Wednesday, May 16, 2018

A Response to "No monkey business: Chimps don’t have human rights, philosophers say"

In "No monkey business: Chimps don’t have human rights, philosophers say" (Friday, May 11, 2018; "Before It's News" website) the recent case for believing that chimpanzees are persons and so should have legal rights is engaged (see also NhRP). Two philosophy professors are quoted, arguing that chimpanzees are not persons and cannot have rights. Let's think about what they have to say.

Dr. John Crosby, a philosophy professor at Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio, is quoted:

“Undeniably, there is something there mysterious [about {chimpanzees}]. There is something of worth, but there is not a person. And therefore, because they are not a person, there are no real rights the chimp has.” 

So why are they not persons? What's the reason or reasons?

Crosby offers this definition of a person:
“A person is a being that possesses himself and is capable of originating action, where he freely determines himself. It’s very difficult to claim that any chimp, however amazingly skilled, is a free agent.”
But many human beings -- e.g., babies, severely mentally challenged persons, and others -- are not free agents, "freely determining themselves," whatever this might mean. (We might wonder if the meaning implies that many animals are free agents, however: doesn't an uncooperative house cat freely determine herself? If so, so do many other animals, including chimps, and so would be persons on this definition). But these human beings are persons, so this definition surely is mistaken: free will, or free agency, is not needed for personhood.  

The page reports (although does not quote) Crosby responding this way to this objection: 
"Babies grow into morally responsible adults and comatose patients may potentially get better. Even if the patient does not get better . . people 'are the kind of being that in the normal instance has moral agency and something is blocking exercise of it.'"
He also argues -- according to the site - that because chimpanzees permanently lack moral culpability, they are not persons.

While Crosby's arguments are quick, a few replies should be given. 
  • First, some human beings permanently lack moral culpability, but they are still persons. Some babies don't grow into responsible adults, yet they are persons. (And doctors might even say of some comatose patients that they lack the relevant potential to get better.) So even if it's true that chimpanzees permanently lack moral culpability (which, they might not, given the evidence of their abilities to understand and reason), this isn't a good reason to think that they are not persons. 
  • Second, in general, we aren't, and shouldn't, be treated in terms of our potentials: potential doctors, lawyers, judges, parents, spouses, criminals, saints, and on and on are all quite different from actual individuals of these kinds. So, at least, appeals to potential, say, free agency are a doubtful way of grounding personhood. Perhaps it can be done, but the pattern -- that potential things of a kind rarely, if ever, have the rights of actual things of that kind -- suggests that this is not likely to be a fruitful way to ground the personhood of human beings who lack free agency, rationality and other sophisticated mental capacities. So, this doesn't help undercut the case for chimpanzee personhood. 
  • Third, recall that Crosby states that people "are the kind of being that in the normal instance has moral agency and something is blocking exercise of it." But rarely, if ever, should individuals be treated as "normal" instances of their "kind," if they are not normal instances of their kind. For example, human beings are bipedal and can see with their eyes -- that is normal for their kind -- but people without legs or who are blind -- because of something "blocking" exercise of the normal capacities -- should be treated in light of their special conditions, not in ways that are "normal" for their "kind." The same is true for "normal" mental and emotional capacities of the kind of beings who are human beings. The points here is that we should be treated as individuals, which might be different from how normal members of our kind should be treated, and so this too is not likely to be a fruitful way to ground the personhood of human beings without "normal" capacities and abilities. So, this response also doesn't help undercut the case for chimpanzee personhood. 
  • Finally, it's worthwhile to notice that Crosby's case against chimpanzee personhood seems to imply that human embryos and fetuses are persons, given their potential and what "kind" they are. While some will happily accept this result, others will be surprised and wonder if they must think this in order to argue against chimpanzee rights: to oppose chimpanzee rights, must we also think that abortion is likely wrong? This connection would be, at least for many people, a surprising and unexpected consequence, and so might lead them to at least doubt, if not reject, Crosby's reasoning. 
Again, Crosby's case is quick, but any developed case along his lines would need to engage these concerns.

Finally, the web page concludes with this:
Father Brian Chrzastek, a philosophy professor at the Dominican House of Studies, also reflected on the difference between chimps and people. He said that humans have a higher potential for abstract thought and originality. While animals act by instinct, he said people engage rationally with the world. 
“Humans are different in kind. It’s not like we are just smart chimpanzees or something. We’re an entirely different level of thought, an entirely different kind of species,” he told CNA.

In reply:
  • First, while perhaps humans in general have a higher potential for abstract thought and originality -- or perhaps not, since some animals might be capable of even more abstract thought about matters that concern them, and perhaps might be original in ways that don't compare to any human originality -- not all human beings have that potential. 
  • Second, again, we shouldn't be treated in terms of our potentials: if I'm not a very abstract thinker and am rather unoriginal in everything I think and do, I shouldn't be treated as someone who excels in original, abstract thought. 
  • Third, animals do not merely act "by instinct": this is naive to the best scientific and common-sense understanding of many animals. 
  • Fourth, sadly many human people often do not engage rationally with the world: read the daily news. 

And, fifth and finally, while it's true that humans are "different in kind" from animals, we are also the same in kind to many animals, especially chimpanzees: we are conscious, aware, with thoughts, feelings and perceptions, and personalities: we are persons. And persons should have legal rights that protect us against certain types of harms and wrongdoing, whatever species the person is.

Note: This paper is based on arguments I developed in greater detail in Tom Regan on ‘Kind’ Arguments against Animal Rights and for Human Rights” in The Moral Rights of Animals, edited by Mylan Engel and Gary Comstock (Lexington Books, 2016).

Posted by the Nonhuman Rights Project: 

Also here with better formatting.