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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.



  1. One of the frequently heard argument is that a fertilized human egg is a person (or a person exists from the moment of conception) because the DNA, with all the “instructions” for growing a human person are present. Therefore, it is claimed that a fertilized human egg is a person. If this argument is valid, does it then follow that the moral status of a non-human animal in its very earliest stages (fertilized egg, embryo) has the same moral status the fully grown animal? Does a (fertilized) hen’s egg have the same moral status as the hen that laid it? Is there a moral difference between collecting and eating fertilized hen’s eggs and unfertilized hen’s eggs? Would it be as morally wrong to work with chimp embryos and stem cells as it would be to experiment on chimps?

    Is personhood one end of a spectrum? Or should it be possible (in principle at least) to draw a bright line and say that a given creature either is, or is not, a person? And if a given creature of a species is a person, does that mean all members of that species are persons?

    What about euthanasia of creatures such as chimps and dolphins? I think it is almost universally held that a non-human animal that is suffering from injury or disease and will never fully recover should be euthanized. People have animal companions to whom they are deeply attached—perhaps even truly love—euthanized as selfless acts of mercy. Would it be morally wrong to euthanize a highly intelligent creature that might be, if not a person, something close to it?

    • Hi David…excellent questions as usual.

      First, though perhaps you hear that “all the information is present” argument a lot, it really isn’t a very good argument because each human cell has those “instructions” present and could become a new human organism in light of SCNT. What is different about the embryo is that she is already a new human organism, a new kind of thing, qualitatively different from the gamete cells which produced her.

      If we consider chimps and dolphins to be the same kinds of things as human persons then, yes, we should treat their embryos the same as ours. We should consider them to be of irreducible value such that it would never be right to aim at their death unless it was in self-defense (so euthanasia is out).

      Are they the same kind of thing as a human person? Do they have irreducible value? I hope this isn’t me punting on a tough question, but I just don’t think so. They certainly have a very high moral status, and perhaps personhood is on a spectrum and they are in a transitional stage between beings that are clearly persons and those that are clearly not. But I don’t think they have the kind of capacity for self-transcendence and moral behavior that I take to be indicative of the kinds of things that have irreducible value.

      That said, I believe it is gravely wrong to do many of the things we do to them even if they do not count as persons in the fullest sense of the word.


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