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Philosophers Fight for Chimpanzee Personhood

From the Daily Nous

Seventeen philosophers co-authored and submitted to the New York Court of Appeals an amicus curiae brief in support of legal personhood for a pair of chimpanzees. The chimpanzees, Tommy and Kiko, are clients of Sam Wise and the organization he founded, the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP). The chimpanzees, each believed to be in their thirties, have been abused and held in solitary confinement for much of their lives in New York, according to Big Think. The NhRP is trying to get the chimpanzees moved to an accredited animal sanctuary in Florida. The NhRP’s legal strategy involves asking the NY Court of Appeals to grant the chimpanzees habeas corpus relief. The idea is to require that the chimpanzees be brought to court as part of a proceeding to determine whether they are, in effect, illegally imprisoned. The NhRP has submitted a memo to the court seeking an appeal of a previous decision declining to issue writs of habeas corpus for Tommy and Kiko. A central issue in the decision of whether to grant habeas corpus relief to the chimpanzees is whether they are legal persons. It is on this issue that the philosophers wrote their brief. They argue that the court, in its previous decision, has failed to use a “consistent and reasonable definition ‘personhood’ and ‘persons.'” [The philosophers state:] "We submit this brief in our shared interest in ensuring a more just co-existence with other animals who live in our communities. We strongly urge this Court, in keeping with the best philosophical standards of rational judgment and ethical standards of justice, to recognize that, as nonhuman persons, Kiko and Tommy should be granted a writ of habeas corpus and their detainers should have the burden of showing the lawful justification of their current confinement…In this brief, we argue that there is a diversity of ways in which humans (Homo sapiens) are ‘persons’ and there are no non-arbitrary conceptions of ‘personhood’ that can include all humans and exclude all nonhuman animals. To do so we describe and assess the four most prominent conceptions of ‘personhood’ that can be found in the rulings concerning Kiko and Tommy, with particular focus on the most recent decision, Nonhuman Rights Project, Inc v Lavery."

The four conceptions of persons the philosophers take up are persons as (1) members in the biological taxonomic classification homo sapiens, (2) social contractors, (3) members of the relevant community, (4) possessing certain capacities, such as autonomy. [The philosophers write:]
"Each of these different conceptions supports different reasoning regarding personhood. The first, species membership, is morally weak due to its arbitrary character. The other three, when properly understood, entail that Kiko and Tommy can qualify as persons. On these grounds we agree with the NhRP that it is unjust to deny Kiko and Tommy habeas corpus relief."

The brief, informally known as “Chimpanzee Personhood: The Philosophers’ Brief,” is over 40 pages long, and elaborates on each of these points.

The philosophers who authored the brief are: Kristin Andrews (York University), Gary Comstock (North Carolina State University), G.K.D. Crozier (Laurentian University), Sue Donaldson (Queen’s University), Andrew Fenton (Dalhousie University), Tyler M. John (Rutgers University), L. Syd M Johnson (Michigan Technological University), Robert C. Jones (California State University, Chico), Will Kymlicka (Queen’s University), Letitia Meynell (Dalhousie University), Nathan Nobis (Morehouse College), David Peña-Guzmán (California State University, San Francisco), James Rocha (California State University, Fresno), Bernard Rollin (Colorado State), Jeffrey Sebo (New York University), Adam Shriver (University of British Columbia), and Rebecca L. Walker (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill).

In a description of the brief, two of its authors, Andrew Fenton and Syd M Johnson, say more about why they think it is important:

Why does it matter if the courts agree that Tommy and Kiko are persons? Right now, they are being held in solitary enclosures and are legally unprotected from being confined in this way even though doing so harms them. They are unprotected because under the law there are only persons or things, and Tommy and Kiko are not recognized as persons. As far as we know, their current owners are not breaking any animal welfare laws, so their solitary captivity seems perfectly legal. This is a fundamental flaw with animal welfare laws—while they can protect animals from some forms of outrageous abuse (starvation, neglect), they are otherwise silent about whether other important interests of animals are served, such as their freedom of movement, or their ability to socialize with others of their kind. Only persons have rights, including rights to bodily liberty. So, unless and until Tommy and Kiko are recognized as persons, they remain legal things lacking even the most basic rights, including the right to live as chimpanzees, with other chimpanzees.

For further information, see https://www.nonhumanrights.org/blog/update-motion-philosophers-brief/

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