According to a recent New York appeals court ruling, chimpanzees are not people. Well, technically, the court ruled chimpanzees cannot be “persons” in the legal sense and are therefore not afforded the protection of human rights.
The case came about because someone kept a chimpanzee isolated in a warehouse as a pet. This was illegal as chimpanzees cannot be owned as pets in New York. And it was cruel because chimpanzees are intelligent and social creatures and ought to live with others of their kind. But it was not a violation of human rights. Because chimpanzees are not humans. The fact that chimpanzees are not human beings should be so obvious that a case like this would never reach the courts. Alas.
Most legal experts seem to think there was never any doubt about the ruling. Still, a few things about this concern me.
Legal responsibilities are not what make human beings persons
In their ruling, the judges declared, “In our view, it is this incapability to bear any legal responsibilities and societal duties that renders it inappropriate to confer upon chimpanzees the legal rights—such as the fundamental right to liberty protected by the writ of habeas corpus—that have been afforded to human beings.” No! Bad! We have rights because we are human beings. Period. Full stop. Our ability or inability to fulfill legal obligations has NOTHING to do with it. Children are not less human because they cannot yet fulfill societal or legal obligations. Disabled people are still human beings. So are old people with senility. This is something else that ought to be obvious. But apparently isn’t.
The fact that this case has gotten so far shows how our respect for human life and rights has eroded. We talk about rights a lot now, of course. And we usually talk about our “progress” in this area. But our inability to understand what a person actually is ought to concern us for the future.
Humans are categorically different than other animals
Lots of animals are very intelligent. Some have fascinating languages. Some build extraordinary structures and use rudimentary tools. Some have complex social interactions. Some animals exhibit concern for others of their kind. When we see this, it can be tempting to think we are not so different after all and that these similarities show human beings are just another species of mammal.
In fact, plenty of people these days argue that humans are, essentially, no different from other animals. They say that our failure to recognize this is something called speciesism, a trait as odious as racism. Peter Singer, Richard Dawkins, and Jane Goodall among others believe this. Many also hint at this idea without coming right out and saying it. I remember watching a David Attenborough documentary in which the famous naturalist stood in front of a small group of apes attempting to use tools while he explained how similar humans are to apes. His point was undercut by the fact that the ape nearest to him was failing to open a nut using the handle of a hammer.
Now, a lot of these folks make some good points. Animals are not just “dumb beasts” and humans are not completely alone in our ability to use tools and communicate. But this does not mean that the differences between human beings and every other animal is negligible. Our languages, the tools we use, the things we build, our social interactions; all of these are far and away above those of any other animal. The difference is not just by degrees. We are categorically different from every other animal. To deny this is, quite simply, ridiculous. But also dangerous. And not just to humans.
Our rights mean responsibility
The fact that we are categorically different from other creatures doesn’t only mean that other animals can’t possess “personhood.” Our uniqueness also means we are alone in the responsibility we have towards other animals and the earth as a whole.
Most people naturally recognize and act on this responsibility. Most of us become upset when we see an animal in pain. We recognize that there is something wrong with someone not grieved at all by animal suffering. When we kill an animal, either by necessity or for sustenance, we try to do so as “humanely” as possible. To do this is to behave as a human. We help other animals even when it doesn’t benefit us. Now that we understand our impact on the world, most consider is a given that we ought to protect endangered species, preserve natural habitats, and safeguard the environment.
It is only our own species we hold to these standards. No one would scold a crocodile for the pain it caused an antelope by slowly drowning it. Nor would we reprimand an elephant for inflicting unnecessary damage on the environment by pushing over a tree just to scratch its back. No, we are the only species with the capacity to understand and act on these principles.
So, the people who brought the chimpanzee case to court were acting on our basic human duty to care for other creatures. But their attempt to do this by extending human rights to non-humans would ultimately be self-defeating. This would not only deny the breadth of our uniqueness from other creatures. It would also deny the responsibility we we to these other creatures. Not just some legal responsibility to stand back and respect their rights but the obligation to actively care for the world around us.
Protect Personhood, protect creation
As a Christian, I believe it is our duty to care for the earth. But I cannot believe that weakening humanity’s place in creation will accomplish this. We must first acknowledge our unique place in creation. We must respect human life as intrinsically valuable. Only then can we also work towards understanding our ability and responsibility in protecting the rest of creation.