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Tommy and Kiko are two chimpanzees kept in conditions not fit for their cognitive and emotional abilities. Both chimpanzees live a secluded life in New York State. Tommy spends long and lonely days in a cage in a shed (Barlow, 2017). Kiko is currently housed by himself near Niagara Falls (Andrews et al., 2019, pg. 1). In order to change this, laws need to be changed. Granting chimpanzees fundamental legal rights, like the right of personhood, would "mark a huge step toward stopping our unfettered abuse of them" (Wise, 2000, pg. 237). If granted personhood, Kiko and Tommy would be taken out of their current, inhumane surrounding and moved to a chimpanzee sanctuary where they can live their lives free from human abuse, isolation, and endless boredom. On a larger scale, bioethical research on chimpanzees or any other form of physical or emotional abuse, would be illegal.
Steven Wise, legal scholar and president of the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), fights for securing rights for nonhuman animals in the United States (NhRP). After a screening of his documentary, Unlocking the Cage (2016), Wise shared his frustrations about how difficult it was to effectively communicate to judges that chimpanzees should be granted personhood. Wise found allies in philosophers Letitia Meynell and Andrew Fenton, who offered to collaborate with more colleagues on an "amicus curiae brief in support of the NhRP's appeal of Kiko's and Tommy's cases" (Andrews, et al., pg. 2). The brief itself was submitted to the New York Court of Appeals in February 2018 (Andrews et al., 2019, pg. 2). Soon afterwards, the book Chimpanzee Rights. A Philosophers' Brief (2019), an expanded version of the amicus curiae brief co-authored by thirteen philosophers, was published. The book is an example of public philosophy, an attempt to change the way chimpanzees are viewed by the courts and the public, so that they eventually will have the rights of personhood and be protected under the law.
Chimpanzee Rights is a concise yet comprehensive account of how personhood is understood by the law, how it has been defined by philosophy, and how it should be defined to serve nonhuman animals like Kiko and Tommy better. The first chapter discusses an introduction to chimpanzee rights and conceptions of personhood. The authors begin to share the current notion of personhood in legal settings where a "'person' is primarily a moral concept designating an individual's moral standing" (Chan and Harris, 2011). After studying the previous rulings in Kiko's and Tommy's cases, the authors come to the conclusion that a philosophical analysis of the term personhood would benefit the court in deciding what should happen to the confined chimpanzees (Andrews et al., pg. 3). The authors furthermore focus on four distinct perspectives on personhood in the course of the book: the species membership conception, the social contract conception, the conception that individuals need to be members of a human community to be granted personhood, and the capacities conception that the NhRP endorses (Andrews et al., pg. 9). The following three chapters elaborate on these conceptions.
Andrews et al. (2019) argue that while biological findings are relevant in determining if a species should be considered a person legally, taxonomy by itself provides insufficient grounds for determining personhood (14). Essentialist frameworks of that kind have been challenged by biologists and historians and have proven to be problematic (Andrews et al., pg. 15). In fact, species membership approaches have, historically, contributed to the continued oppression of marginalized populations like persons with bodily differences or women. Breaking the cycle that fosters hierarchical thinking that always puts some groups over other groups and therefore creates an us versus them mindset is an important step when discussing the personhood of other species. The authors (2019) share biological and evolutionary research that emphasizes how the hierarchical Chain of Being should be considered a Tree of Life that encourages us to consider other species on the basis of degrees of relatedness rather than on differences (20).
The next chapter discusses personhood through the social contract conception. By leaning on John Rawls' contractarian theory, the authors argue that social contracts can support personhood. Rawls' contractualism leaves space for including non-rational beings as subjects of justice, which would support the NhRP to move forward in fighting for Kiko and Tommy to be considered legal persons. The authors also consider critics of the social contract theories, like Nussbaum or Carruthers, and offer a thorough argument that considers a variety of perspectives. In the end, the authors conclude that the rights of a nonhuman person could be minimally described as a right to bodily liberty and how this minimalist approach to rights surely would "preclude the kind of solitary confinement and captivity in which [Tommy and Kiko] live now" (59). By making a realistic argument based on research and philosophical frameworks, the authors offer a solution to the personhood problem that could drastically improve the life quality of chimpanzees currently confined.
The fourth chapter focuses on the community membership conception. Looking at personhood as a relational status brings forth the idea from Ubuntu philosophy of all of us being interconnected beings whose "individual capacities emerge only because others nurture us as infants, teach us as toddlers, and cooperate with us as adults. And, here is the heart of the matter. This is true for all of us, equally, regardless of whether some of us appear as 'self standing' or not" (Andrews et al., 2019, pg 64). Individuals with cognitive disabilities or children, and groups that are more likely to be excluded in traditional notions of personhood, are included. This conception of personhood can also include nonhuman animals. Now, the authors open up their argument towards nonhuman animals confined in zoos, research facilities, and even companion animals who have been domesticated.
The last conception Chimpanzee Rights analyzes is the capacities conception on which NhRP builds its legal argument. The contemporary philosophical discourse asks for a list of capacities relevant to personhood. Under this list, capacities such as sentience, language, sociality, autonomy, or self-awareness are mentioned (Andrews et al., 2019, pg. 78). The authors offer scientific evidence that shows how chimpanzees fulfill this list of capacities and how adequate sanctuaries provide a home for chimpanzees who have been hurt and abused so they can begin to recover and live the life they deserve, as persons. The NhRP focuses on the conception of autonomy to build its cases, and the authors (2019) elaborate on autonomy and argue that a
less demanding view of autonomy is that it does not violate the common understanding that most ordinary human behavior is autonomous. Bioethicist and philosopher Tom Beauchamp and comparative psychologist Victoria Wobber offer one such account. They propose that an act is autonomous if an individual self-initiates an 'action that is (1) intentional, (2) adequately informed…and (3) free of controlling influences' (Beauchamp and Wobber, 2014, pg. 119). Conceptions of autonomy like this support chimpanzee autonomous capacity. (83)
Since chimpanzees can be understood as autonomous beings under this definition, this core capacity of the NhRP is fulfilled.
Several countries already recognize nonhuman animals as sentient beings. This recognition might appear to offer a more inclusive approach for nonhuman animals, but the authors (2019) argue that "these efforts sometimes further entrench that status, resulting in a confused and confusing legal status" (106). Sentient beings are an in between category and still classed as property. Therefore, an argument based on sentience is not a sufficient approach because this kind of thinking continues to reinforce the notion that puts human animals on a different moral level than nonhuman animals. After rejecting the species membership account of personhood and after rejecting the suggestion that a social contract makes persons, the authors (2019) address personhood as a function of community membership and argue that Kiko and Tommy can be considered persons here (102-104). Last, the book offers a defense of the capacity framework the NhRP discusses and supports.
The book's foreword, by Lori Gruen, introduces the reader to the importance of a proper sanctuary for captive chimpanzees who cannot be returned to the wild. The afterword by Steven Wise sums up how the philosophers' brief on behalf of Tommy and Kiko has been received by representatives of the law. While the case officially closed in 2019 and while Tommy and Kiko were not recognized as persons under the law, Judge Eugene Fahey of the New York Appeals Court shared the following thoughts on the matter that show that he appears to believes that chimpanzees belong into a third category that falls between a person and a thing:
The issue whether a nonhuman animal has a fundamental right to liberty protected by the writ of habeas corpus is profound and far-reaching. It speaks to our relationship with all the life around us. Ultimately, we will not be able to ignore it. While it may be arguable that a chimpanzee is not a 'person,' there is no doubt that it is not merely a thing. (Afterword, pg. 115)
This has not been the last word on the matter. Wise and his NhRP team have by now moved on to elephants, but more publications have strengthened the philosophers' call for a definition of personhood that includes sentience. Primatologist Frans de Waal published his recent book, Mama's Last Hug: Animal Emotions And What They Tell Us About Ourselves(2019) where he focuses and expands on the sentience argument that has been a core argument of the animal rights debate since its beginnings. The debate is not over.
Chimpanzee Rights is an important contribution to the current sentience debate that affects nonhuman animals all over the world. It moreover stands as a strong example of how public philosophy is relevant and how it can make a difference in today's public discourse. Discussing the major perspectives on personhood and offering an expanded definition of personhood shows how this philosophers' brief attempts to bring two opposing views, the view the NhRP holds and the view the court holds, back into stasis after being out of stasis. While stasis theory, according to Marsh (2018), discusses an issue in a variety of ways (conjecture, definition, quality, and policy), Chimpanzee Rights can be understood as a rhetorical artifact that analyzes the definition layer of stasis theory. Disagreeing on a definition of what personhood means does not further the discourse in a productive way and both parties find themselves stuck and out of stasis. But, through the help of his philosophical team, Wise can communicate what personhood has meant in the past and what it should mean today. Tommy and Kiko are still confined and Wise did not win this case. However, Judge Fahey's comment clearly illustrates that chimpanzees are more than mere things, which implies that they deserve legal protection. The philosophers' brief helped tremendously in moving into this direction and extrapolates how a careful definition of personhood can lead to an impactful policy change.
The authors of Chimpanzee Rights model what they argue by giving intersectional scholars like Aph Ko or Sunaura Taylor a voice in the animal discourse. Park and Valentino's (2019) recent study on the link between animal rights and marginalized populations shows how there is a strong link between the support of nonhuman animals and the support of marginalized populations like members of the LGBTQ community or individuals with bodily differences. Moving towards inclusion rather than exclusion will only enrich our human and nonhuman interactions and will allow us to explore new possibilities for interspecies coexistence in which nonhuman animals have rights, and act with more rhetorical autonomy than ever before.
Andrews, Kristin (2019). Chimpanzee Rights. The Philosophers' Brief. New York: Routledge.
Barlow, R. (2017). "Nonhuman rights: Is it time to unlock the cage?" Bostonia.
Chan, A. and Harris, J. (2011). "Human animals and nonhuman persons." In T.L. Beauchamp and
R. G. Frey (eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Animal Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
--- (2019). The Nonhuman Rights Project. https://www.nonhumanrights.org
Marsh, C. (2018). "Stasis theory: An approach to clarifying issues and developing responses." In Ihlen, O. and Heath, R. L. (eds.) The Handbook of Organizational Rhetoric And Communication.
Medford: John Wiley & Sons. pg. 169-185.
Park, Y. S. and Valentino, B. (2019). "Animals are people too: Explaining variation in respect for animal rights." Human Rights Quarterly (41:1). pg. 39-65.