The personhood of non-humans
What defines a person? I took the first definition listed on Google.
“A person is a being, such as a human, that has certain capacities or attributes constituting personhood.” (Wikipedia)
Dictionary.reference.com defines personhood as “the state or fact of being an individual or having human characteristics and feelings.”
That’s interesting, isn’t it? The top Google responses only use humans as examples of who a person could be. A person could be a human, but personhood certainly isn’t restricted to the human species.
In the eyes of the law, a person could constitute a corporation or any other entity that has legal rights. And increasingly around the world, the law is recognising the personhood of individual animals.
Each animal is as unique and individual as each human. We are all born into this world with the variable genes of our parents and all their parents before them, and we are shaped by our environment and experiences during early development. Growing up we turn into distinctly individual beings with unique thought patterns, idiosyncrasies and emotions. In this sense, human animals and non-human animals have equal personhood. We’re individuals, distinguishable from our friends and family, and our individual experiences need to be acknowledged and our feelings respected.
Around the world dolphins, orcas and orangutans are already becoming recognised as being non-human persons. Not awarded the same rights as citizens, but recognised as thinking, feeling people who deserve the right to be free from harm. Last year, Sandra the orangutan was freed from a zoo when an Argentinian court recognised that she was being unlawfully deprived of freedom. This was preceded by the ban of dolphin shows in India in 2013 when the government legally recognised cetaceans (dolphins, whales & porpoises) as non-human persons. India understood that due to dolphins’ self-awareness and highly evolved forms of communication they should have basic rights and cannot be the property of another person.
Currently, there is a global movement to follow suit and grant legal personhood status to animals, mainly the more intellectually developed great apes, cetaceans, elephants and parrots. Many respond by saying we’re at the top of the food chain so therefore it’s somehow “extreme” to respect animal’s basic rights under a human legal system. But they forget that we already do make way for non-human animals in our laws.
It is unlawful to torture and kill an animal without the intent to eat it, or without legal permission to hunt “pest” animals. We already protect pets from the harms that we can legally inflict on non-pets. We have standards and systems to ensure breeding, training, raising and killing animals are done to a certain standard of care. We’ve made good steps in the right direction, the only issue that remains is our two-facedness in which animals we horrendously abuse, and which we grant the rights of personhood. Animals already have fundamental rights, but we systematically deny them to certain species or groups.
Much of who we grant rights to stems from who we deem the most intelligent, but even that arbitrary measure falls short the majority of the time. For example it’s accepted to be unethical and illegal to slit a dog’s throat in Australia, but you can do the same and worse to your dog’s smarter cousin, the pig. And whilst we formally condemn Japan’s slaughter of dolphins in Taiji Bay, Australians knowingly sacrifice dolphins as tuna by-catch.
Our shonky, bipolar laws are reflective of our ill-considered values as a society. We arbitrarily grant and deny rights to animals without thinking about why things are the way they are.
With humanity’s leaps and bounds in neuroscience and biology, we now know that little separates us from the Animal Kingdom but a few errant chromosomes. Animals as a general rule feel the same spectrum of emotions as us. Fear, shame, jealousy. Joy, compassion, excitement. Anybody with a pet can verify this.
If torture and death are as horrifying and painful for an animal as they are for humans, certainly that means that creature deserves the same recognition of personhood as us. They are an independent mind that thinks and feels, and they want to live as equally as we do.
Personally, what doesn’t impress me is the ability to complete puzzles and memorise commands, such as how we measure non-humans intelligence. Our problem-solving is not the epitome of our humanity. The self-awareness, intentionality, creativity and symbolic communication between all species goes unnoticed by humans with our limited senses.
When you allow yourself to think it’s just an animal, where you draw the line? We all draw it in different places.
It’s just a chicken.
It’s just a cat.
It’s just a gorilla.
It’s just a baby.
It’s just a disabled person.
It’s just an elderly person.
Often all the above groups are considered to have lower mental faculties than average adults. If our intellect was what made people matter, we would not grant the right of personhood to babies or the severely handicapped. But we do, because we recognise people are more than our intelligence.
In fact, we tend to be more respectful of those we deem to have a lesser intellect. The murder of a baby is considered more heinous than the murder of an adult, because the baby’s lack of mental development is viewed as faultless innocence, therefore earning the infant our extra care and protection. Such should be said of all animals.
No species is capable of evil deeds like the human race. We are the most imperfect of all species, and in our shadow cowers the most innocent beings on Earth. The pigs, the cows, the chickens, all of whom are incapable of human evil. Why doesn’t their innocence invoke our protective impulses? It is logically fallible to award the intellectually handicapped, infants and senile fundamental rights that we may not award to the pig, who is in many cases more intelligent than the human.
What matters is not intellect, the ability to communicate vocally or whether or not we look alike.
What matters is our personhood. We are important because we are. If you can think and feel, your thoughts and feelings matter. We are all equal in our vulnerability and our ability to experience suffering and happiness.
We share the Earth with millions of species, species that hold wisdom and knowledge humans can never understand. We’re all born, we all bleed and we all die.
Life is not confined to the human experience. The others are here with us too.