Anybody who sees the powerful and
immensely distressing documentary, “The
Cove”, which testifies to the horrible slaughter of dolphins in Japan,
should not be able to turn their backs on the brutal and cruel treatment of
these animals to which it testifies. Likewise, Matthew Scully’s book, Dominion, which documents the hell that
“factory farmed” animals endure as well as a variety of other
cruelties, elicits the same response — that we must do whatever we can to stop
Some ethicists, philosophers and
scientists have suggested that one remedial response would be to confer
personhood on at least some animal species for the purpose of protecting them
through ethics and law, including by attributing rights to them.
Biologist Lori Marino proposed this recently,
citing philosopher- ethicist Thomas White’s new book, In Defence of Dolphins. Princeton philosopher Peter Singer proposed
the same in the early 1980s. While I strongly endorse their goal of preventing
cruelty to all sentient creatures, and believe that we humans have obligations
to protect them, I don’t agree with trying to achieve that through making animals
My reasons for rejecting personhood
for animals include that it would undermine the idea that humans are
“special” relative to other animals and, therefore, deserve
Whether humans are
“special” — sometimes referred to as human exceptionalism or
uniqueness — is a controversial and central question in bioethics, and how we
answer it will have a major impact on what we view as ethical or unethical with
regard to our treatment of humans and of animals.
Currently, we use the word
“person” as a synonym for human and to indicate, communicate and
implement the concept that humans are different from other animals and
“special.” It can no longer fulfill that function if it does not
refer exclusively to humans. In other words, if animals become persons, human
persons become animals. The line between humans and other animals is blurred
and the idea that humans are “special” and deserve “special
respect” is eliminated.
That means that what we do or don’t
do to “animal persons” should be the same as we do or don’t do to
“human persons.” So, for instance, if we have euthanasia for animals,
we should, likewise, have it for humans. If we don’t eat humans, we shouldn’t
This is Singer’s approach. He argues
that distinguishing humans from other animals and, as a result, treating them
differently, is a form of wrongful discrimination he calls
“speciesism.” He rejects the stance that all human beings are persons
and no animals are persons; rather, he argues some human beings are not persons
and some animals are.
For Singer, personhood depends on
being self aware, having a sense of one’s history and, perhaps, of a future,
and a capacity to relate to others. Consequently, he argues some seriously
mentally disabled humans and babies are not persons and, therefore, do not have
the protections personhood brings. Not being a person means that a baby, for
instance, does not have a right to life and, therefore, the parents of a
disabled baby could consent to her being euthanized.
In his book, Professor White takes a
similar approach. He argues that dolphins should be regarded as non-human
persons on the basis that they are self-conscious, intelligent, and have free
will and emotions comparable to those of humans, which is at least partially
correct. Note that this concept of non-human personhood makes “animal
personhood” contingent on animal persons having certain characteristics or
capacities to function in certain ways.
White also argues that judging
non-human species using human characteristics or standards in order to judge
their worth, and what we owe them ethically, is speciesism. To avoid this, he
proposes, we should treat them as “alien beings” and judge whether or
not they are persons on the basis of their own standards. In short, the word person
no longer refers exclusively to humans or even its attribution judged by human
standards. (I note in passing that this would respond to the objections of
people who believe all animals need protection and it’s ethically wrong to
select just those we see as most like us.)
The feature of both the Singer and
White approaches, however, is that whether or not a living being is a person
depends on its measuring up to a certain standard, however that standard is
set. This is an attribute approach to who or what is a person and, therefore,
deserves the respect and protections that come with that characterization.
Applied to humans, this approach
means that those who don’t have a certain level of physical, mental or
emotional functioning are not persons and, as a result, don’t have the same
rights as others. In short, it creates different categories of human beings and
those in some categories are not regarded as persons.
The contrasting approach, which I
believe is the one we should continue to uphold, is that all humans are persons
(at least, as the law stands at present, those humans who have been born) and
only humans are persons. This accounts for using the words “human
being” and “person” interchangeably. Universal human personhood
means that every human being has an “intrinsic dignity” that must be
respected that comes simply with being human; having that dignity does not
depend on having any other attribute or functional capacity. This is a status
approach to who is a person.
The refusal of the courts to recognize
unborn babies as persons, in order to allow abortion, shows the protective
effect of the concept of personhood and that, unless expressly excluded, all
human beings are persons. Currently, we also use the word person to distinguish
humans from animals, in order to establish that every human deserves
“special respect” as compared with animals.
We used to regard humans as special
on the basis that they had a soul, a Divine spark, and animals did not. Far
from everyone accepts that today. But most people at least act as though we
humans have a “human spirit,” a metaphysical, although not
necessarily supernatural, element as part of the essence of our humanness. The
beautiful Sanskrit farewell, loosely translated, “The Light in me recognizes
the Light in you,” captures this reality.
That all humans were seen as persons
was not always the case. For instance, in Roman law free living, adult men were
persons in the sense of having legal status, but slaves, like animals, were
chattels, that is, property and not persons. Of course in Canada women were
natural persons — not property — but they weren’t legal persons until the Persons
case of 1929.
There are also legal precedents for
non-human personhood. The most common one is corporate entities — companies —
who are referred to in the law as “non-natural persons.” The reason
they are deemed persons by the law is to give them standing to sue and be sued.
Ships and aircraft can also sue and be sued — that is, be named as plaintiffs
and defendants — and some legislation has conferred that possibility on other
non-human entities in order to protect them, for instance a pristine Arctic
environment. The questions of whether “rocks have rights” and
“trees have standing” to sue, that is, be treated as legal persons,
has also been explored in the environmental law literature.
The call for rights for animals,
especially those we regard as most like us, the Great Apes, has been
increasing, with some countries responding to it positively. For instance, New
Zealand has implemented greater protections and more recently Spain. The issue
is not whether animals should be protected from cruelty and have a right to
some reasonable form of animal life — they should. The issue is whether that
should be done through personhood, which involves attributing rights to animals
and, even, some scientists and philosophers argue, regarding them as moral
agents — that is, that apes have ethics. For the reasons I’ve explained, I do
not believe we should do that.
We must have greater respect for all
life, and I would add to that, in particular, human life. Restricting
personhood to humans is one way we recognize and implement the latter. But that
should not denigrate from our respect for all non-human life, and not just that
which has high intelligence, self-awareness, an emotional life, ability to
communicate, and so on, but all life.
What that respect requires will not
be uniform for different forms of life, but asking ourselves what is required
is always necessary, and respect certainly excludes wanton or reckless cruelty.
Indeed, I’ve argued elsewhere that we will be unable to maintain respect for
human life unless we implement respect for all life. And if we lose our respect
for life, we lose our humanity.
Margaret Somerville is director of the Centre for Medicine,
Ethics and Law at McGill University, and author of The Ethical Imagination:
Journeys of the Human Spirit.