The “Real and Present Threat” of Non-Human Personhood?
Wesley Smith, whose ‘Secondhand Smoke’ blog is important reading (especially for those interested in bioethics), gets a lot right–especially when it comes to his concern about euthanasia. His books on that subject capture perfectly what happens, for instance, when the right to die begins to take hold in a consumerist, youth, and capital-centered culture.
However, especially for someone who often takes a Christian approach, he has an odd focus (is it too strong to call it “obsession”?) with what he calls “human exceptionalism.” He is even described as a “Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center for Human Exceptionalism.” And it is this focus which drives his article in The Weekly Standard this week:
For years, animal rights activists have been preparing the intellectual ground to overcome the “animals aren’t persons” legal impediment to their goal of allowing animals to sue their owners—a concept known as “animal standing”—by which they plan to destroy animal industries and eventually end all domestication of animals. They know that no legislature will pass laws elevating even the most intelligent animals to the status of persons. So they plan to file multitudinous lawsuits, hoping judges will bootstrap animals into the moral community.
There is a lot going on even in this short paragraph which requires a response. First, and most obviously, non-human animals are already in the moral community in the eyes of the law. Michael Vick spent two years in jail because our culture feels strongly about the fact that dogs are part of the moral community. Second, “personhood” is only a subset of the broad moral community. One might reasonably argue that dogs and pigs, though exceptionally smart and perhaps even self-aware, are not persons in the sense that human beings–and perhaps some other animals–are persons. There is no reason to think that granting personhood to, say, chimps and dolphins, would therefore have an effect on the domestication of hamsters.
And this is no mere ivory-tower, abstract, merely intellectual topic: multiple countries (including Britain, New Zealand and most recently Spain) have moved toward legally supporting something like the Great Ape Project, which argues that three essential human rights—life, liberty and freedom from physical and psychological torture—should be extended to our closest hominid relatives. Smith suggests that the reasoning here is akin to arguing that corporations are persons, but that is not what is being argued at all. Chimps and dolphins (and perhaps some other animals) have rationality, self-awareness, at least the primordia of a moral sense, and may even understand death.
Smith is worried that considering non-human animals to be persons may undermine the exceptionalism of human animals. He is correct to worry about this. But Christians know that human beings are not exceptional. Thomas Aquinas and many other Christian thinkers, for instance, argued that human beings had a rather modest place in the hierarchy of creation–especially when compared to angels. A “person” is a “substance of a rational and relational nature” and refers to a metaphysical category, not a biological one. Both angels and humans fit into this category, and it may very well be the case that non-human animals (and even aliens!) also count as persons.
I share Smith’s strong and important worries about how we treat prenatal, neonatal, disabled, and sick human beings. I acknowledge that there are also those who wish to elevate non-human animal life at the expense of the lives of human animals. But acknowledging the very high moral status of chimps and dolphins (which at least approaches personhood) need not take away from the moral status of human animals. This is not a zero sum game. Non-human personhood is not, as Smith suggests, a “real and present threat” to the moral status of human beings.
Happily, we are learning more and more that meat-eating and medical experiments on non-human animals are not necessary for human flourishing and indeed may hurt our flourishing. But even if that wasn’t the case, justice demands that we honestly name the truth about the moral status of non-human animals, and adjust our practices accordingly.