After a New York judge said that courts must seriously consider whether animals deserve some legal protections afforded to people, Catholic philosophers say that human beings are unique, and that, when it comes to law and ethics, that matters.
“Chimps are amazing living beings… and it could be a big mistake to just think of the chimps as things or instruments,” said Dr. John Crosby, a philosophy professor at Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio.
“Undeniably, there is something there mysterious [about them]. There is something of worth, but there is not a person. And therefore, because they are not a person, there are no real rights the chimp has,” he told CNA.
Nonhuman Rights Project has sought to release two New York-based chimpanzees, Tommy and Kiko, from the cages of private owners, and into a wild animal sanctuary. Steven Wise is the lawyer in charge of the animals’ defense.
In March 2017, Wise filed for habeas corpus relief, citing the similarities between mankind and primates. The filing alleged that chimps’ captivity constituted a kind of unlawful imprisonment.
On May 8, New York’s highest court rejected an appeal from Wise aimed at freeing the chimpanzees. The Court of Appeals voted 5-0 in favor of an intermediate appellate court in Manhattan that denied the chimps’ legal status in June 2017. The appellate court ruled that chimps are not legal persons.
“The asserted cognitive and linguistic capabilities of chimpanzees do not translate to a chimpanzee’s capacity or ability, like humans, to bear legal duties, or to be held legally accountable for their actions,” wrote Justice Troy Webber last year, according to the Chicago Tribune.
Judge Eugene Fahey, who voted against the chimps’ rights to habeas relief on Tuesday, argued that while a chimp might not be considered a person, animals might have the right to legal redress.
“While it may be arguable that a chimpanzee is not a ‘person,’ there is no doubt that it is not merely a thing,” he said in an opinion statement. “In elevating our species, we should not lower the status of other highly intelligent species.”
“The Appellate Division’s conclusion that a chimpanzee cannot be considered a ‘person’ and is not entitled to habeas relief is in fact based on nothing more than the premise that a chimpanzee is not a member of the human species,” Fahey wrote.
There are a lot of similarities between chimps and people, Fahey said, drawing attention to chimps’ advanced cognitive skills, ability to self-recognize, and a high percentage of shared DNA with humans, at least 96 percent.
He asked whether some animals should have the right to readdress wrongs committed against them. Animals are not morally culpable or legally responsible, he said, but neither are infants and some ill people, and therefore they might enjoy similar legal rights.
“Even if it is correct, however, that nonhuman animals cannot bear duties, the same is true of human infants or comatose human adults, yet no one would suppose that it is improper to seek a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of one’s infant child.”
Dr. Crosby agreed that animals should not be treated poorly, and he lamented over the mistreatment of animals by farms and luxury product testing. However, he disagreed with the judge’s argument about babies and comatose adults, noting chimpanzees permanently lack moral culpability.
Babies grow into morally responsible adults and comatose patients may potentially get better, he said. Even if the patient does not get better, he added, people “are the kind of being that in the normal instance has moral agency and something is blocking exercise of it.”
Animals do not have moral agency or free will, he said, while highlighting a few major differences between chimpanzees and people.
“A person is a being that possesses himself and is capable of originating action, where he freely determines himself,” said Crosby. “It’s very difficult to claim that any chimp, however amazingly skilled, is a free agent.”
Cautioning against conferring upon them the status of persons, Crosby said people should instead remember their moral obligations towards animals.
“These animals merit a certain reverence. We ought to think of ourselves not just as users of them, but somehow custodians of them,” he said. “There are right and wrong ways of acting towards chimps and other animals, but they are not the subject of rights since they are not persons.”
Father Brian Chrzastek, a philosophy professor at the Dominican House of Studies, also reflected on the difference between chimps and people. He said that humans have a higher potential for abstract thought and originality. While animals act by instinct, he said people engage rationally with the world.
“Humans are different in kind. It’s not like we are just smart chimpanzees or something. We’re an entirely different level of thought, an entirely different kind of species,” he told CNA.