Civil Liberties

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.