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. 


  1. I'm very sympathetic to the cause of granting chimpanzees rights, but I don't think we have grasped and rebutted the real argument that is being made on the other side. I would "steel man" their argument by saying something like this: A sizeable percentage of Homo sapiens can understand and uphold the social contract that gives "human rights" for human responsibilities. Rather than test each individual for their ability to "earn" these rights, it has been decided that the contract is much stronger by being applied to any and all Homo sapiens just by dint of being a member of this group of animals. No rocks can ever grasp and understand their duties and obligations, so no rocks are granted rights. No trees can ever grasp and understand their duties and obligations, so no trees are granted rights. Similarly, no chimpanzees can ever grasp and understand their duties and obligations, so no Pan troglodytes are granted rights.

    I think there is something to said for the "it has been decided that the contract is much stronger" part of the creation of human rights (once called "nonsense on stilts"), and our unspoken contract with life in general could be made stronger by including other forms of life in our social contracts, but we need to say this explicitly. On their own terms, the deniers of chimpanzee rights have a logical case.

  2. Thanks for your comment, @EdGibney, but this type of reasoning is likely problematic, for reasons suggested in the original post. Just because a sizable percentage of some group can understand and uphold some properties or requirements to have some right, or to be treated some way, doesn't mean that every member of that group has that right or should be treated that way. (What are some examples to show this?)

    More interestingly, what about a broader proposal like this? It's the same appealing to groups, but with a broader, more inclusive group:

    A sizeable percentage of *conscious, sentient beings* can understand and uphold the social contract that gives rights. Rather than test each individual for their ability to "earn" these rights, it has been decided that the contract is much stronger by being applied to any and all *conscious, sentient beings*just by being a member of this group.

  3. Oh I agree with your original post and all the arguments which show you cannot logically use *individual* properties to grant rights to *every individual*, but I don't think that's the only argument being made by non-human animal rights deniers. I think they could say that the *universal rights* are granted to *groups*, not individuals, based on qualities within the group, even if some specific qualities are not contained by every member in the group. I think that is the argument being made by the other side on this, or at least it's a logical one they could make without resorting to god or other ineffable human qualities. Anyone who studies philosophy and biology knows that there aren't perfectly clear methods to "carve nature at its joints", but in the legal world we are forced to do this all the time, and the joint between the human species and other extant species is a clear enough one for legal purposes. That's why I think their reasoning is less problematic than you indicate. It would be logical to me to apply "universal human rights" to a group based on the properties of *most* (loosely defined) members of that group. And it would be logical to deny "universal rights" to a group (e.g. chimpanzees) if absolutely no members of that group *qualify* (again, loosely defined) for those rights. So I don't know if your broader proposal would be accepted by the other side because a "sizeable" percentage is probably too debatable and they will still point to the natural joint between humans and non-human animals as a good place to stop calculating those percentages.

    Now, however, I also think it's logical for us to then say that since we find it useful to grant rights to all of the individual members of our group *even if* some of those individual members don't fully qualify for them, then it could be equally useful to extend those rights to other individuals outside of our group who may not exhibit all the qualities to earn them. (And by "earn" them, I mean something like an ability to reciprocate the recognition of these rights. No chimps at this stage of evolutionary history could agree to something like a Geneva convention to not tear the arms off of humans in captivity. They may be thinking, feeling, rational, conscious, sentient creatures, but this they cannot do. Even if it may only be because we humans lack the capacity to fully communicate with them.) This ends up being similar to Kant's argument that: "cruelty to animals is contrary to man's duty to himself, because it deadens in him the feeling of sympathy for their sufferings, and thus a natural tendency that is very useful to morality in relation to other human beings is weakened." But I think this sentiment is supported by much greater evidence now from the sciences of evolution and ecology which show our complete interdependence and relation to the rest of nature. Our own survival is dependent on the survival of so much of the rest of life that we ought to enforce a much stronger respect for the rest of life. Widening rights beyond "mere humans" would be a very important step for that.

    What do you think? Do you see where I think the other side might be coming from on this? And how we can effectively accept their arguments, but then counter them by pointing out their own logic and then extending it further to where we think it must go? It's only a slight addition to your original post, but I do think this "groups" vs. "individual members of the groups" thing must be cleared up.

  4. Thanks, @EdGibney for your thoughts.

    Yes, people might think that *universal rights* are granted to *groups*, not individuals, based on qualities within the group, even if some specific qualities are not contained by every member in the group.

    In reply, I think that's basically just not correct, in light of examples given above, which involve individuals, who are part of the group, who should not be treated like a typical member of the group, given their unique characteristics. And there's no good reason to accept this sort of view, especially since an individual-focused view does a better job.

  5. Ah good. It seems like you get what I was trying to say on behalf of the "other" side in this.

    I'm not sure I get your latest point now though. I thought an "individual-focused" view was problematic due to wide differences between the capabilities of individuals. You want to give rights to 5-day old infants right? And comatose car-crash victims? And chimpanzees as well? What is your threshold for granting rights then? I don't see how an individual view alone works by itself. There are just too many exceptions in competence among individuals at any given point in their life histories. And why restrict yourself to an individual view when group views are available and make sense in terms of evolutionary biology?

  6. @EdGibney, thanks for your response.

    Concerning your final question, an answer -- from the initial post - is this:

    Anyone who is conscious, aware, with *some kind of* thoughts, feelings and perceptions, who can be harmed -- that is, made worse off, from their own point of view -- has some kind of rights.

    A view like this would apply to the infant and chimpanzee. It can also be applied to the coma patient, if modified to include prior consciousness and feeling, especially if that will return.

    Concerning individuals and groups, you could investigate an idea called "moral individualism" developed by James Rachels.

  7. Thanks for the recommendation for Rachels! I ordered his book ("Created from Animals: Moral Implications of Darwinism") straightaway since it's obviously very applicable to the project I'm building at about an "Evolutionary Philosophy". I'm more familiar with Singer's "expanding circle of concern" for extending moral attitudes towards nonhuman animals, and I must admit I'm skeptical of systems that place a heavy emphasis on individuals if there's a cost of not looking at their communitarian bonds, but I'll look at Rachels work in more depth to see if I'm reading too much into that "moral individualism" title.

    I'm inclined to follow along on the granting of rights to beings with *some kind* of thoughts, feelings, and perceptions — I certainly think we have moral obligations to such beings — but rights are legal constructions and I'm not sure how air tight a legal case we can make for such rights given the philosophical problems we have with air tight cases for free will and consciousness etc. in humans, and the drawing of bright lines necessary for legal judgments is practically impossible for individuals then in my view. (I see you've published on the connections between animal rights and abortion, which is an excellent example of the problems of blurred lines at the margins of what an "individual" is.) I see your points now though and believe you see the ones I wanted to make. I wish you luck in your endeavours and will follow along on your blog now. (My wife found this post from a facebook group she follows.) Cheers!