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.

Photo: Alois Staudacher

In our legal system, chimpanzees are not considered persons, no animals are considered persons and thus bearers of rights. Rather animals are classified as property. The desire to change this classification is what motivates the Nonhuman Rights Project. Given that the legal system only has two categories for distinguishing between beings, either person or property, classifying chimpanzees as legal persons is more accurate than considering them mere property. So it is understandable, in a legal context, that since chimpanzees have similar capacities to human persons they should have certain rights.

But I have misgivings about the “rights” approach. Rights are claims that we make against each other and assert to protect ourselves from the encroachment of others. Our legal system may be structured in such a way as to see rights holders at odds with one another, but that is a fairly grim view of how we interact with one another in our communities. Indeed this framework, in which we have to protect ourselves from others, may serve to reinforce a relatively dark view of our relationships with each other and with other animals. We end up focused on what we can extract from each other or how we can protect what we have, rather than focusing on how we might work together to improve each other’s lives.

If we were to instead focus on what we owe each other and other animals, our relationships become a more central concern. Our roles in promoting or hindering another animal’s well-being becomes a source of ethical concerns. Almost all of our actions and decisions affect other animals in a variety of ways. Whether they live or die, whether their offspring have any future, whether their habitats will continue to exist, depend on what we buy, what we eat, even who we vote for. No one wants to be in a “bad” relationship, so thinking about the ways we are in relationship to other animals and what we owe them can help those relationships be better.

The rights approach also tends to reduce our relationships to those in which we value similarities and overlook important differences that may help us to rethink who is valuable and why.

When what we are looking for is similarities -- how we might share the same general type of intelligence or cognitive skills, for example -- we tend to obscure distinctively valuable aspects of the lives of others that are different. What does this view mean for animals, humans and non-human, who are less intelligent or whose cognitive capacities are completely different from our own?

Focusing on how much other animals are like us forces us to assimilate them into our human-oriented framework; we grant them consideration in virtue of what we believe they share with us; rather than what makes their lives meaningful and valuable by their own lights. And through our human oriented gaze, we end up reconfiguring a dualism or, at best, a hierarchy, that will inevitably find some “other” to exclude or place at the bottom -- those that are really different from able-bodied, able-minded, persons.

When we talk about “rights” then, we need to be particularly cautious that we don’t construct and then ignore “others” -- some humans and many non-humans who construct meaningful ways of being in the world, but are differently abled such that they aren’t seen as similar to those who occupy the human-center.

Instead, we might consider what its like to be a chimpanzee or a chicken or a human child with a cognitive impairment in their unique relationships to others. In imagining their worlds from their perspectives, we may see that their overall well-being may be promoted differently, but their well-being is no less valuable just because they are different.