Joined: Jan. 2006
I heard a BBC interview with one of the supporters of the Spanish legislation on NPR last night.
While she did rely (on what sounded like an inaccurate, or at least outdated) percentage of genetic similarity between the other great apes and ourselves -- and I would agree that establishing some sort of a percentage test or cut-off for the extension of "human" rights has various practical and philosophical problems -- she did make a different point: the legislation does not, she claims, confer legal "humanity" on great apes. Instead, it confers a limited sort of legal "person"-hood.
Lest you now shake your head -- or expectorate, or however your cultural subset of apes expresses dubiety -- and cluck about "those darn lawyers," please first consider that there is some support for making the "human being"/"legal person" distinction: corporations, for example, are legal "persons" (they can sue and be sued; own, sell, and lease, etc., real and personal property...), but are clearly not human beings.
The nice lady gave an example of the kind of conundrum in which apes currently find themselves. An aging chimp (let's say -- I forget the actual species) has been humanely cared for by an organization in Austria for many years. Now the organization has gone bankrupt and its assets -- including the chimp -- are being sold off, with at least the possibility that the chimp will wind up in the hands of less-than-ethical medical researchers (let's sidestep, for the moment, the question of whether it's ever justifiable to utilize great apes in medical testing by positing that there are such things as humane and ethical and well-regulated/ inspected medical research facilities...) or will simply fall out of adequate care altogether and wind up being a victim of (what we all might agree would be) abuse, neglect, or ...
Apparently there are donors willing to provide for the further care of this ape. But they can't give the money to his current owner -- the bankrupt facility -- because that money would then fall into the hands of the creditors. And they can't give the money to the ape itself, in part because the ape isn't a legal person -- not even a "person" with tightly-delimited rights (such as a mentally-challenged or senile or comatose person, who might well be the ward in a guardianship situation, lacking his or her own right to manage money, vote, own -- ahem! -- handguns, drive, etc. ...).
Now, one can of course imagine ingenious ways around the Austrian situation (though one doesn't know enough about Austrian bankruptcy and non-profit law to know if they would actually work...): perhaps the donors' funds could go to organize a non-profit with the purpose of purchasing and caring for the poor critter. This might have the advantage of not leaving the (otherwise-innocent, so far as we know) creditors of the old facility out in the cold -- the new facility would simply purchase the ape from the creditors of the old.
But the lady's point -- to the extent that this pinhead grasped it -- is that there are always going to be situations without convenient legal workarounds, where the most direct and effective way to protect arguably-sentient (if still non-"human") creatures like these is to allow for them a limited sort of legal personhood, but not fully "human" legal status...
Below all this lies the moral argument, of course. Even though we all might agree that the other great apes are not, in all respects, entitled to the full panoply of rights that us "human" great apes may be entitled to, may they not they share enough of key "human" qualities -- empathy, self-consciousness, family feeling, awareness of pain and loss, intelligence, capacity to communicate, etc. -- to be deserving of some more limited form of rights and protections?
Needless to say, we quickly come to the 'slippery slope' concern: where's it all gonna end. Well, that's a better argument for a situation where there's an indivisible slope or spectrum -- one where there's no point on the gradient which can, in any sort of principled fashion, be distinguished from any other. We might face such a situation if all of our pre-hominid brethren (or at least a representative and overlapping sampling), going right back to the common ancestor with chimps, were still alive and kicking...
But they're not. (And some of you may not be persuaded there is any such ancestral kinship, but note that that doesn't necessarily resolve the other questions raised by our increasing grasp of the intellectual and emotional sophistication of some of our fellow travelers on the planet, even if they're not our close kin.) So we've got humans. And we've got some definable set of characteristics upon which to base a separate category of animals to whom we might accord a limited quasi-personhood. And then we've got other animals who lack one or more of whatever that definable set of characteristics might turn out to be -- who we continue to assign to the traditional "feral" or "property" categories, about whom we might erect various overarching protections -- hunting laws; protections from certain kinds of abuse; ecological protections; import/export and trafficking laws; and so forth and so on.
Of course, once we start listing the characteristics for this intermediate status of not-human, but not mere-property kind of animal, we do risk a limited "slippery slope" problem: who else gets "in" to the charmed circle?
Some of the cetaceans? The lesser apes? Some of the "higher" non-ape primates? Elephants? Those raucous and annoying, but oh-so-clever corvids (ravens, crows, jays, magpies)?
Are we actually "evolved" enough to start concerning ourselves morally with "every crow that falls"?
And, as with every extension of "rights," how meaningful is it if it simply becomes another "unfunded mandate"? A "right" that goes, all too often, unremedied? A set of rights which we can't even meaningfully enforce or guarantee over wide swaths of the planet for our (arguably) even more-deserving fellow humans? The old, why-should-we-spend-money-on-a-space-program-when ... problem, dressed up in King Kong habiliments.
No reason not to have some fun with this notion, but I don't find it an entirely silly one.