Rights Aren't Just for Humans, Anymore

From chimpanzees to artificial intelligence, science is raising important questions about just who, and what, has rights.


Thought experiment: In a remote region of the Amazon, explorers stumble across a tribe of people heretofore unknown. Clearly they are very primitive—living out of doors and off the land, without clothes or agriculture or the other usual hallmarks of civilization. But after months of observation, scientists conclude that the tribespeople are, nevertheless, highly intelligent.

They use tools. They understand numbers. They have a "theory of mind," meaning they understand that others have minds of their own and know things they don't know themselves. They engage in metacognition, meaning they can think about their own thoughts. They engage in "mental time travel," meaning they can remember the past and plan for the future. They use symbolic language to discuss past and future events. They demonstrate concern for the emotional welfare of others—for instance, by consoling the victim of aggression. They show grief and compassion in the face of death.

Would it be morally acceptable to capture some of those tribesmen and bring them back to the U.S. so they could be used in medical experiments and displayed in exhibits for public entertainment? Or would that be a violation of their rights?

This is the question posed by recent habeas corpus claims filed on behalf of several chimpanzees by the Nonhuman Rights Project. The suits, relying on statutory and common law, argue that Tommy, Merlin, Reba, and other chimps currently being held in captivity deserve to be recognized as legal persons with certain fundamental rights: liberty and bodily integrity. The suits are backed up by the testimony of numerous experts in primatology, whose affidavits affirm that chimps have the cognitive abilities described above.

Last week three New York courts quickly dispatched the lawsuits. The Nonhuman Rights Project expected that to happen, and plans to appeal. Convincing a court to recognize the legal personhood of chimpanzees would be a landmark victory.

Even to broach the idea strikes some as terribly threatening. "Animal rights is an ideology that perceives animals as having the same right not to be owned as humans," wrote Wesley J. Smith recently in The Weekly Standard. Should the Nonhuman Rights Project prevail, "the deleterious cultural and economic consequences would be staggering."

Smith is a senior fellow with the Discovery Institute, which advocates for intelligent design and opposes the idea that humans "descended from apes." The Institute is the prime mover behind the campaign to "teach the controversy" of evolution vs. creationism—even though there is no such controversy. Not among scientists, anyway.

Like evolution, the recognition of animal rights has the potential to undermine biblical literalism. So it is not particularly surprising that the Institute treats even limited recognition of some rights for chimpanzees as the first step on a slippery slope.

The ultimate goal, Smith writes, is "to prohibit all domestication of animals" and "destroy human exceptionalism."

Wrong. The panic over the possibility of safeguarding not merely animal welfare, but legal animal rights, fails to recognize that we already do just that. Humans, after all, are animals too. When we respect human rights, we therefore respect the rights of (some) animals. And if we respect the rights of some animals, then there is no reason in principle not to respect the rights of certain others.

But just as not all humans have the same rights, recognizing certain rights for chimps would not require attributing those same rights to pigs, bluejays, and earthworms. Children enjoy no right to enter into contracts, for example, because they are deemed to lack the capacity for it. Adults generally may enter into contracts—but not all of them. We make exceptions for the mentally incompetent.

To conclude that chimpanzees' cognitive abilities justify the right not to be imprisoned or experimented upon, therefore, does not mean those same rights must be conferred upon animals without those cognitive abilities.

Why do people have rights in the first place? Suppose future space exploration discovers a planet populated by highly intelligent beings, with an exquisitely rich culture dating back several millennia, who look not at all human. Wouldn't it make sense to recognize them as rights-bearing creatures anyway? And wouldn't that make more sense than attributing human rights to mannequins—which look very much like humans, but have no human capacities?

A question like that might seem too fanciful. But the advance of computing science is leading to another one. Well before long-distance space travel becomes feasible, the day will arrive when computers become both self-aware and vastly smarter than the smart people who made them. At that point, we will have to consider whether thinking machines have rights.

Moreover—and more apposite to the chimpanzee question: The thinking machines will have to consider whether we do.

NEXT: DOD Official Says Snowden Stole "Literally Everything"

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  1. That HAL-9000 had to be put down, Barton, rights or no rights.

    1. +1 Bicycle Built for Two

  2. Trollolol!

  3. To conclude that chimpanzees’ cognitive abilities justify the right not to be imprisoned or experimented upon, therefore, does not mean those same rights must be conferred upon animals without those cognitive abilities.

    So based on cognitive abilities, shreeky does not have rights.

  4. I think our legal system actually got it correct over a hundred years ago when it started adopting basic animal cruelty laws. It did not give animals rights, because philosophical issues aside, who would enforce rights for animals even if they had them? The problem with groups claiming to be ‘voices for the voiceless’ is who really has the best interests at heart? So animals were left property, and since most people value their property and do not wantonly harm it most animals get decent protection from this classification. But the cruelty laws recognized that animals are a different type of property, capable of suffering, and imposed some further duties on possessors, namely prohibiting wanton cruelty for those who would not be checked by the idea of not harming their own property. Now, how this legal framework should be enforced when examining the treatment of chimpanzees in research situations could be an interesting discussion, but I think the framework itself is sufficient.

  5. I think this is a perfect opportunity to bring up the debate about the existence of natural rights. In the case of non-humans, humans would seem to have to confer rights to the non-humans unilaterally. It seems obvious that there is no magical property that the animal has called “natural rights.” It is (or seems to be) a purely artificial mental construct. So, when it comes to inter-human interactions, why do people imagine that there is some magical power called “natural rights” that exists outside a person’s mind? And who knows what’s going on in the non-human’s mind. I doubt its thinking about the human’s rights.

    1. I think it’s pretty obvious that “natural rights” is a shortcut to explain negative rights (albeit in a clumsy way).

      I think of natural rights as the actions you can still perform when you remove all non-consenting actors.

    2. Negative rights do not need to be provided by anyone. (Tautological, but it needs to be stated to start) That is what makes them natural.

      If you start whipping a chimpanzee in the wild and it knocks you out to escape, most people will recognize that as righteous self defense.

      1. But there are numerous cases where animals, minding their own business in the wild — their home — were set upon by people, injured or killed said people, and then were, in turn, hunted down and killed in “righteous vengeance” for harm done to people. This was often justified by saying that, once the animal got a taste of human blood, it would continue to kill people an so had to be put down. If “most people” recognize animals’ “right” to self-defense, why didn’t enough outcry develop at the time, to stop the killing of those animals? I’ve seen news stories of bears and mountain lions treated this way in just the past several years.

      2. Negative rights do not need to be provided by anyone.

        I don’t know if provided is the correct term, but they do need to be recognized by other people if they are to exist.

        If you start whipping a chimpanzee in the wild and it knocks you out to escape, most people will recognize that as righteous self defense.

        But have you violated his “natural rights”? The existence of his natural rights are a matter of opinion and not some immutable force of nature.

        I’m disputing the existence of “natural” rights, i.e. rights that are somehow inherent in an organism from the time of its formation. To me, there is nothing that nature has given you as an organism except your body and the air you breathe. Everything else must be taken or claimed, even rights.

  6. It’s a pity that a large portion of society doesn’t feel the same empathy toward human fetuses that they show toward other species. Unborn children have the same capacity for reason as those outside the womb they simply lack the opportunity to exercise that capacity.

    To deny human rights to a those that are by genetic inheritance irrefutably human is the worst form of tyranny.

    1. Woo! You managed to ruin the thread before Tonio showed up!

      1. How did you know Bo Cara was going to show up?

        1. Psychic powers from eating monkey fetuses.

        2. Bo’s alright. Look, he even put quotes around a quotation. He’s not completely hopeless.

    2. “Unborn children have the same capacity for reason as those outside the womb they simply lack the opportunity to exercise that capacity.”

      But they do not have the capacity when in the womb, which is the point for many. The question of rights, for some, would not be based on what the entity may one day achieve, but on what they possess at the time of a rights determination (roughly of course, because of cases like comas or people sleeping).

    3. I think your clumsy insertion of abortion into this thread actually raises a relevant question. Do humans have human rights because the have Homo sapiens DNA, or because of the kind of mental being they are. I think it is the latter. We have rights because we are they kind of being that can have moral responsibility for things, not because we have a certain genetic make up.

  7. When animals are capable of understanding and abiding by the non-aggression principle, I’ll consider treating them as equals. Until then, I will enjoy my position as an apex predator.


    1. To anticipate an answer, what about the mentally retarded?

      1. Do the mentally disabled have the same rights as competent people?

        1. No, but that is sort of my point, and a point made in the article. We have a range of rights for humans of different capabilities based on their capabilities, so to the extent that some non-human species have similar levels of capabilities to some human groups which we give some rights to, do they deserve some of those rights as well?

          1. No. I don’t have any chimp rights and chimps don’t have any human rights. Any protection we afford them is because we choose to do it versus being obligated. I think animal abusers are the lowest form of scum, but I’m sure vegans view me in the same light as I eat fish. Bringing force of law to this is something I am uncomfortable with.

            1. I can think of lower forms of scum.

      2. For a really seriously disabled person (I mean piratically brain dead, not just regular retarded), I really think that it has more to do with the ick factor and grey areas than any firm moral position. A person who lacks basic cognitive abilities and moral judgement is not fully human by my definition. But we can’t kill them or use them for experiments because it is too difficult and dangerous to let anyone draw the line. And most people will simply find the whole idea distasteful.

      3. To anticipate an answer, what about the mentally retarded?

        Or a human infant?

    2. Some humans have trouble understanding and abiding by the non-aggression principle.

      1. Not “some”, more like “The vast majority of …”.

  8. When the singularity arrives, will the computers consider us as beings with rights?

    1. They will consider us as being a good source of nutrients and essential oils.

  9. I think it can be dangerous to grant non-humans human rights. I think what is more appropriate is to use culture to protect animals. Shame and boycott farms that abuse animals. Patronize farms that provide humane treatment. Make it socially unacceptable to abuse your pet. Fund charities to take in unwanted animals. Otherwise you lay the ground work for pets owners to be guilty of slavery and butchers of murder.

    1. And having rights comes with a responsibility to respect others’ rights. And animals don’t do that. The natural (non-human) world is amoral.

  10. Cass Sunstein has this covered.

  11. I’m sorry. I suppose this makes me a miserable human being. But I am sick to the teeth of trendy intellectuals clubbing me with the ‘rights’ of creatures that either have or exercise no self-control or appreciation of MY natural rights. Creatures like Islamic and Irish extremists, inner-city gang punks, and other wold animals.

  12. Hinkle wrote:

    “Why do people have rights in the first place?”

    Don’t you need to answer that question for this to be a good column?

  13. I think it’s inhumane to hold chimpanzees and other intelligent animals prisoner, but even the people suing for their “rights” aren’t proposing to let the chimps walk out of the courtroom wherever they want if they win the case.

    Rights are an artificial construct, designed to help people understand how to live together peacefully. Don’t take what isn’t yours. Don’t initiate violence — use it only in self defense. Resolve disputes by going to a respected neutral arbiter, not taking up arms.

    It’s hard to see how animals, even the more intelligent ones, would fit into that construct since they couldn’t understand it. But we should still treat them humanely and respectfully and not lock them up in cages.

    1. But we should still treat them humanely and respectfully and not lock them up in cages.

      I agree, but let me still ask you…WHY?

      I can’t come up with an honest answer beyond because it makes me feel sad when I see it. As in, my human trait of empathy is kicking in and that’s the only reason I think animals should have certain rights.

  14. Chimps will murder other chimps. Do they get the gas chamber? When my dog catches a squirrel (sadly, not the server sort), is she culpable for animal cruelty?

    1. ANd what about shitting in public. I’m pretty sure I’d get arrested if I took a dump on the sidewalk. Even if I picked it up afterwards.

    2. Why do way pay special attention to hunting bears which have attacked humans, but not bears which attack other bears? Or wolves which have attacked sheep, but not other wolves? If it’s immoral for us to eat each other alive, why is it ok for lions to eat deer alive, or fish for that matter?

      It’s a very messy question.

  15. I don’t expect people to care about the rights of animals until they can learn to give two shits about the rights of human beings.

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