Is Nonhuman Personhood a Valid Legal and Ethical Concept?

Apr 28th, 2018 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues

New York University professor, Jeff Sebo, reports that The Nonhuman Rights Project, since 2013, has been working on behalf of two chimpanzees, Kiko and Tommy, asking the courts to rule that Kiko and Tommy have the right to bodily liberty and to order their immediate release into a sanctuary where they can live the rest of their lives with other chimpanzees. (Kiko and Tommy are ?currently being held in cages by their ?owners? without the company of other chimpanzees?). The Nonhuman Rights Project is arguing that Kiko and Tommy should be regarded as ?persons,? with all the rights that go with personhood, including the right of habeas corpus, which protects one from unlawful confinement and which therefore would mean Kiko and Tommy should be freed from their ?unlawful confinement.? Sebo summarizes the position of the Project: Under current law, one is either a ?person? or a ?thing.? There is no third option. If you are a person, you have the capacity for rights. If you are a thing, you do not have the capacity for rights. The Project?s argument is that because Kiko and Tommy are sensitive, intelligent, social beings, they should be considered a person with all of the rights that accompany that designation. The Project in other words is arguing for nonhuman personhood: The terms ?human? and ?person? are not synonyms or interchangeable concepts in law or in ethics. ?Human? is a biological concept that refers to a member of a particular species (e.g., Homo sapiens). ?Person? is best understood as a moral and legal concept that refers to an individual who can hold moral and legal rights.

The Nonhuman Rights Project seeks a more inclusive view of personhood, ?according to which humans are persons because we all have some or all of the[se] features . . . conscious experience, emotionality, a sense of self or bonds of care or interdependence. This view is more plausible . . . in part because it includes all humans within the scope of personhood. At the same time, it includes some nonhumans too. For example, Kiko and Tommy are conscious, emotional, intelligent, social beings whose lives are deeply entangled with our own, their current state of isolation notwithstanding. As a result, they count as persons on any view inclusive enough to meet contemporary standards of human rights.?

How should we think biblically about the argument of The Nonhuman Rights Project? Several important points of background:

  • Steven Wise, a 63-year-old animal rights legal scholar, and the Nonhuman Rights Project are seeking to establish the legal personhood of animals. It has only been in the last 30 years that the distinct field of animal law (i.e., laws and legal theory for and about nonhuman animals) has emerged. There are now over 100 such programs in various law schools across the nation. Thus, the Project has filed a lawsuit on behalf of Kiko and Tommy. The Project also plans to file similar lawsuits on behalf of other members of the great ape family (bonobos, orangutans and gorillas) as well as dolphins, orcas, belugas, elephants and African gray parrots. The legal memo on behalf of Tommy reads: ?Like humans, chimpanzees have a concept of their personal past and future . . . they suffer the pain of not being able to fulfill their needs or move around as they wish; [and] they suffer the pain of anticipating never-ending confinement.? Wise argues that ?A legal person is not synonymous with a human being. A legal person is an entity that the legal system considers important enough so that it is visible and [has] interests? and also ?certain kinds of rights. I often ask my students: ?You tell me, why a human should have fundamental rights?? There?s not a single person on earth I?ve ever put that question to who can answer that without referring to certain qualities that a human has.? For that reason, Wise bases his lawsuits on behalf of animals on the writ of habeas corpus?a court order requiring that a prisoner be brought before a judge by his or her captor in order to rule on the legality of that prisoner?s detainment. For Wise, habeas corpus is a form of redress for the denial of ?legal person?s? right to bodily liberty, not necessarily a ?human being?s.?
  • Second, as a part of Project?s long term strategy to establish legal personhood for animals (Wise speaks of a 25 year plan), it has established a Science Working Group, assigned with the task of gathering available research and expert testimony on the cognitive abilities of (animal) plaintiffs it seeks to represent; a Legal Working Group which selects optimal jurisdictions for their lawyers and then finds potential clients there; and a Sociological Working Group, which collects whatever information it can on the judges within a prospective jurisdiction, everything from their sex, age and political party to their leisure activities and whether or not they own pets.
  • Finally, how should we think about such developments within the broader Christian church? Is assigning personhood status to nonhumans a biblical response to our stewardship responsibility as dominion stewards of God?s world? How should we think biblically about our pets? There are several important biblical principles in thinking about animal life, the larger physical world, and our relationship to both.
  1. The non-human creation is of great significance to God. He created the physical world as a deliberate act. God also takes pleasure in His physical world. This is clear from the Creation Ordinance in Genesis 1 and 2 and from 1 Timothy 4:4: ?For everything created by God is good and nothing is to be rejected, if it is received with gratitude.? (See also Psalm 104:31 where we see God rejoicing in His works.) The point is that if the physical world is important to God, then it must be to us?His creatures?as well (see also Job 39:1-2, Colossians 1:16 and Psalms 19:1-4).
  2. It is likewise imperative to note that God has a covenant, not only with humans, but also with the nonhuman creation. After the flood, God made a covenant with the physical creation: ?Behold, I establish my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the cattle, and every beast of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark? (Genesis 9:9-10). The physical world has dignity, worth and value quite apart from its service to humanity. Incredibly, God?s redemptive plan also has a cosmic quality to it. The biblical hope that the whole created order, including the material world of bodies and rivers and trees, will be part of the kingdom confirms that the created order is good and important. Romans 8:19-23 demonstrates that at Christ?s return the groaning of creation will cease, for the creation will be transformed: ?The creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God? (v. 21).
  3. The Bible affirms human uniqueness, for only humans are image-bearers of God. Humans resemble God in terms of His communicable attributes (e.g., intellect, emotion and will) and we represent Him in His world. No other physical part of God?s world can claim this image-bearer standing. As image-bearers representing God, humans have dominion status: God declares in Genesis 1:26-30 that humans have the responsibility to rule (have dominion) over the nonhuman creation. Tragically, this dominion has frequently turned to exploitation. Humans are to serve and watch lovingly, almost worshipfully, over God?s creation. We are God?s stewards: He has the sovereignty; we have the dominion. Francis Schaeffer argues that humans have two relationships?one upward and one downward. The upward relationship accentuates the personal relationship humans can have, through salvation, with God?a relationship not enjoyed by the rest of the created order. The downward relationship accentuates the ?creaturely? relationship that humans share with the rest of the created order (see Genesis 2:7 and Job 34:14, 15). As with most issues, the struggle is to keep the two in balance. We often highlight the upward relationship to the virtual exclusion of the downward. This can lead to horrific neglect or to a ruthless exploitation of the physical world. Or we often highlight only the downward to the virtual exclusion of the upward. This is the gross error of the evolutionary hypothesis, which sees humans as the product of the impersonal force of natural selection, not of God?s purposeful design.

We honor animals as valuable beings, a part of God?s world. It is our stewardship responsibility to treat them well, and to care for them. But, animals are not persons. They do not deserve to have the rights associated with personhood?only humans bear God?s image and that is the fundamental difference between animals and humans; an eternally significant difference. Jesus? death, burial and resurrection are for the justification of human beings, not animals.

Are chimpanzees important to God? Absolutely. Do chimpanzees deserve to be recognized as ?legal persons? with virtually the same rights as humans? No, for there is a creation-order distinction between humans and chimps. Does it matter how humans treat and care for chimps? Absolutely. Humans have dominion status and therefore have a stewardship responsibility before God. It is ethically wrong to exploit them, to harm them or to abuse them. But chimps do not bear the image of God. It is ethically fallacious to view chimps as having the same liberties as humans, and is therefore biblically suspect to file a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of an animal.

See Jeff Sebo in the New York Times (8 April 2018); Charles Siebert, ?The Rights of Man . . . and Beast,? New York Times Magazine (23 April 2014); James P. Eckman, Christian Ethics (2013), pp. 109-120; James Gorman, ?Rights Group Is Seeking Status of ?Legal Person? for Captive Chimpanzees,? in the New York Times (3 December 2013); and Mark Oppenheimer in the New York Times (15 October 2011). PRINT PDF

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