Should chimps have rights?

Steven M. Wise and the Nonhuman Rights Project think so.  In Wise’s own words, chimpanzees are complex, autonomous beings that should have the basic right “to be left alone.”

Seeking a court’s support for their position, the organization petitioned New York courts for writs of habeas corpus on behalf of several chimpanzees they view as being held unlawfully.  Habeas corpus petitions have been used to seek freedom from unlawful detention of human beings.  The Nonhuman Rights Project believes the statute should also apply to non-human animals as well.

In part, the New York statue states that the petition may be brought by:

“A person illegally imprisoned or otherwise restrained in his liberty within the state, or one acting on his behalf […] A judge authorized to issue writs of habeas corpus having evidence, in a judicial proceeding before him, that any person is so detained shall, on his own initiative, issue a writ of habeas corpus for the relief of that person.”

Is it really surprising that this week three different judges denied habeas corpus petitions requested by Wise acting on behalf of these chimpanzees? The courts seem to have interpreted the word “person” as referring to a “human being” and not any other non-human animal.  Wise plans to take the case to appeal.

Steven Wise

This recent attempt by Wise and colleagues to have a non-human animal declared a person ended in a similar way to a PeTA’s suit that argued orcas held at SeaWorld are slaves who should be freed under the 13th Amendment of the Constitution.  In that case, U.S. District Judge Jeffrey Miller dismissed the lawsuit explaining the 13th Amendment pertains to human beings, not animals. Some even found comic relief in PeTA’s approach, asking if the whole thing was nothing more than a publicity stunt.

Wise and other animal rights activists appear obsessed with the goal of seeking rights for non-human animals. Unfortunately, this is not a very effective way to advocate for animal welfare. At the end of the day, and after all the philosophical debate of what basic rights mean and who are legitimate holders, the only question that can be meaningfully answered is the following — How is that we, humans, think we should treat other living beings?

The substantial resources and funds devoted in pursuit of the fixation of animal rights could have had a more real impact if devoted to improve animal welfare directly. In the specific case of chimps, for example, a legal push to outlaw individual, private ownership for non-scientific, non-education purposes would make more sense and be more effective to the animals than publicity-seeking lawsuits.

How we treat animals is a legitimate public debate to be had.  But, as correctly pointed out by Richard Cupp in a rather interesting exchange with Steven Wise this week, the proper object of concern should not be animal rights, but human responsibility.  Accepting that evolution has put humans in a place to be the stewards of our planet, its environment and all living creatures within it, carries a  responsibility that we must accept and face. Understanding this to be the outcome of evolution is not speciesist. In contrast, denying relevant differences between living beings is what leads to the idea that animals should have the right to be “left alone.”  If successful, such move may actually free humans of responsibility and let the animals fend for themselves in an environment increasingly shaped by human activity.

5 thoughts on “Should chimps have rights?

  1. I have to agree that it is a very ineffective argument in court to put forward animals as “persons”. It will never stick as the courts are not a place of ethics or logic. They are a place where a rule book is applied. Logic will only be accepted if it is unoriginal to the experience of the courts. In other words it is not the logic that gets accepted, but merely a historical repetition of said logic. It is a waste of time to try and engage the courts with such concepts. Only when the courts are seen in contempt by the average person (human in this case) and those people start to support change with either their vote (or revolution, as history has recorded numerous times), can things change. Rather form a political party – and dont forget, a party does not get votes on one agenda alone, you need a mix of pertinent goals that are not just green, but economical, social, defensive etc. etc. Team up with a broad band of political allies of diverse backgrounds and this case can be won over some length of time. It won’t come quick cannot be argued in isolation, and must detour around the courts in order to happen.

  2. With rights come responsibilities. Roger Scruton, the British philosopher, argues that rights imply obligations. Every legal privilege, he writes, imposes a burden on the one who does not possess that privilege: that is, “your right may be my duty.” Scruton therefore regards the emergence of the animal rights movement as “the strangest cultural shift within the liberal worldview,” because the idea of rights and responsibilities is, he argues, distinctive to the human condition, and it makes no sense to spread them beyond our own species. He accuses animal rights advocates of “pre-scientific” anthropomorphism, attributing traits to animals that are, he says, Beatrix Potter-like, where “only man is vile.” It is within this fiction that the appeal of animal rights lies, he argues. The world of animals is non-judgemental, filled with dogs who return our affection almost no matter what we do to them, and cats who pretend to be affectionate when, in fact, they care only about themselves. It is, he argues, a fantasy, a world of escape. So would animals be sent to prison if they broke the law?

  3. “They are sensitive, intelligent creatures that know happiness, pain and fear. They make you feel what they are feeling.”
    Angela Maldonado, primatologist

    The argument by the great Richard Ryder, who coined the term speciesism, that animals also are constituents of any given jurisdiction and are as entitled as any other to the protections of the law and representation by politicians, holds water here. It is our great tragedy that we fail to see the relevance.

    1. “[…] animals also are constituents of any given jurisdiction and are as entitled as any other to the protections of the law and representation by politicians.” That is not an argument. It is just an opinion. At least Wise is trying to make an argument… but clearly the NY courts disagreed.

Comments are closed.