In December, the Nonhuman Rights Project filed writs of habeas corpus for four chimpanzees living in NY. The cases were dismissed, but the lawyers are planning to appeal. The filings garnered a great deal of publicity about according rights to other animals.
Just this week, in response to the legal filings, the launch of a new website The Dodo devoted to all things animal, and an op-ed by Frank Bruni in the NY Times claiming we are in an era when demands for respecting the dignity of other animals are growing, writer Damon Linker claims "No, animals don't have rights."
This recent debate follows popular discussions in which the question "should animals have rights?" is generally met with one of two diametrically opposed responses. On one side, there are condescending snickers from those who think the question is about legal rights and they think this sounds absurd. On the other side are those who think the answer is obvious, of course animals should have moral rights, we humans, after all, are animals and so many of us love, cherish and respect nonhumans, so why not rights for them? I don't think the question is at all absurd, but I do have worries about "rights" language.
Rights are things that those in power give out, so there is always going to be something assimilationist about rights. Arguments for including the more than human world in our ethical deliberations as rights-bearers have tended to parallel arguments that extend ethical concern outward from those who occupy the moral center. Historically in the US and Europe, for example, we have seen white, Christian men at the center extending rights to non-Christian, non-white men and then women. As the circle of rights holders grows, the ideal is that all of humanity will be included, whatever their race, nationality or gender expression.
But why stop at species? Some scholars and activists have tried to combat what is alternatively termed "speciesism," "humanormativity" and "human exceptionalism" by moving the boundary of the circle beyond the human.
One of the main strategies for expanding the circle is to turn to empirical work designed to show that other animals are really similar to those at the center of the circle and thus deserve rights. To be considered consistent and fair, we are implored to treat like cases alike. If those on the margins of the circle of moral concern can be shown, through ethological and cognitive research, for example, to have some of the qualities that we admire in ourselves and to which we attach value, then we ought to admire and value those qualities in whatever bodies they arise.
This research has shown that many other animals have rich social relationships, sacrifice their own safety by staying with sick or injured family members so that the fatally ill will not die alone, grieve their dead, respond to emotional states of others, engage in norm governed behavior, manipulate and deceive, understand symbolic representations and pass along culture.
Some of the research with chimpanzees and bonobos suggests that they have a distinctive sense of self and that they understand themselves as having interests that extend through time. The capacity to recognize oneself as having a past and future is, as John Locke suggested, to be a person.