A few days ago I posted about the Human Zoo Project. Today I want to tell you about another project that is related to the same philosophy: the Great Ape Project.
Pioneered by animal rights activist Peter Singer, the project consists in “an international organization of primatologists, anthropologists, ethicists, and other experts who advocate a United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Great Apes that would confer basic legal rights on non-human great apes: chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans.” (From the Wikipedia article about it)
Legal rights for apes? Actually, that’s only the beginning. In the book The Great Ape Project that Peter Singer edited with philosopher Paola Cavalieri, the authors address the division placed between humans and great apes, and discuss the ramifications of conferring personhood onto great apes.
That’s right: personhood.
The concern that apes are persons has found quite a resonance throughout the worldwide community, as evidence by The Great Ape Personhood Movement which exists, according to Wikipedia, in order “to create legal recognition of bonobos, common chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans (the non-human great apes) as bona fide persons.”
The project describes itself as wanting to create a “moral community of equals” among human beings, gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans, and bonoboos, and in their mission statement they condemn the use of these animals in circuses as “a kind of slavery.”
Now don't get me wrong. I am passionately against cruelty to animals apart from in cases where such cruelty has the potential to save human lives (as is the case with some industrial experimentation concerning the effects of certain products). In fact, I would argue that my theistic worldview gives me more grounds for asserting the necessity of being kind to animals than the materialist worldview of someone like Singer. But that is a different subject. What interests me right now is the idea that anything less than conferring personhood on apes is a form of 'speciesism' and animal abuse.
This isn’t just a bunch of wacky nut cases from Yale and eco-nuts from California who are calling for this 'moral community of equals' between humans and gorillas. In 2007 the Parliament of a Spanish province passed legislation granting personhood to great apes. Thomas Rose’s CBS News report about the legislation defended the practice with a curious bit of logic that, quite frankly, is difficult to answer:
Consider that under most international law corporations are recognized as legal persons and are granted many of the same rights humans enjoy, the right to sue, to vote and to freedom of speech.
What enables an inanimate object like a corporation to enjoy personhood is a nicety called a legal fiction.
A legal fiction is something assumed in law to be fact, irrespective of the truth or accuracy of that assumption. Corporate personhood is recognized the world over, so why not ape personhood?
More than 2,000 years after Aristotle declared that Mother Nature had made all animals for the sake of humankind, that assumption might soon be stood on its head.
I'm not sure of the tenuous link from corporate personhood to ape personhood, but it's hard to deny that this logic is intriguing. But what interests me (and what II may one sometime write about in an article for Salvo magazine) is what this reveals to us about ourselves and how it relates to human exceptionalism. If I ever do write an article for the magazine about this, I will dwell on the utter inconsistency of a someone like Professor Singer who can think that infanticide is sometimes justified yet whose Project condemns using apes in circuses. For the time being, however, the basic problem has been summed up very succinctly on the mission statement for the Great Ape Project. I quote word for word: “To sum it up, they are just like us.”