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Errantry: Novak's Journal
...Words to cast/My feelings into sculpted thoughts/To make some wisdom last
Theological Notebook: AP Story on Activists Trying to Have A Chimp Declared a "Person" 
5th-May-2007 03:25 pm
"*That's* an idea!"
I'm loosely lumping this into the journal under my "Theological Notebook" heading (my other headings are "Personal," "Random," and "Musical") rather than the "Random" one just because of the political or philosophical implications of the move. While a lot of people would find this silly in the extreme, there are, I suspect, a growing number of people who would take this seriously at some level. Now, at some level, I think we see the underlying philosophy here expressed being dealt to us rather regularly from a variety of sources, whether in Discovery Channel or Animal Planet Channel documentaries or whether from the passionate lobbying of some sectors of philosophical vegitarianism. Animals are routinely personified and equated with humans in such quarters. I suspect that the mere fact that most of our population is removed now by our sheer bounty from the labour of food-production, whereas our ancestors a mere century or two ago would never sentimentalize most animals, the lot of which they would regard as food resources to be used against an all-to-real threat of hunger that most of us in the West no longer sense.

Curiously, the idea of a "person" is one that has migrated from Christian Trinitarian theology, where the word "person" was used to designate that which is distinct about the Three "priniciples" (for lack of a better word) perceived in the One God. Augustine noted the original more-or-less contentlessness of the word "person" in simply explaining that we needed a handy word by which to indicate that we were talking about the Three Persons in their distinctiveness. The word migrated to our psychology and philosophy of today by coming to be used of our own unique distinctivenesses, although in our case it wouldn't be contrasted with the divine ontological unity found in the One God, but rather is perhaps used in distinction to our collective traits as a species.

Still, there's something to be said for the capacities of higher animals to achieve certain deeper personality traits, although I note that that seems to be a "rubbing-off" of traits from those human animals already possessing personhood: thus the animal that would be a coyote in the wild is a faithful dog through its association with a good master: but I'm not fooling myself for an instant into thinking that such dogs are going to be found in friendly packs roaming the wild, and looking to help out any human in distress.

It would be interesting to see how this case might bring the notion of "personhood" back to the courts from a different angle than the one we usually see. The biggest legal battles regarding being a "person" have of course been in the area of abortion. The arguments that the fetus is not "human" or not "alive" are clearly and scientifically false. Thus the chief argument in support of abortion rights has been the denial that the fetus is a "person." Myself, I think this was a horrible route for the debate to proceed down, merely on an historical level, as the denial of "person" status has been the form of argument used in support of political programs against every oppressed and decimated peoples: as an argument for any politics, I think it is utterly unredeemable. I'm curious to see if the arguments used in support of the personhood of a nonhuman with such species' intrinsic limitations would end up having an impact on the legal or juridical strength of the denial of person-status to unborn children simply because of their incomplete developmental state.

Activists Want Chimp Declared a 'Person'
May 4, 9:57 PM (ET)


VIENNA, Austria (AP) - In some ways, Hiasl is like any other Viennese: He indulges a weakness for pastry, likes to paint and enjoys chilling out watching TV. But he doesn't care for coffee, and he isn't actually a person - at least not yet.

In a case that could set a global legal precedent for granting basic rights to apes, animal rights advocates are seeking to get the 26-year-old male chimpanzee legally declared a "person."

Hiasl's supporters argue he needs that status to become a legal entity that can receive donations and get a guardian to look out for his interests.

"Our main argument is that Hiasl is a person and has basic legal rights," said Eberhart Theuer, a lawyer leading the challenge on behalf of the Association Against Animal Factories, a Vienna animal rights group.

"We mean the right to life, the right to not be tortured, the right to freedom under certain conditions," Theuer said.

"We're not talking about the right to vote here."

The campaign began after the animal sanctuary where Hiasl (pronounced HEE-zul) and another chimp, Rosi, have lived for 25 years went bankrupt.

Activists want to ensure the apes don't wind up homeless if the shelter closes. Both have already suffered: They were captured as babies in Sierra Leone in 1982 and smuggled in a crate to Austria for use in pharmaceutical experiments. Customs officers intercepted the shipment and turned the chimps over to the shelter.

Their food and veterinary bills run about $6,800 a month. Donors have offered to help, but there's a catch: Under Austrian law, only a person can receive personal donations.

Organizers could set up a foundation to collect cash for Hiasl, whose life expectancy in captivity is about 60 years. But without basic rights, they contend, he could be sold to someone outside Austria, where the chimp is protected by strict animal cruelty laws.

"If we can get Hiasl declared a person, he would have the right to own property. Then, if people wanted to donate something to him, he'd have the right to receive it," said Theuer, who has vowed to take the case to the European Court of Human Rights if necessary.

Austria isn't the only country where primate rights are being debated. Spain's parliament is considering a bill that would endorse the Great Ape Project, a Seattle-based international initiative to extend "fundamental moral and legal protections" to apes.

If Hiasl gets a guardian, "it will be the first time the species barrier will have been crossed for legal 'personhood,'" said Jan Creamer, chief executive of Animal Defenders International, which is working to end the use of primates in research.

Paula Stibbe, a Briton who teaches English in Vienna, petitioned a district court to be Hiasl's legal trustee. On April 24, Judge Barbara Bart rejected her request, ruling Hiasl didn't meet two key tests: He is neither mentally impaired nor in an emergency.

Although Bart expressed concern that awarding Hiasl a guardian could create the impression that animals enjoy the same legal status as humans, she didn't rule that he could never be considered a person.

Martin Balluch, who heads the Association Against Animal Factories, has asked a federal court for a ruling on the guardianship issue.

"Chimps share 99.4 percent of their DNA with humans," he said. "OK, they're not homo sapiens. But they're obviously also not things - the only other option the law provides."

Not all Austrian animal rights activists back the legal challenge. Michael Antolini, president of the local Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said he thinks it's absurd.

"I'm not about to make myself look like a fool" by getting involved, said Antolini, who worries that chimpanzees could gain broader rights, such as copyright protections on their photographs.

But Stibbe, who brings Hiasl sweets and yogurt and watches him draw and clown around by dressing up in knee-high rubber boots, insists he deserves more legal rights "than bricks or apples or potatoes."

"He can be very playful but also thoughtful," she said. "Being with him is like playing with someone who can't talk."

A date for the appeal hasn't been set, but Hiasl's legal team has lined up expert witnesses, including Jane Goodall, the world's foremost observer of chimpanzee behavior.

"When you see Hiasl, he really comes across as a person," Theuer said.

"He has a real personality. It strikes you immediately: This is an individual. You just have to look him in the eye to see that."


Great Ape Project, http://www.greatapeproject.org

Animal Defenders International, http://www.ad-international.org
5th-May-2007 09:17 pm (UTC)
I feel like it's possible to say animals have the right to life and the right not to be tortured without granting them personhood, but then i'm also a vegetarian. It might be harder for people who eat meat to allow that those rights exist.
5th-May-2007 09:23 pm (UTC)
That makes much more sense to me: this seems like another case of so stretching a word away from its meaning that it no longer means anything, and becomes less one of descriptive and distinguishing definition and more one of mere approval.
5th-May-2007 09:24 pm (UTC)
Which becomes that? I'm losing the antecedent here :)
5th-May-2007 09:32 pm (UTC)
Sorry. I do that sometimes. Count your blessings that this wasn't one of my huge, German-like sentences where I save the verb as a surprise for the very end! :-)

I meant that this case seems like one where in stretching the term "person," we leave it virtually meaningless. That is, we no longer use it to indicate a particular and distinct meaning, content, or definition, and instead "person" becomes more a term of approval, meaning that in this case chimps, like humans, are things we approve of, or like, or want to treat in a certain way. That's fine, but it's more useful to say that "kindness to chimps is good," than to distort the description of the word "person" to now include chimps. Let's rather say, even animals can enjoy certain legal protections – which they already can and do – than to make a useful word useless through over-application.

5th-May-2007 09:39 pm (UTC)
Yeah, that definitely makes sense. But then I'd also submit that it's possible to say that an adult chimpanzee more resembles a person than a three-week fetus, and this may have inconvenient implications--it might not seem permissible to vivisect chimps, while most abortions are performed in the first twelve weeks.
5th-May-2007 10:26 pm (UTC)
Yes, that has the virtue of thus leaving the word less confused, allowing it to be the "outside standard" against which an ethical course of action is debated, rather than simply identified with every debated object. A definite improvement.
5th-May-2007 09:35 pm (UTC)
I agree -- "personhood" is a tricky term we use far too blithely as is, and this seems to be Not The Way To Proceed.

Which reminds me, oddly, that I had to take a student to task for misuse of the word "Deism" (which he had clearly looked up but done no actual research on)... *sigh*
5th-May-2007 10:26 pm (UTC)
Dictionary philosophy?
5th-May-2007 10:29 pm (UTC)
Worse -- he basically used it as a synonym for Christianity.
5th-May-2007 11:52 pm (UTC)
Amen to all this! There is something wrong when the only reason we can find for not killing and torturing something is to stamp it with a meaningless emotive and/or legal term. Humans ought to treat things in a certain way? Why, this can only be if a thing is a "person"! And what is a "person"? A legal entity possessing "rights!" It's an astonishingly one-note ethical philosophy, and when it comes down to it, even more bogglingly "species-centric" than the philosophy it believes it opposes. Any theist (or any farmer) can see that there is a certain way to treat a dog that doesn't have anything to do with equating it ontologically with humans.
6th-May-2007 02:09 am (UTC)
From a legal (not a theological) perspective, the historic reason why we have laws that prohibit "cruelty" against animals is because to allow it was seen to debase our humanity and not because it was deemed that animals were legally deserving of our protection.

It does show how most of our collective legal systems have devolved in the last century that law is not seen as a balancing of individualism and collectivism, but merely as the trumping of "rights". Once you have a legal "right" created or declared then any questions about whether a course is good for society or whether it even makes sense cease because nothing is more important than someone's "rights". My favourite law school prof used to say that most important legal cases these days sound like a school yard argument: "I have the right to do ... (insert whatever)" "No you don't" "Do too" "Do not".

In light of this, it's therefore only natural to see a push for the personhood of animals. It would be the only way to have them accorded "rights" and therefore to trump whatever laws they don't like or bring about whatever societal change they want. Maybe it's surprising that it took until 2007 to see such a case.
6th-May-2007 01:00 am (UTC)
I think is is fantastic! say we declare this chimp a person; then we declare all chimps persons; for pregnant female chimps we declare their developing offspring as persons; transfer this to humans and we could have a great argument for declaring developing humans as persons. I wonder if Hilary would buy that argument.
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