NhRP, is trying to secure legal
protections for a special subset of nonhuman species, a list of highly
sapient animals that includes all the great apes (like bonobos and chimpanzees),
elephants, cetaceans (which includes both dolphins and whales), and even
And the legal protections that Marino is talking about are not your
run-of-the-mill animal welfare laws. Rather, they would be the same set of laws
that protect any person — humans included.
If and when these laws get passed, nonhuman persons would be protected from
such things as torture, experimentation, slavery, confinement (including
zoos and water parks), and the threat of unnatural death (like hunting and
outright murder). Essentially, if you wouldn't do it to a human, you
wouldn't do it to a nonhuman person.
All this being said, it may seem odd to refer to nonhuman animals as
"It seems strange because we are so used to thinking of persons as
equivalent to human and limited to humans," Marino told io9. "But being ‘human' is
what describes us as a biological species. Being a person, on the other
hand, describes us as the kind of beings that we are."
Semantics or science?
But not everyone is on board the idea. Critics like John Shook argue that
the effort to grant nonhuman animals personhood status is both misguided and
"Nonhuman animals cannot be persons because they are not, even in
principle, the sorts of beings able to engage in the mutual recognition of equal
moral worth and dignity," Shook told io9.
He argues that the way some people recognize an animal as a person is not a
sufficient condition for personhood. "That recognition has to be returned
equally," he says, "It's not about mere sociality."
He points out that many animals are highly social and that it's easy to
find kinship bonds and the tightest bonds of friendship between human and
nonhumans. "But those social abilities fall short of the standard for
personhood participation," he says.
Shook's main argument is that persons exist together in a "socius" — in a
society of mutual recognition. Because they can't possibly understand what
it means to take part in the social contract, he says, they can't be
But these philosophical notions are starting to be replaced by science.
Earlier this year, a group of prominent scientists _signed the Cambridge
Declaration on Consciousness_
(http://io9.com/5937356/prominent-scientists-sign-declaration-that-animals-have-conscious-awareness-just-like-us) in which
they proclaimed their support for the idea that many animals are conscious
and aware to the degree that humans are. The rest of society, they said,
need to take note and behave accordingly.
Indeed, Marino and others are increasingly using science to demonstrate
that personhood is not merely about an animal's ability to participate in the
social contract, but rather something that's predicated on the
sophistication of their cognitive capacities. It's this very idea that drives Marino in
"I came aboard the NhRP as the Science Director for a very good reason,"
she told us, "there is an abundance of evidence to support the effort for
legal personhood for nonhuman beings. And, I sincerely believe that other
animals need to have personhood status in the law if things are to change for
them in any real substantive way."
_Full size_ (http://img.gawkerassets.com/img/185i196pkcdzbjpg/original.jpg)
To that end, Marino has also supported other efforts like _signing the
Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans: Whales and Dolphins_
(http://news.nationalpost.com/2012/02/21/dolphins-deserve-rights-scientists-told/) at the
American Association for the Advancement of Science earlier this year.
Marino says that philosophical notions of personhood are fine, but in order
for the basic rights of nonhuman beings to be truly protected they have to
be given legal status as persons. "As it stands, no nonhuman being has
that legal status — they're all considered property," she says, "And, although
there are animal cruelty laws, they are human-oriented rather than focused
on the real victims of cruelty – the nonhuman beings."
Moreover, she says that designating some nonhuman animals as persons will
do much to change the public's mindset about other animals. "Just as legal
personhood status led to a change in how African slaves were viewed and,
eventually, to their status as free individuals, I think the same will happen
with other animals," says Marino. "I believe that animal rights is the new
frontier in the domain of rights. Just as with human slavery, in the future
we will look back on how we've treated other animals and will be deeply
The struggle to define the person
An immediate challenge for animal personhood advocates is to formally
define what they mean by a person — not an easy task. We humans automatically
get to be called persons, and as a result, we've never really had to come up
with formal definitions. Even the abortion debate hasn't settled the issue;
‘personhood' is typically invoked when a fetus is viable outside the womb —
not a very helpful guideline.
What is changing, however, is the notion that personhood is not something
that one is simply born into by virtue of their species, or something
that's dependant on one's level of sociopolitical engagement. Rather, it's
something that comes about by virtue of the presence of certain cognitive
psychological, and emotional capacities.
One of the better attempts to define a person came from the bioethicist
Joseph Fletcher who presented a list of fifteen "_positive propositions_
(http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.2307/3561570/abstract) ." His attributes
included such things as self-awareness, self-control, a minimum level of
intelligence, a sense of time (including a sense of the past and future),
concern for others, curiosity, and so on.
Fletcher's list did not come without controversy. By virtue of his
criteria, a person in a permanently vegetative state and with no brain activity
would not be considered a person. And at the same time, certain nonhuman
animals would have to be considered persons. Put another way, Fletcher's list
meant that not all humans are persons, and not all persons are humans.
The subsequent challenge facing scientists and bioethcists has been in
proving that nonhuman animals have these capacities. But as the signatories of
the Cambridge Declaration conceded, there is a tremendous amount of data
emerging in support of the idea that animals are conscious to the degree that
"Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the
neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states
along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors," they wrote in
Shook, on the other hand, takes great exception to the idea that personhood
can be defined by ticking off a checklist of criteria. "Here's the
trouble," he says, "any criteria capable of including all humans will also include
far too many lower animals." He worries about a potential slippery slope
in which even worms, frogs and rats have to be considered persons should the
criteria be exceedingly liberal in its interpretation.
"The same logical dilemma arises for any similar category like
'rights-bearer,'" he says, "Biting the bullet here and saying that only a subset of
humans are really persons so that horses or foxes can be persons will arouse
far more controversy and a vaster fight with humanism than you are ready
Fortunately, says Shook, it is not necessary to either bestow personhood or
use universal liberalism to assign rights to beings. "Paternalistic rights
are genuine and powerful rights too — the sorts of rights that the Polis
can protect as strenuously as equal civil-political rights," he says.
It's what brains do
Marino, on the other hand, is not convinced that such "paternalistic
rights" will suffice. Moreover, her personal definition of personhood is far less
strict than that that of Fletcher's and other personhood theorists.
_Full size_ (http://img.gawkerassets.com/img/185i1vjq46z8rjpg/original.jpg)
"My definition of personhood is very practical and very context driven,"
she says, "I don't see this as a black and white issue — it is more of an
issue of bringing the existing evidence to bear on the efforts."
She agrees that there is an overwhelming amount of scientific evidence
indicating that many other species, such as cetaceans, elephants, great apes,
and some birds, share those basic characteristics that define personhood in
our own species. But she takes it even further than that.
"On a personal level, I view all other animals with a brain as persons, she
says. "They are not human but they are other persons. But regarding the
NhRP we are letting the science lead our legal definition."
Marino doesn't believe that there is a clear-cut line in nature that
differentiates conscious from nonconscious animals. "From a neuroanatomical
point of view it is reasonable to accept the premise that all animals with a
central nervous system are conscious," she says. "This is what brains do for a
living — they provide a way for the animal to process information and
respond appropriately, and that's true whether you are an aplysia or a
She concedes that the empirical evidence tells us there are differences
across species. "Some readily recognize themselves in mirrors, for instance,
and others just don't get it," she says. But when we look at the complete
set of data in the literature, she argues, it demonstrates that consciousness
is a dimensional phenomenon.
"Some animals may be capable of more complex and profound levels of
awareness than others," she says, "But all are conscious."
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