Volume 144, June/July 2021
Modern Moral Problems
For much of Western history, we have been confident that human beings are persons but no other creatures have that status. These beliefs matter because personhood has often been deemed a necessary requirement for possessing moral value. Recently, an American legal activist group, the Nonhuman Rights Project, has challenged the assumption that only human beings are persons. Their approach is simple. They assume that humans possess particular features that make them persons, then ask whether there is evidence that any nonhuman animals display these same qualities. The group has offered testimony from an array of experts to support the claim that chimpanzees, elephants, and dolphins do indeed possess them. They conclude that these animals should legally be considered persons. Although the Project makes claims about legal rights only, and their court suits have so far been unsuccessful, their arguments have implications for more general issues concerning the moral standing of nonhuman animals and their relations to humans. If some animals do have a standing as persons even in the narrow sense required for legal recognition, then we may be morally obliged to treat those animals very differently, by, for example, not killing them for sport or food, or using them for medical experimentation.