Evolving Notions of Nonhuman Personhood:
Is Moral Standing Sufficient?
Dorothy I. Riddle
Service-Growth Consultants Inc., Gibsons, BC Canada
Journal of Evolution and Technology - Vol.
24 Issue 3 – Sept 2014 – pgs 4-19
Decisions regarding the attribution of
personhood to nonhuman animals have implications not only for the rights held
by a particular species but also for the moral obligations of humans as moral
agents. Since humans decide which species are accorded moral standing, thus
becoming candidates for legal standing as legal persons, we need to be aware of
our own vested interests in where the boundaries of duty are drawn. This paper
argues that simple determination of moral standing is not sufficient to induce
relevant changes in moral behavior. It examines six problems that emerge for us
in determining the personhood of nonhuman animals: identifying which capacities
we believe to be morally relevant, separating the identification of capacities
from the duty consequences, designing appropriate methodologies for assessing
morally relevant capacities in nonhuman animals, identifying relevant claim
rights for nonhuman animals, resolving competing moral interests among species
and between nonhumans and humans, and ensuring appropriate moral behavior. The
conclusion of this examination is that we have a long way to go in order to be
consistent in our moral behavior.
Hidden in discussions of personhood is a
vested interest that is seldom acknowledged: if we attribute moral standing to a group or
class of nonhuman animals, we create accompanying moral obligations for
ourselves as humans. The concepts of morality with which we are dealing are
human concepts, not species-neutral concepts. Moral considerability, in the
context of nonhuman personhood, is asymmetrical in that nonhuman animals may
have moral claims on humans without humans having reciprocal claims on them.
Discussions of personhood are not about who is a moral agent – by
definition, humans are. Rather, any exploration of moral standing, which underlies
personhood, is an examination of the boundaries of our moral duties to other
entities, not of theirs to us. So why do we need to accept or impose any
restrictions on our actions? Is the ascription of moral standing to various
nonhuman animals enough to discharge our ethical responsibilities to those
other species or does actual behavior change need to follow?
Moral Standing and Legal Standing
Our understanding of what constitutes
personhood in nonhuman animals determines whether or not we attribute moral
standing to those animals, which in turn shapes, or should shape, our behavior
towards that class of animals. Both our ethics and our legal system are based
on notions of moral standing, distinguishing between two primary categories:
persons with intrinsic value and due our respect, and things available for our
use without regard to their interests or preferences.
We apply different standards of conduct and
censure to ourselves and others if we believe we are interacting with a “thing”
(an entity with no moral standing) or with a “person” (an entity with moral
standing). So being a “person,” or “personhood,” becomes about having moral
When we talk about a nonhuman animal having
moral standing (or moral status), we are referring to whether or not we feel we
ought, when making moral decisions, to take that animal’s welfare into account
for the animal’s own sake and not merely for the benefit of ourselves or someone else (Jaworska and Tannenbaum 2013). Acting unjustifiably against
the interests of an animal with moral standing, so as to cause harm to that animal,
is considered both wrong and as wronging the animal.
If we examine the concept of moral standing
more closely, we find that a nonhuman animal has moral standing if, when making moral decisions, we feel we ought to take that animal’s
welfare into account for the animal’s own sake. The critical words above are
“if we feel we ought to.” The assignment of moral standing is a social choice,
not an inherent attribute independent of human preferences, and reflects an
often-unspoken set of values. So recognizing how we make the choice to assign
moral standing becomes relevant.
The concept of moral standing is
intricately related to that of legal standing. Legal standing refers to the
ability of an entity (or its advocate) to demonstrate that: (a) the entity has
or will certainly suffer harm from a particular action, (b) the harm is
directly attributable to the party engaged in that action; and (c) it is
possible for the court to redress the injury. Since only an entity with moral
standing can, by definition, experience harm or injury, moral standing is a
necessary condition for legal personhood.
The assignment of legal standing, too, is a
matter of social choice. For example, corporations (as groups of humans, or
natural persons) have been designated as legal, or juridical, persons. “The law then can,
if it chooses, create persons; it is not merely a passive recorder of their
presence” (Midgley 1985, 53).
Whether or not we grant legal standing as a
person before the law (based on having ascribed moral standing), has
significant and possibly mortal consequences. Matthew Hiasl Pan is a case in
point. This chimpanzee was abducted from Sierra Leone in 1982 and transported
to Austria where he was placed in a shelter. In 2007, when the shelter
threatened to go into bankruptcy and close, friends of Matthew tried to
intervene and establish a fund for his care. The Austrian courts found that
Matthew existed only as an asset of the shelter and had no legal standing to
either receive funds or even to have a legal guardian appointed who could
receive funds in his name. The case was appealed unsuccessfully to the European
Court of Human Rights.
If, however, Matthew were recognized as a
person, the damage done to his life would count and he himself could start
legal procedures against those responsible for it. He could sue the animal
dealers, who abducted him and killed his mother. He could sue the company, who
paid for his abduction in order to do experiments on him. And he could sue the
governments of those countries, who gave permits for his abduction or for those
experiments. All those are responsible for his situation, and all those should
therefore be held liable to undo the damage as best they can (Balluch 2008).
Based on all of the scientific evidence
available regarding the complex cognitive functioning and emotional
intelligence of chimpanzees, Matthew qualifies for moral standing and hence for
personhood; however, he faces an uncertain future because that status has not
been acknowledged. So the matter of moral standing and personhood is not simply
philosophical; there are life-altering consequences.
Moral Standing and Inalienable Rights
A nonhuman animal with moral standing is
automatically a “rights holder” or a possessor of certain inalienable rights.
By “inalienable” we mean that the rights cannot be taken or given away, though
even with other humans they are all too often ignored. When we think about the
possible rights of animals, we are primarily concerned with negative rights or
claim rights – i.e., rights that automatically impose a duty on humans to
refrain from acting in a manner that would violate that right.
What might those claim rights be? Again we
humans are the ones who would define them, and they might include:
Freedom from the threat of
unnatural death (e.g., from hunting, research, etc.)
Freedom from slavery or being
owned by another
Freedom from kidnapping
Freedom from torture or
Freedom from servitude or
Freedom to live in their own
In the context of legal rights, the first
four rights listed above are encompassed in the concepts of bodily liberty (freedom
from confinement) and bodily integrity (freedom from physical harm or harassment).
Whether we would want to accord such rights for our companion animals is an
illustration of how intertwined our duties as a moral agent and our vested
interests can become.
Problems with Determining Personhood
As a human race, we have been gradually
broadening who we would consider to be “persons with moral standing” – i.e.,
groups or classes of entities with rights towards whom we have a moral duty or
obligation. We generally consider all humans to be persons with moral standing,
though that is not true in terms of the treatment of the 29.8 million humans currently
enslaved around the world (Fisher 2013). We also have a category of entities
that we generally agree are things (e.g., objects such as rocks, shoes, cars,
But there is a vast middle ground in which
various scientists and philosophers have offered different definitions and
frameworks for defining personhood. The boundary between “person” and “thing”
is not that clear cut. Instead, we experience what phenomenologists (see
Laughlin 1993) refer to as “fuzzy sets,” or a middle arena of gradual
transition from thing to person. Zadeh (1965, 339), who originated the fuzzy
set concept, indicated that “such a framework provides a natural way of dealing
with problems in which the source of imprecision is the absence of sharply
defined criteria of class membership.” Where we choose to place the boundary
line between species classified as persons, to whom we owe a moral duty, and
those to whom we do not is very inconsistent and is influenced by our values
and our vested interests.
In addition, we are being confronted with a
growing scientific literature on the unsuspected capacities of a wide range of
species. Bekoff (2013) has summarized research demonstrating sentience not only
in mammals but also in animals as diverse as ants, spiders, bees, chickens, birds,
fish, and octopuses. Dunayer (2013) expands the list to include a range of
invertebrates such as crustaceans, insects, and even flatworms. She concludes
there’s strong evidence that all creatures who
possess a brain are sentient and growing evidence that all creatures with a
nervous system are sentient…Evolution would be inexplicably discontinuous if
only humans, only mammals, or only vertebrates could suffer (Dunayer 2013, 35).
Embedded in the scholarly literature,
though not always explicitly acknowledged, are at least six problems related to
that fuzzy area. These can call into question whether the simple designation of
moral standing is sufficient to result both in identifying all those to whom we
have a moral duty and in ensuring that claim rights are not violated.
#1: Identifying morally relevant capacities
Humans have been accustomed to considering
themselves unique among species, differentiated by their rationality or complex
cognitive abilities. Since researchers began demonstrating that other species
(particularly chimpanzees, elephants, dolphins, and whales) are also
intelligent, as well as self-aware, various writers have suggested candidate capacities that could
distinguish humans from nonhuman animals.
DeGrazia (2008, 193) argued that “personhood…is
a cluster concept that serves as a summary placeholder for other concepts such
as moral agency, autonomy, the capacity for intentional action, rationality,
self-awareness, sociability, and linguistic ability.” So are these the
necessary and sufficient, morally relevant capacities? Is linguistic ability,
for example, constrained to a language spoken or understood by humans? Could it
be a chemically- or color-based language rather than being an orally- or
manually-based language? Could that language exist in a visual or auditory
spectrum outside of the ability of humans’ usual capacity to detect?
Taylor (1985, 97) has proposed that
where it is more than simply a synonym for “human being,” “person” figures
primarily in moral and legal discourse. A person is a being with a certain moral status, or a bearer
of rights. But underlying the moral status, as its condition, are certain capacities. A person is a
being who has a sense of self, has a notion of the future and the past, can
hold values, make choices; in short, can adopt life-plans. At least, a person
must be the kind of being who is in principle capable of all this, however
damaged these capacities may be in practice.
As we sort through the various candidates
for capacities related to moral standing, we can see that the focus has
gradually shifted over the centuries from rationality to sentience, from
intelligence to the ability to suffer or feel pain. We can think of sentience (the ability to perceive and
feel) as a threshold capability that distinguishes at the most basic level
between those with and those without moral standing. Without sentience, the
argument goes, no harm can be felt and thus could not have occurred.
Is simple sentience enough to confer full personhood
with its inalienable rights? Probably not. Probably it is enough only to invoke
a duty of care, in the same manner that we owe a duty of care to infants or
persons with severe developmental disabilities who are not able to make
decisions for themselves. Thus, nonhuman animals with only sentience could be
considered as having limited moral standing but not actual personhood. Based on
current research, crabs and lobsters would fall into this category of limited
moral standing, with moral implications for the human food industry (Magee and
Once past the threshold of sentience, what
other capacities matter and how much do they matter? There are three other
categories that we can consider as worthy of exploration: self-awareness;
agency, including cognitive abilities; and social relationships or culture. As
a test of this approach, we can review the research from a range of different
Self-awareness: The most common measure experimentally of self-awareness has been
the mirror test. Does the nonhuman animal display behavior indicating that they
are aware that the image in the mirror is themselves? The answer is clearly
“yes” for elephants, chimpanzees, dolphins (Reiss and Marino 2001), and
magpies. However, the mirror test methodology relies on visual cues, which
predominate in human experience. There are other species, such as bears and
dogs, who rely primarily on a sense of smell and so would need to be evaluated
with a different methodology.
More important, though, than simple
self-recognition is being what Regan refers to as subject-of-a-life (1983).
Does the entity have a sense of continuity over time, of engagement in a life
process? If the answer is “yes,” then harm would limit or cut short those
future possibilities. A corollary of that sense of having one’s own perspective
is metacognition, which recent research has demonstrated to occur in
chimpanzees (Beran et.al. 2013).
Agency: Much of the focus of research has been in the arena of intelligence,
decision-making, and problem solving, and the compilation of research articles,
edited by Corbey and Lanjouw (2013), provides ample evidence that elephants and
cetaceans are very intelligent, second only to humans. Chimpanzees (along with
other great apes) have demonstrated that they are intelligent, good problem
solvers, and often better than humans at math. Black bears can also count as
well as primates (Dell’Amore 2012). Crows are at the top of the avian IQ scale
(Rincon 2005) as well as being very handy with tools (Greenemeier 2007). Even
octopuses have been proven to have excellent problem-solving ability as well as
a range of strategies for evading predators, including changing shape and color
(De Waal 2013).
relations: Wild elephants live in extended
matriarchal groups with complex network of individual relationships (Gruen 2012).
They display a range of behavior to assist each other. When members of their
herd die, they engage in mourning rituals. In fact, dozens of elephants arrived
at the home of Lawrence Anthony, the late “elephant whisperer,” to mourn his
death (Kerby 2012).
Chimpanzees, too, are highly social and
have been shown to starve themselves rather than inflict pain on another chimp.
When given the choice, they preferred outcomes that rewarded both themselves
and their apparent opponent, as did rats (De Waal 2013). Orangutan mothers stay
with their young for eight to ten years, nurturing them (Gruen 2012).
Dolphins and whales live in highly complex
societies, with cultural transmission of learned behavior (Marino 2013). They
also play together, cross species (Bekoff 2012b). Humpback whales have been
observed helping a baby grey whale in danger from a pod of orcas (Bekoff
Of all the species reviewed, only the
octopus is not social. This may be related to its brief life span, averaging
As the research accumulates, we are finding
more and more evidence of a wide range of capacities that humans associate with
personhood which are demonstrated by an extraordinarily wide range of nonhuman
animals (Hamilton 2011). Does this mean that actually all sentient animals have
moral standing? Would we be willing to accept such a broad mandate of duty?
#2: Separating capacities from consequences
Since moral standing is socially
determined, one of the complicating factors is that declaring a nonhuman to be
a (claim) rights holder results in a limitation on humans’ liberty to act.
While we may recognize and intellectually accept scientific evidence of
sentience, consciousness, complex cognitive functioning, or future orientation,
that does not mean that we are prepared to act towards that species of nonhuman
animals as we would towards another human. For example, scientists are divided
on whether lobsters feel pain when plunged into boiling water but agree that
they do cringe (Switek 2013) and would certainly condemn plunging a human into
water of killing temperatures. The intelligence and social culture of elephants
is not open to dispute, though, and still zoos and other “owners” keep single
elephants chained to stakes in concrete yards separated forever from their
family herd, a practice that would be loudly condemned if perpetuated on
If debates within the scientific community
are examined, humans’ vested interests are clearly at play. While there is
clear evidence of the grounds for moral standing for great apes, their use as
“things” is still of paramount importance to some. The following statement has
been attributed to Professor Blakemore of the Medical Council of Great Britain:
“It would be necessary to perform research on great apes if humans were
threatened by a pandemic virus that afflicted only human and other great apes.”
Our own preferences and habits often
intervene and slant the data we receive so that we can buffer ourselves from
any need to change. One of the methods we use is in our choice of vocabulary.
“Culling” has a less disturbing sound than “murdering” or “slaughtering.” How
we can achieve objectivity or awareness without reverting to vested interests
#3: Designing appropriate methodologies
Immediately, at the threshold of sentience,
we run into methodological difficulties. How are we to measure the sentience
(or indeed any other attribute) of entities quite different from ourselves?
Newkirk (2012) has pointed out that
for years we blithely
believed that humans were the only species to use tools, until researchers
documented that wasps were using pebbles as hammers, octopuses were carrying
coconut shells as portable hiding places, crows were using sticks to dig in the
ground for grubs and many other examples. The mathematical abilities of fish
have proved to be on a par with those of monkeys, dolphins and bright young
It is easy to anthropomorphize and miss
what is actually occurring. The 2012 Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness
addressed some human biases:
Young human and non-human animals without neocortices retain these
brain-mind functions. Furthermore, neural circuits supporting behavioral/ electrophysiological
states of attentiveness, sleep and decision making appear to have arisen in
evolution as early as the invertebrate radiation, being evident in insects and
cephalopod mollusks (e.g., octopuses).…The absence of a neocortex does not
appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states (Newkirk
There has been a recent controversy over whether or not fish feel pain,
the resolution of which has clear implications for the sport of fishing. One
group of scientists has announced that it is not possible for fish to feel pain
because they do not possess a neocortex (despite the Cambridge Declaration on
Consciousness), which is involved in humans’ experience of pain; instead, they
assert that only nociception occurs (Rose et.al. 2014). Other scientists assert
that they have controlled for nociception and fish do indeed feel pain, just
processed differently than in humans (Braithwaite 2010; Chandroo et.al. 2004;
Randerson 2008)). Similar issues have arisen in regard to the intelligence of
octopuses as they rely on a nervous system that is fundamentally different than
that of vertebrates.
There are also prejudices that affect our
evaluation of the dynamics we witness. The most pervasive is the association of
“sameness” with personhood and a rejection of difference. We more readily
attribute personhood to chimpanzees who are structurally similar to us, while
distancing ourselves from elephants and dolphins who are actually more
intelligent and more similar to us in emotional intelligence. Marino (2013,
104) has commented about dolphins:
Their intelligence, self-awareness, emotional
sophistication and social complexity mean that they are similar to us…But
cetaceans (unlike great apes, for instance) look and move differently, lack
changes in clearly recognizable facial expressions, communicate in strange
modalities, live in a very different physical environment, and seem to possess
a level of social cohesion foreign even to us.
Indeed, in the midst of the horrendous
annual slaughters in the dolphin hunt drives, dolphins call out to each other
in panic and pain and yet still appear to us to be smiling.
Because of our focus on sameness, we tend
to measure other species against a human yardstick. We affirm that they have
language if they learn our language (without giving any thought to the fact
that our language would be a second or third language for them). We assume, in
the design of our experiments, that visual cues are the primary mode of
interacting with the environment. We privilege species that use hands or feet
as we do.
It has become clear that we need to
evaluate attributes within a meaningful context for the nonhuman in question.
Researchers are becoming more creative and less anthropomorphic in their
approaches. De Waal (2013) has provided some intriguing examples: Because
elephants use their trunks for smell, they are unlikely to reach for a stick
(as a chimpanzee or human might) and block that sense organ if they can find
other alternatives to solve a problem. Chimpanzees can tell the faces of other
chimpanzees apart, though they might not distinguish as well between human
faces. Elephants are clearly able to demonstrate self-awareness once the mirror
being used is increased in size to 8 feet by 8 feet.
We need to be careful not to assume that
just because we are not finding a capacity it isn’t there. The shortcoming may
be our own approach to measurement.
#4: Identifying relevant rights
In the debate around what constitutes
personhood, it is clear that being of intrinsic value or being acknowledged for
one’s own sake is a central tenant. Yet we easily slide into defining moral
action in terms of its benefits to the moral agent rather than as a duty
towards a rights holder. The initial movement to prevent cruelty against
animals had its roots in a belief that exhibiting such cruelty would brutalize
humans, rather than in any concern for the animals themselves. A similar
sentiment continues in virtue ethics today.
Once past the bias towards our own
perspective and the benefits to ourselves, we need to determine what claim
rights usually accrue to a being with moral standing. We can compare two
declarations by scientists to see how the debate has evolved.
In 1994, the World Declaration on the Great Apes was launched as an attempt to
secure a recognition of entitlement by chimpanzees, orangutans, gorillas, and
bonobos to three basic claim rights: the right to life, the right to individual
freedom protection, and the prohibition of torture. The 2010 Declaration of the Rights of Cetaceans: Whales
and Dolphins went considerably further (see also Pyys.org 2010):
Every individual cetacean has the right to life.
No cetacean should be held in captivity or servitude; be subject to
cruel treatment; or be removed from their natural environment.
All cetaceans have the right to freedom of movement and residence within
their natural environment.
No cetacean is the property of any State, corporation, human group or
Cetaceans have the right to the protection of their natural environment.
Cetaceans have the right not to be subject to the disruption of their
The rights, freedoms and norms set forth in this Declaration should be
protected under international and domestic law.
Cetaceans are entitled to an international order in which these rights,
freedoms and norms can be fully realized.
No State, corporation, human group or individual should engage in any
activity that undermines these rights, freedoms and norms.
Nothing in this Declaration shall prevent a State from enacting stricter
provisions for the protection of cetacean rights.
How far are we as humans willing to go in
granting rights to nonhuman animals? So far we have talked only about negative
or claim rights, what we must refrain from compromising. Are we also interested
in considering positive rights such as being treated with respect and dignity,
being allowed to develop one’s own personality, receiving just and favorable
remuneration for work (which could provide support in old age), the right to
rest and periodic holidays, and the right to develop within one’s own community?
#5: Resolving competing moral interests
In real life, we frequently have situations
where the rights of one group come into apparent conflict with those of
another. Given all of the scientific evidence, we can no longer assume that
human interests are always most important. How are we to decide what takes
Up to this point, we have been concerned
primarily with moral considerability, or whether a species has or does not have
moral standing. We can turn now to moral significance or how much weight we
give to the possession of particular capacities, to which interests are
pertinent to moral standing (Singer 1975), to the circumstances in which those
interests occur, and to the relationship existing between the entities involved.
While a detailed examination of how we might value different interests or weight
relationships could be useful, again we can point out that these choices are based
on our own values hierarchy and are intricately bound up with our vested
interests. In general, as moral agents we are expected to ensure that, of all
interests to be considered, more are satisfied than frustrated.
Gruen (2012) has noted:
That non-human animals can make moral claims on
us does not in itself indicate how such claims are to be assessed and
conflicting claims adjudicated. Being morally considerable is like showing up
on a moral radar screen – how strong the signal is or where it is located on
the screen are separate questions.
Competing moral interests can occur between
any species. Most troubling for us are the conflicts between humans and
nonhuman animals. Crows, for example, are clearly deserving of moral standing based
on their intelligence and self-awareness yet they are an opportunistic species
and are generally regarded as nuisance animals. In the U.S., crows are
protected as migratory birds and several species have been listed as
endangered. This has not prevented individuals and communities from launching
campaigns to confine, kill, poison, immobilize, or harass crows.
These questions bring us up against our
values again. How would we ever decide to privilege a nonhuman species over
#6: Ensuring moral behavior
A key challenge in discussions of
personhood beyond the human is that, as humans, we are engaged in a conflict of
interest. Where we draw the boundary between person and thing will determine
what duties we then assume as moral agents. So there will be a temptation to
draw the boundary within our comfort zone or the zone of our present behavior.
Once the boundary is drawn, is the
recognition of moral standing a sufficient condition to reverse centuries of
anthropocentrism? Threaded through recent debates around the concept of
personhood as a basis for the moral standing of nonhuman animals is an
assumption that stipulating moral standing will result in a sense of moral
obligation and treatment of those nonhuman animals in a manner that is respectful
of their right to determine their own destiny. Unfortunately, the issue is not
that simple. As we have seen in other areas of prejudice, such as racism and
sexism, simply stating that an individual or group has moral standing has not
ended the rampant bigotry and violence that still exists (Anderson 2010).
The complicating factor is the fact that
anthropocentrism (in a similar fashion to racism and sexism) is not
unidimensional. Rather, its underpinnings are complex. What we could call
“hostile anthropocentricism” is easily recognized and, while still widespread,
is also clearly unsupported by current science. This attitude holds that
humans are superior and have the right to dominate and exploit nonhuman animals
at will, not only out of apparent need but also for their own entertainment and
the pleasure derived from gratuitous killing (e.g., elephant hunts, dolphin drives).
It presumes that there is no overlap in capacities or moral standing between
humans and all nonhuman beings, and any apparently intelligent action by a
nonhuman is explained away as instinctual. A modified version of this attitude
is expressed when humans reserve the right to experiment on nonhumans “only if
necessary to save human life.”
There is little doubt, at least in Western
cultures, that personhood in both the legal and moral sense extends among
humans to all ethnic groups and to both genders. However, the simple assertion
of moral standing and thus being a rights holder has not prevented ongoing
discrimination and violence against women continuing to be the number one human
rights violation worldwide. We can draw on the research conducted on prejudice
to identify four dynamics that often play out despite the affirmed moral
standing of the other party:
Dismissiveness: This attitude assumes that, while nonhumans may have moral standing,
their needs and interests are too trivial to be of concern. For example,
dolphins are being used by the U.S. military to place mines on the hulls of
enemy vessels without any regard to their possible feelings about participating
in violence, though there is research evidence of their collaborative, rather
than aggressive, nature.
Stereotyping: This attitude assumes that all members of a particular group or
species have the same capacities and interests. No recognition is given to
individuality or the possible interests as subject-of-a-life. For example, dogs
of a particular height and temperament are selected and trained as guide dogs
for those blind or visually impaired without regard to whether or not the
individual dog is interested in pursuing such a vocation.
Instrumentality: This attitude views nonhuman animals primarily in terms of their
usefulness to humans. The nonhuman may be cared for with compassion; however,
the best interests of humans come first. For example, although elephants are
highly intelligent and social, they are typically segregated from their family
units and trained (often painfully) for entertainment or physical labor.
anthropocentrism: Most subtle of all is this
paternalistic attitude that views nonhuman animals as overlapping with humans
in capabilities but less mature and inferior or deficient in some manner. The
human appears to act in the best interest of the nonhuman but is actually
acting in their own best interest – motivated by wanting to appear
compassionate and caring while actually refusing to see the nonhuman as an
active agent. Unfortunately, relationships with many companion animals fall
into this category.
Where To From Here?
It is clear that, over time, our attitudes
change and we become accustomed to a shift in the moral landscape. We used to
assume human slavery was an economic necessity. Now human slavery is anathema
in most social circles. We used to decry anti-smoking regulations as
infringements on our rights. Now anti-smoking regulations in public spaces are
commonplace in western societies. We used to assume that animal experimentation
was justified. Increasingly, animals are being released from research labs and
transferred to national sanctuaries (Associated Press 2013).
We can trace this shift in attitudes as
moving from viewing nonhuman animals as resources to be exploited to viewing
them as resources to be protected for human use to viewing them as persons with
moral standing, equal partners deserving of respect. As De Waal (2013) has
We have moved from viewing animals as
instinct-driven stimulus-response machines to seeing them as sophisticated
decision makers.…This is no insult to human superiority. It is long-overdue
recognition that intelligent life is not something for us to seek in the outer
reaches of space but is abundant right here on earth, under our noses.
Does this mean that we can simply wait for
the tides of time to unfold a new and accepted definition of personhood for
nonhumans? Unlikely. We humans have too much of an attachment to the status
quo. There will need to be a compelling reason to make the shift.
Assigning personhood to a nonhuman animal implies
that that entity has become a rights holder and that we now have a moral duty
to uphold those rights. The implications are far-reaching. They would entail a
fundamental shift in the manner in which we interact with nonhuman animals. As
an example, Byrne (Smet and Byrne 2013) has said that
elephants seem to understand us humans in a way
most other animals don’t. Elephants are cognitively much more like us that has
been realized, making them able to understand our characteristic way of
indicating things in the environment by pointing.
At the same time, we have received the
horrifying news that 11,000 forest elephants have been slaughtered in Gabon’s
Minkebe Park since 2004 (Wildlife Conservation Society 2013).
In fact, we fail in our moral duty
collectively, on a daily basis, to a range of nonhuman persons by actions such
as separating individuals from family units in particular, and from others of
their kind in general; killing or maiming millions each year for research,
sport, food, or as a consequence of human activities such as sonar testing;
enslaving millions each year in inhumane living conditions; and decimating or
polluting their natural habitats. Militaries continue with sonar testing that
kills or deafens thousands of whales and dolphins a year (Llanos 2012). Another
example of how our behavior can have lasting negative consequences is
demonstrated by the disruption of key decision-making abilities in wild
elephants when they are forced to live through first the killing of members of
their herd and then the experience of growing up without older role models
(Shannon et.al. 2013).
Our moral duty may not stop at claim rights
for nonhuman animals. What about plants? Plants are even more different from
humans than animal species. They do not have a brain or a neuronal network, but
their signaling pathways may provide a biochemical basis for learning and
memory (Christmas 2007; Koechlin 2009; Martinelli 2007). The Swiss Government
has already enacted a Bill of Rights for Plants (2008) that requires that
plants be treated with respect and that their reproductive ability and
lifestyle be protected. This Bill is based on scientific evidence of plants’
autonomy, self recognition, capacity for complex, adaptive behaviors, the
ability to communicate (chemically) to warn others and enlist allies, and the
management of a complex social life.
Regarding our ecosystem or biosphere, in
2001 scientists issued the Amsterdam Declaration on Global Change stating that
the planet was a self-regulating biosphere. Bolivia has already created a
Ministry of Mother Earth (Jamasmie 2012) and is lobbying the international
community for a Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth (2010).
of being human is acting ethically and assuming all relevant and appropriate
moral duties. If we were serious about our moral duty
towards nonhumans with moral standing, then we would need to examine the ways
in which we presently infringe on at least the negative or claim rights of
nonhuman persons. If
there are animal species that we are exploiting or even simply minimizing the
importance of their legitimate interests, we need to be informed and begin to
What will make a shift possible? Education
is part of the answer. For some, the data itself will create enough dissonance
that they will move towards change. But we need to be realistic about the scope
of the issue. Human-to-human respect has a long way to go, to say nothing of
human-to-nonhuman. We do not yet have a shared experience of respectful
co-existence with other species as equals. Habits of domination, exploitation,
and paternalism are well-ingrained in us all. We will need some public
commitment to new patterns of relationship and models that can be practiced and
After a period of voluntary change, we will
need to move in the direction of legislative enforcement. We are used to laws
against physical cruelty to animals, but there are other claim rights to
consider. New laws will be needed, based on moral/legal standing, not just on
protection for the good of humans.
The science is clear. We know that we need
to begin living with an awareness of a multitude of nonhuman persons around us.
Will a determination of moral standing be sufficient to bring about the
attitudinal change needed? No, it is necessary but not sufficient. We will need
to reach beyond old stereotypes and prejudices and embrace a new era of valuing
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