Legal personhood, thank goodness, is still not the same as being considered human in the eyes of the law. Nonetheless, the boundaries of what legal personhood means is constantly being challenged.
What rights and privileges are being granted when the moniker “legal person” is attached?
A deep dive into history finds mom and pop telling anyone that would listen that the family dog, or horse, or cow, or goat, or other loved animal “is family” and “just like a human.” The arguments included discussions of how the animal was smart, understood, expressed love, and more.
Dian Fossey spent eighteen years in Rwanda studying mountain gorilla groups and proved to the world that gorillas were highly intelligent.
Koko was a western lowland gorilla kept and studied in San Francisco. Koko learned more than 1000 words of modified American Sign language. Koko was said to have an IQ in the 70-95 range, where 100 is considered normal for humans.
In 2014, journalist Anderson Cooper interviewed an 86-year-old retired psychology professor, John Pilley, about Pilley’s border collie, Chaser. Called the smartest dog in the world, Chaser was able to identify over a thousand toys correctly over 95% of the time and followed virtually every command offered. Pilley had been teaching Chaser up to five hours a day, five days a week for over nine years.
Dolphins are considered highly intelligent. Can you tell anyone you didn’t love Flipper?
Wilber had a talking horse: Mr. Ed. Okay, only on TV.
Cockroaches must be very intelligent: they have survived for over 300 million years, meaning they were thriving when dinosaurs roamed the earth. They are said to be able to be able to survive a nuclear explosion.
In 2013, the world’s first conference dedicated to the topic of nonhuman animal personhood was held at Yale University. In attendance were members of an organization called The Nonhuman Rights Project, whose efforts to secure human-equivalent protections for animals is well known to those concerned about such things.
Steven Wise, the NhRP founder, acknowledged at that conference that virtually all human societies have denied “other than human” animals the right to bodily liberty.
The current arguments of animal rights supporters, and the pressures they bring to bear, are often directed to organizations that “keep” animals, such as zoos, circuses, amusement parks and the like. Many of these organizations have relented, an example being SeaWorld’s decision to stop using killer whales in its shows.
The Yale conference included many speakers concerned with many “animal rights” topics, including the right of animals not be to used in experimentation.
Wise, and many others, want to move the pendulum of current legal distinction for animals from “thinghood” to “personhood.” Such a distinction would result, according to Wise and those in that arena of belief, to a more humane treatment of animals and to “giving them their freedom,” akin to the freedom people enjoy, as an example, about where they live.
Wise and others say that certain animals have critical capacities, like autonomy, sense of self, awareness of others, mental time travel, and complex problem solving, that qualify them for the right to liberty, and they should thus be seen as equal under the law.
Wise is not off of the deep end with his arguments. He does not say that animals have the ability to understand, much less deal with responsibilities, thus negating that concept that “rights” beget responsibilities. His advocacy points mostly at “rights” in the realm of the treatment of animals.
There are many definitions of a human. Some seek to define by comparison to animals, and note that humans are distinguished by superior mental development, power of articulate speech, and upright stance.
Scientists agree there is no absolute consensus on the question of what makes a human “special” or even if we are. The biggest debate there is whether our cognitive abilities differ from animals “in kind” or merely in degree. Are humans in a class by themselves or just the smartest ones in the class?
Harvard researchers identified four abilities of the human mind that they believe to be the essence of “human uniqueness.” They are:
Generative computation — humans can generate a practically limitless variety of words and concepts.
Promiscuous combination of ideas – allowing for the mingling of different domains of knowledge such as art, sex, space, causality, friendship, thereby generating new laws, social relationships and technologies.
Mental symbols — these are our way of encoding sensory experiences, forming the basis of our complex systems of language and communication.
Abstract thought – the contemplation of things beyond what we can sense.
The Bible has much to say on the “humans are humans and animals are animals” discussion. Examples include “only man received the breath of God, in this way he was given a spirit so that he transcends the world of animals.” (Eccles.12:7, 1Thess. 5:23), and “Only man can actually communicate with God.”
Legal personhood is a term that, despite naysayers, is not however always reserved for humans.
Astoundingly (author’s opinion), the United States Supreme Court said corporations are persons in 2010 when it ruled in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that (loose summary) the free speech clause of the First Amendment applied not just to “people” but to corporations.
A New Zealand court extended the “personhood” label to a river.
Courts in Argentina and Columbia have recognized “personhood” for chimpanzees and a bear.
New York courts have remained steadfast in rejecting personhood status for chimps because of the chimps’ inability to bear legal responsibilities and social duties.
Perhaps the most scary concept facing humankind today is that, which by extrapolation, might someday see creations, such as robots, full of Artificial Intelligence, gain human rights.
Conversations about robots falling in love, both with humans and with each other, and marrying are commonplace in the world of people familiar with AI.
David Levy, a British researcher, believes that by 2050, robots and humans will be able to marry legally in the United States. He predicts that Massachusetts will lead the way, as it did in 2004 when it became the first state to allow same-sex marriages between humans.
As early as 2006 the British government considered the potential future need for government subsidized healthcare and housing for robots.
Recently, Minnie, Beulah and Karen, elephants who for decades have lived on a family-owned traveling zoo in Connecticut, and who have been rented out for appearances in advertisements, and at weddings, became the subject of litigation.
Steven Wise and his group, the NhRP, are seeking legal person status for the elephant trio, with the goal of having them moved to a sanctuary. The current lawsuit in the Connecticut Superior Court cites a large amount of scientific research establishing that elephants have advanced cognitive abilities and complex social lives – evidence of the elephants’ autonomy.
The elephants’ owners say the trio has plenty of space, and that the lawsuit is targeting a small family business without the funding to fight this fight.
If the Connecticut court grants “personhood” to these elephants, it would open the proverbial floodgates regarding the legal status of animals. Where would the line be drawn? Are cats smarter than dogs? A dog is like a wolf. A gerbil deserves love.
Animals are property. The law, virtually everywhere, says so.
Bears do not use toilet paper. “Woof” is not human speech. How much is that doggie in the window? Sorry Charlie, you are not a good tasting tuna.
Hopefully Connecticut’s jurists will keep the line drawn properly.