Popular use of the term “person” is often used interchangeably with “human,” however this is not strictly accurate. This is an incredibly pertinent question to any discussion of animal rights. Are other animals people? Do you have to be a human being to be a person?
Legally speaking a “person” includes corporations, companies, associations, firms, partnerships, societies, and joint stock companies, as well as individuals. The legal significance of personhood is that it implies freedom, rights and ultimately respect. Worldwide, animals as generally regarded as property – not only culturally but legally.
So, how exactly should we define personhood? Whichever particular definition we arrive at has great political, social and legal implications. The majority assign personhood to any human being and that is where the definition ends, however animal rights advocates use the term “person” to describe most animals.
The importance of language and terminology cannot be underestimated – our choice of words are a powerful force in setting our cultural attitudes and shaping our society. For this reason it is crucial for the advancement of non-human animal rights to grant them the status of personhood – attached to this very word is the possibility of liberty and respect. This is arguably the biggest obstacle to progress on the animal issue.
Is a person a human being, or rather is a person simply an individual being? Is a person a being who thinks and feels and has a sense of self-awareness? By these qualifications, our companion cats and dogs are people. As are the chickens, cows, pigs, ducks and almost all the other countless species we abuse, harm and exploit. Personhood encompasses all sentient beings.
If being a person is required to have rights, and self-awareness is required to be a person, then many human beings will fail to qualify: babies, dementia, severely mentally ill, etc – is anyone suggesting that murdering babies or mentally ill people shouldn’t be protected by the law? Of course not – it is time to publicly recognise our double standards and morality-blindness. Conversely self-aware animals should qualify for extensive rights.
Professor Gary Francione argues that the current legal standard of animal welfare is inherently incapable of establishing rights for animals. So long as animals are legally regarded as property they will continue to suffer for the social and economic utility of human beings.
Peter Singer regards a person as a being who has a capacity for enjoyable experiences, for interacting with others and for having preferences about continued life. This criteria entitles many mammals to personhood. Gary Francione goes further, arguing that sentience itself is the main prerequisite for non-human rights. Philosopher John Harris sees a person as any being who is capable of valuing their own life – by this definition all sentient animals are persons since self-preservation is innate within all living beings.
It turns out there has been considerable progress in recent years in recognising certain species as deserving of personhood, with some countries even granting very basic rights to certain species.
Switzerland led the way in 1992 by amending its constitution to recognise animals as beings rather than objects. New Zealand also granted basic rights to five great ape species in 1999, forbidding their use in research, testing or teaching (in 2002, the US alone used over 50 000 primates for research). In 2007, the Spanish province of the Balearic Islands took this further, passing the world’s first legislation that granted legal rights to all great apes. Amendments to Germany’s constitution in 2002 also increased basic legal respect for animals.
Whilst the rights granted are incredibly basic, these developments are nonetheless crucial steps towards recognising non-human animals as beings worthy of freedom and respect. As gradual as these change are, society is slowly coming to realise the reality that animals are independent beings, deserving of basic freedom and status as moral persons.
Every animal is a unique individual – its personality shaped by its genes, its environment and its life experiences. Just as we are.