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Are animals people too?

We do not regard the animals as moral beings. But do you suppose the animals regard us as moral beings?

— Friedrich Nietzsche, Daybreak

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Should mammals be considered persons? There is a growing movement led by animal advocates and legal researchers who answer yes. They have recently brought their case to several state courts claiming certain mammals, such as dolphins and chimpanzees, deserve to be assigned the legal status of personhood.

Skeptics might jest: We will soon announce wedding ceremonies for gorillas, guarantee health insurance for whales, or overthrow pet stores to liberate the enslaved captives. This initial response overlooks the moral gravity presented by such advocacy.

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Supporters for animal personhood insist they are riding the coattails of previous groups who have overthrown the status of non-persons. Slaves, women and children once had their freedoms and dignity denied, since they were considered property or inferior underlings. The fight for their basic rights is a precedent for bestowing personhood to non-human yet highly intelligent and sociable mammals. Advocates also promise numerous benefits to mammals once their new rights are established. They will be again free, no longer held captive in zoos, circuses, aquariums and scientific laboratories.

This advocacy is not convincing. Slaves, women and children were eventually deemed to be persons due to their capacity to recognize one another's rights, principles and beliefs. They eventually became, under human law or before God's eye, formally equal to everyone else. Obviously animals have contributed mightily to human well-being. That does not prove they are persons capable of recognizing the rights of others. The same could be said for artificially intelligent machines for which the techno-savvy types debate assigning personhood.

British scholar Mary Midgely notes that "person" comes from Latin meaning mask. She refers not to the costume ball or Halloween mask, but the various dramas a person encounters in human life. As oppressed human beings began participating more freely in private and public domains — drinking at water fountains, voting or pursuing higher education — their status as persons gradually gained legal support. Presumably, animal advocates envision chimpanzees enjoying their newfound autonomy by freely mingling at the shopping mall, café or movie theatre.

The prediction that personhood-status will improve the lives of those fortunately designated species is even more specious. Animal advocates point to human rights as their model. Perhaps they have neglected recent news. This year more than 200 Nigerian school girls were kidnapped in a single incident, and the search for them appears inactive. A defenseless airline with travelers and scientists was inexplicably shot down. Civilians on humanitarian missions have been publicly beheaded. Dictatorial regimes, terrorizing their own citizens, are financially propped up by wealthy countries. Having rights does not seem to have helped these innocent persons.

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Human rights and personhood have become pawns in a devious international game. According to the Freedom House research group, of 195 independent countries in the world, only 88 — fewer than half — are categorized as "free" in terms of respecting citizens' liberties, civic rights and independent media. Meanwhile over 160 countries endorsed one or more of the international treaties for universal rights, suggesting that dozens of countries proclaim on paper to support basic rights but in reality do not. If we cannot guarantee the protection and enjoyment of rights for human persons, on what basis do we expect better results for animals?

In this context, University of Chicago law professor Eric Posner contends that human rights is an outdated ideal, if not counterproductive. The tragedies and cruelties depicting blatant violations of basic rights are fodder for evening news programs. The capacity to violate this ideal without getting caught increases with every new ideology and technology. A country signs off on the treaties in order to deflect potential investigation of its own inhuman practices. By extending personhood to animals, it seems implausible to expect their suffering would be any different than it has been for humans.

This is not to say that animals should be treated as objects or tools directed by the whims of human authority. Rather, the lives of animals and our moral regard for them might be improved in terms of beauty or sacred wonders. We can speak on their behalf in the name of significance to the ecosystem or mirrors of our own natural inclinations — just not in the name of rights and personhood.

Alexander E. Hooke is a philosophy professor at Stevenson University. His email is ahooke@stevenson.edu.

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