Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Monkeying Around With Personhood [Clinton Wilcox]

Wesley J. Smith has written about a case in Argentina in which an orangutan named Sandra has been declared by the court to be a non-human person. This ruling essentially would grant Sandra her freedom because it is unethical to hold people captive unlawfully.

The BBC has even written about litigation in the United States to try to get Tommy, a chimpanzee living in captivity, recognized as a "legal person."

Peter Singer and Michael Tooley are two atheist philosophers who have long supported this notion that certain animals, like chimpanzees and dolphins, ought to be considered persons and human infants, embryos, fetuses, and the severely disabled ought not to be. Now it seems that fight has gotten bigger, even being won in at least one part of the world.

This line of thinking is atheist at its heart. If we are just the product of random mutations, a blind, naturalistic process of evolution, then really we are no more special than any other animal species out there. [1] This isn't just my interpretation, either. In Matter and Consciousness, Paul Churchland wrote: "The important point about the standard evolutionary story is that the human species and all of its features are the wholly physical outcome of a purely physical process...We are creatures of matter. We should learn to live with that fact."

In fact, Singer and Tooley both (in Practical Ethics and Abortion and Infanticide, respectively) have argued that this idea that humans are intrinsically valuable is a religious idea, and we need to do away with these "antiquated" notions. The only reason we now view infanticide as wrong is because Christian morality has permeated Western civilization.

So if you are going to argue that certain animals deserve personhood, one of two things must happen:

1) You raise those animals to the status of human beings. So if Tommy and Sandra are persons, and infants are not, that means that killing a chimpanzee is more serious than killing a human infant. If you "murder" a chimpanzee, you deserve to be locked away in jail for life or executed. [2] If you kill an infant, you don't. At most, you would be guilty of a property crime, if you killed the infant against the parents' wishes. This is a highly counterintuitive idea.

2) You lower humans to the status of mere animals. After all, if we're no intrinsically different than animals, then it's really not seriously wrong to kill another human being. This is also highly counterintuitive, since we have very strong intuition that killing any human being, especially ones that are younger and more vulnerable than we are, is seriously wrong.

The bottom line is chimpanzees don't deserve personhood status. Personhood is not some arbitrary idea that we can just ascribe to entities and consider them "one of us." Being a person is inherent in being the kind of entity that you are (in our case, a human being made in God's image, or to state it in a secular way, an entity with an inherent nature as rational agents). Those who believe you are a person based on the functions you currently perform are guilty of a simple confusion: confusing being a person with acting as a person. As you must be a human before you can develop human parts, so you must be a person before you can develop personal properties.

I do not believe that animals are rights bearing entities. That's not to say that we can mistreat them. They are still entities that feel pain, and we should respect that. And a human being who mistreats an animal is at risk of becoming animal-like, themselves, becoming desensitized to pain in others. However, even if you believe they are rights bearing entities, you can ascribe rights to them without ascribing personhood to them. But what we also have to understand is that with rights comes duties. I have a right to live. This means that I am also obligated to respect everyone else's right to live. Apes cannot understand or abide by any obligations.

Sandra and Tommy are both blissfully unaware of these court proceedings. In fact, they don't care one iota about whether or not you consider them persons. This is an important difference between apes and humans. Apes may be highly intelligent -- but only when compared to other animal species (this is often lost in the animal rights debate). Apes are not very intelligent when compared to human beings. No ape will ever write like Tolstoy, or paint like Michelangelo, or compose music like Bach, or fly other apes to the Moon. And while apes may be able to use certain rudimentary tools -- that's all it is, a rudimentary tool. No ape will ever open a hardware store for the carpentry needs of other apes. And while infants may not yet be able to understand these rights and obligations, they will. And that's the crux of the matter. Human embryos/fetuses/infants will naturally develop these abilities, whereas apes never will.

So trying to ascribe personhood status to lower animals is unnecessary and makes a mockery of human dignity. Animals have been part of the ecosystem for a long time. Animals kill each other, protect each other, copulate, and do all manner of things without human help and will continue to do so without human intervention and without caring a bit about personhood or what it is. There is just no reason to ascribe personhood to animals. The only possible reason would be to ensure that humans don't mistreat animals or cause them to go extinct. But ascribing them personhood status is not necessary for that, either.

[1] I'm not wanting to get into a debate about evolution. It's certainly possible that God used evolution as the mechanism by which to create humanity. The operative idea here is if naturalistic evolution is true, this is the idea that would follow.

[2] Again, the debate regarding capital punishment is beyond the scope of this article. This idea here is that whatever the penalty for murder is, that's what you deserve if you "murder" a chimpanzee.


  1. Singer makes me sick, and to think he's considered one of the most preeminent ethicist today.

  2. I don't see anything wrong with assigning personhood to other animals. I don't seen humans as being of a higher OR lower status than other animals. Killing either is a crime and so I am not in agreement with Peter Singer and Michael Tooley on this.

  3. "This idea here is that whatever the penalty for murder is, that's what you deserve if you "murder" a chimpanzee. "

    Can we apply that kind of reasoning to pro-lifers for just once? If we are to give personhood to the unborn, that means whatever the penalty for murder is, that's what you deserve if you murder the unborn. So if a woman kills her unborn child, she can't be treated any differently than if she kills her born child. In other words, if a woman has an abortion, we can't say things like, "how tragic for her" and "if only we had more crisis pregnancy centers". We have to say things like "she should get 20 years to life". When people have the same reaction to a woman who kills her born child as her unborn child, then and only then will abortion become illegal. Otherwise we present abortion as merely another unwanted vice, like premarital sex and drunkenness.

    1. Paul, personhood is not something we give, just like we don't bestow humanity on anyone. We recognize personhood, and right now the unborn are not being recognized as persons.

      It's true that killing an unborn child is the same killing a born child, but we do a disservice if we just treat the issue shallowly, as if that settles the matter. Our courts recognize that there are different degrees of killing (e.g. a crime of passion is not treated as harshly as premeditated murder). The problem is that our society has largely failed women in telling them that there is nothing wrong with abortion. That's why organizations like LTI are so important, because we are educating the people in the society so they know better. But a woman who is lied to by the abortion practitioner into believing she's just having a "mass of tissue" removed is certainly not on the same plane as a woman who knows full well that she has a human child inside her and goes in for the abortion. Additionally, many women are coerced into doing it by boyfriends, husbands, or parents, and they surely are not as morally culpable for the act as a woman who knows full well what she is doing and does it freely. Third, a woman who does not self-abort is not guilty of murder. Like the woman who hires a hitman to kill her husband, she would be guilty of accomplice to murder, not murder, itself.

      So there are many aspects we have to take into consideration, and treating all abortions as if they're the same makes us look unreasonable because we don't recognize all murders of born people as the same. Abortions have to be taken on a case-by-case basis. Plus, as it was before abortion was legalized in the United States, we would probably revert back to the system of granting a woman who has an abortion immunity if she gives up the name of the abortionists. Not because she doesn't deserve to be punished under the law, but because there are "bigger fish" to fry. Giving up the name of the abortionist does a lot more good than punishing an individual woman for having an abortion.

    2. I agree that it makes sense to use a case-by-case basis for abortion just as it does with all other crimes. Also, as you pointed out, people have been taught for a long time that there is nothing wrong with abortion. As such, even if it was made illegal again, all the abortions done for the past 42 years were done under a system where it was considered acceptable by many people both morally and legally. Because of this no one would reasonably expect to punish people for abortions during those years.

    3. "Our courts recognize that there are different degrees of killing."

      Yes, but if one wants to say that the unborn are persons, and that killing them is murder, then abortion represents one of the highest degrees of murder. Killing is made more serious by how much it is planned out. If a woman intricately plans to kill her husband and carries it out, she will be punished much more than a woman who accidentally kills someone while driving drunk (although both are severely.) Abortion is planned, far more than say someone who is killed during a robbery. In addition, crimes against children or otherwise vulnerable members of society are often punished more severely than crimes against adults. You can look at sentencing of child murderers to verify this. Lastly, Chandler writes, "people have been taught for a long time that there is nothing wrong with abortion." Then all the more reason to punish severely. That argument would never be used for born persons. Would you use that argument if a group of people saw nothing wrong with killing illegal immigrants?

      "Giving up the name of the abortionist does a lot more good than punishing an individual woman for having an abortion."

      No, actually this does a great deal of harm. It's what we'd do if a woman visited an illegal gambling facility and the judge didn't see gambling as a really big deal. It sends a horrible message, and it's how we got in this mess in the first place. You basically put abortion in the "decriminalized" category, where it's not quite legal, not quite illegal. The result is a lot of women pursing abortions at illegal venues, and it's very natural for people to then ask "if women shouldn't be punished for pursing an abortion, why not just have abortion legal in the first place?" Moreover, if women shouldn't be punished for abortion, aren't we doing just that by shutting down any safe and legal abortion clinics to go to, and making them go to "back alley" clinics? Please watch this video about how abortion became legal in New York. The argumentation paved the pay for Roe vs Wade 3 years later:

    4. Paul,

      "Killing is made more serious by how much it is planned out."

      Abortion isn't always planned out. As Frederica Matthews-Green (of Feminists For Life points out), [most] women don't want abortion like they want an ice cream cone or to take a trip to Disneyland. They want abortion like a bear caught in a trap wants to gnaw off its leg. Pro-life people tend to have this view of abortion that it's a separate kind of killing altogether, when it's not. The only difference between killing an unborn child and a born one is that the unborn child still resides in the woman's body, which makes it a little more challenging to justify the argument that abortion is wrong (due to bodily rights arguments). Many abortions are not, in fact, premeditated. They are more like crimes of passion, since many women having abortions are not in a proper frame of mind to be making this kind of decision (hence also why abortionists and pro-abortion organizations like Planned Parenthood are so insidious, because they'll prey on the woman's fears rather than supporting "waiting period" legislations and other things to make sure this is what a woman actually does want).

      "No, actually this does a great deal of harm."

      I think you've misunderstood the argument here. Nowhere did I say a woman who has an abortion doesn't deserve to be punished. I think an honest reading of my comment reveals the opposition. Granting a woman immunity to go after an abortionist does not say "you don't deserve to be punished," it says "we're willing to cut you a deal so we can go after the bigger fish." It doesn't send a horrible message at all; just the opposite. If you are killing children, we will go after you. Going after the abortionist does much more good. You can punish the woman in the hopes that she, in the future, won't have another one. Or you can go after an abortionist, and potentially save thousands of lives, the children that the abortionist won't, in fact, be able to kill if he or she is behind bars.


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