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Is “Personhood” a Normative or Descriptive Concept?

photograph of young child watching elephant at zoo

Many ethical debates are about “getting the facts right” or “trusting the science,” and this sentiment is driven by a presumed difference between political and ethical values and facts. This can be problematic because it naively assumes that facts are never a product of values or that values can’t be a product of fact. This can lead to mistakes like thinking that evidence alone can be sufficient to change our thinking or that the way we value things shouldn’t be affected by the way the world is. Ethical inquiry requires us to consider many questions of both fact and worth to draw conclusions. To demonstrate, we will consider the recent case of Happy the elephant and whether it makes sense to call her a person.

While it is tempting to think of values as being something entirely personal or subjective, in reality most discussion and debate about values is far more nuanced and complex than that. Determining the value of something, whether it’s going for a walk or eating a candy bar, involves considerations of function, worth, and means.

Eating a candy bar has the function of providing sustenance and a pleasant taste. The worth of the bar will be determined by considering the means required to attain it compared to the worth of other things I could eat. If the cost of the candy bar goes up, the means required to attain it becomes dearer. While the candy bar provides necessary energy, it is also harmful to my health, and so I re-evaluate the worth of the bar.

People may differ over the value of the candy bar, but the disagreement will likely hinge on the different functions the candy bar has in life. But notice that function and means – two essential considerations for valuation – are factual in nature. To ask what the candy bar will do is to ask what it is good for. In other words, any thought about worth inevitably involves factual considerations. Often, the reason we want people to avoid misinformation or to trust expertise has to do with the ethical concerns rather than the factual concerns; we expect facts to moderate the way things are valued and thus the way we act.

But what about facts? Aren’t the facts just the facts? Well, no. There is no such thing in science as the “view from nowhere.”

We don’t study every part of the natural world; we study things we are interested in. Our investigations are always partial, infused with what we want to know, why we want to know it, and what means we have available to try to find an acceptable answer.

The risk that we over-generalize our findings – start making pronouncements about the world and forget about our practical aims in research – suggests that facts alone cannot settle ethical debates. Just like values, a fact is defined by function, worth, and means. Indeed, many concepts are “thick” in that they perform a dual function of both describing something while also offering normative content. “Cruel,” for example, is often used both normatively and descriptively. But what about “person?”

Recently a New York court ruled that an Asian elephant named Happy is not a person. The case began after the Nonhuman Rights Project filed a petition against the zoo holding Happy, arguing that Happy’s confinement was a violation of habeas corpus because Happy resides in a solitary enclosure. They demanded recognition of Happy’s legal personhood and her release from the zoo.

Habeas corpus – a person’s legal protection from unlawful detention – has historically been used to push legal boundaries. One of the most famous cases is Somerset v. Stewart, which found that a slave could not be forcibly removed from England and so was ordered to be freed. This suggests that “person” is often a “thick” concept that not only describes something, but also inherently (especially legally) contains normative elements as well. In the end, the court, found that Happy was not a person in the legal sense and was thus not entitled to invoke those rights.

Those who supported Happy’s case emphasized that elephants are intelligent, cognitively complex animals. The Nonhuman Rights Project argued that elephants share numerous cognitive abilities with humans such as self-awareness, empathy, awareness of death, and learning. Happy was the first elephant to pass a self-awareness indicator test. In addition, several nations such as Hungary, Costa Rica, Argentina, Pakistan have taken steps to recognize the legal rights of “non-human persons.” The argument is that because these animals are intelligent enough to have a sense of their own selves, they are entitled to the robust liberties and protections afforded by the law.

But the question is not whether Happy meets some cosmic notion of personhood, but an instrumental question of what function we want the concept of “person” to perform.

The question for the court was to determine the worth of competing conceptions of “personhood” which would perform different social functions (one which extends to animals and one which doesn’t), and which involve very different means in operation. For example, a legal person is usually someone who can be held legally accountable. A previous ruling in a similar case held that “the asserted cognitive linguistic capabilities of a chimpanzee 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.”

The issue of cognitive complexity in relationship to personhood is not static – simply meeting a given threshold of intelligence is not enough to warrant designation as a “person.” There are practical considerations that bear on the matter. Changing our conception of personhood would, as one justice noted, “have an enormous destabilizing impact on modern society.” It’s difficult to know what legal obligations this might create or how far they could extend. What would happen, for example, if there was a conflict of legal rights between a human and non-human person? The issue is thus not whether Happy should be treated well, but whether the concept of personhood is the right tool for sorting out these difficult ethical problems. Similar controversies crop up in the debate about extending rights to nature.

In other words, when we consider cases like this it will never simply be as simple as saying a fact that “elephants are cognitively intelligent” or proclaiming that “elephants should be protected.” As a “thick” concept, the definition of “personhood” is always going to depend on the practicality of the concept’s use in our particular social world. But if the problem with extending certain rights to elephants is problematic because of the stress it places on the function of the concept, then perhaps seeking to label elephants as “persons” is unhelpful. It simply isn’t going to be enough to point to evidence of cognitive awareness alone. When we consider what we want the concept “person” to do for us, we may find that by paying attention to the intended function we can achieve it more effectively with another ethical notion, such as the UK potentially granting rights to animals on the basis of “sentience.”

Elephants Are People Too

close-up photograph of elephant in the wild

37 years ago, the daughter of a Pakistani dictator was gifted a 1-year-old Asian Elephant calf named Kaavan. Kaavan ended up in Marghazar Zoo, a run-down facility in Islamabad. He had one elephant companion; a female named Saheli. When Saheli died in 2012, Kavaan spent days in his enclosure with her dead body before she was finally removed. Elephants are known to experience grief in response to the death of their companions. Since then, Kaavan has spent all of his time apart from other elephants, earning him the nickname “the loneliest elephant.” He has spent much of his existence in chains. With the help of animal rescue organization Four Paws International and Free the Wild, the animal welfare organization started by pop legend Cher, Kaavan has been freed from the zoo at which he was held captive and is now in an elephant sanctuary.

Kaavan was granted freedom from Marghazar Zoo as a result of a decision made by a high court in Pakistan. Chief Justice Athar Minallah began his opinion with a reflection about COVID-19. He notes that for the first time in memorable human history, human beings are confined to small spaces, restricted from interacting with friends and family, and limited in their range of autonomous choices. He argues that perhaps our own confinement provides us with an ideal opportunity to reflect on the ways in which we treat non-human animals, creatures who also enjoy social relationships, space to move freely, and a range of options when it comes to how, where, and with whom they will spend their time. In his ruling, Chief Justice Minallah poses the following question,

“Has nature forced the human race to go into ‘captivity’ so as make it realize its dependence for survival on other beings possessed with a similar gift, i.e., life? Is it an opportunity for humans to introspect and relate to the pain and distress suffered by other living beings, animal species, when they are subjugated and kept in captivity and denied the conditions and habitats created for their survival by the Creator, merely for momentary entertainment?”

Elephants are complex creatures who live rich social lives. They are highly intelligent and have excellent capacities for memory. Like all social beings, elephants thrive when they are in one another’s company. They flourish when they are able to do the things that elephants do when left unmolested. Humans have long benefitted from treating non-human animals as things, as instruments for human pleasure. We eat them, we conduct research on them, we hunt them for fun, and we force them to entertain us even when doing so is contrary to their own interests. Justice Minallah suggests that now is a moment, long overdue, at which we can start to view non-human animals with empathy and compassion, especially in cases in which their cognitive architecture is so similar to our own.

The court’s ruling on Kaavan’s case provided the conditions under which he was freed, but the question remained: to where and how does one transport a 5-ton pachyderm? Stunningly, the answer turned out to be: 4,000 miles away, to Kulen Prom Tep Wildlife Sanctuary in Cambodia — by plane. The Sanctuary is over 30,000 acres — space that Kaavan will get to explore with many other elephants.

Meanwhile, at the Bronx Zoo in the United States, a 49-year-old Asian Elephant named Happy is confined under similar conditions. Happy has been at the Bronx Zoo for 42 years. For the last decade, he has been held apart from other elephants in a one-acre enclosure. The Zoo insists that Happy is treated humanely. The Non-Human Rights Project, an animal advocacy group led by attorney Steven Wise that is dedicated to securing legal rights for non-human animals, disagrees. In recent years, the NhRP has also secured habeas corpus hearings for Hercules and Leo, the first non-human animals to be granted such a hearing. Though the judge in that case did not grant that the chimpanzees were legal persons, he affirmed the basic moral idea behind the movement. Judge Fahey wrote,

“The issue whether a nonhuman animal has a fundamental right to liberty protected by the writ of habeas corpus is profound and far-reaching. It speaks to our relationship with all the life around us. Ultimately, we will not be able to ignore it. While it may be arguable that a chimpanzee is not a “person,” there is no doubt that it is not merely a thing.”

The NhRP has argued that Happy is being unlawfully imprisoned at the zoo. The central issue at play in the case for freeing Happy is whether he is a person with rights to habeas corpus protection. A person has a right to bodily autonomy which carries with it a right not to be unfairly imprisoned or held against their will. So, for example, if a person has been detained or imprisoned and they believe that they have been put in that position unlawfully, they have a right to file a habeas corpus brief with the court in an attempt to be released from confinement. The argument is that, like people, non-human animals, or, at least, some non-human animals, have the same right to bodily autonomy and the same entitlement to protection against unlawful imprisonment as human beings do.

A common objection and, indeed, one of the objections that was raised by one of the justices at the most recent hearing on Happy’s case in front of the New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division, First Judicial Department is that if we grant that elephants and chimpanzees are legal persons, we’ll have to recognize that they have the other rights of persons — the right to vote, the right to bear arms, etc. This strikes many as both absurd and dangerous. In response to this concern Wise points out that there are many entities to which the courts have granted limited personhood status, including corporations. When the NhRP insists that Happy is a person in the limited sense that he has the right to bodily autonomy and should not be imprisoned unlawfully, they are not also insisting that elephants have the right to free speech or to the free exercise of religion, or any other such absurdities.

Another concern that was raised by more than one of the justices in Happy’s most recent hearing is that the question of elephant personhood shouldn’t be an issue for the courts to decide. The appropriate body to make that decision is the legislature. If that body wants to declare by statute that certain animals should be treated as persons, they are free to do so, but barring that, such dramatic action that has consequences that are so wide in scope would be judicial overreach. In response, Wise points out that a writ of habeas corpus is a measure of common law. The common law is established by judicial decisions and precedent rather than by statute. As such, the courts don’t need to, and indeed shouldn’t, keep Happy imprisoned until such time as Congress decides to pass legislation protecting these animals, which it is unlikely ever to do. For good reason, habeas corpus writs provide courts with the ability to quickly remove persons from unlawful detainment. Wise argues that they should take the opportunity to do so in Happy’s case.

These legal questions are intimately connected to critical moral questions. Do non-human animals have rights? The concerns posed by the court suggest a way of answering this question that is supported by various social contract theories. According to a basic version of this kind of theory, fully free humans come together to form a society with the understanding that it will be in everyone’s self-interest to give up some of their liberties in exchange for certain protections. The social structure of society is granted legitimacy by the fact that the rational people involved in the decision-making consented to it. The trouble is, not all sentient beings participated in constructing the contract. Non-human animals are entitled to rights and protections only if the decision-makers have agreed to such protections. According to this view, in our modern time, elephants and chimpanzees only have rights if legislatures pass statues granting them those rights.

One shortcoming of social contract theories is that they have no mechanism for ensuring protection of the vulnerable. If decision-makers don’t want to provide protections, at-risk populations are out of luck. This means that elephants and chimpanzees might remain unprotected, and it also might mean that oppressed groups like women and minorities who weren’t permitted to be involved in the original decision-making aren’t guaranteed protections either.

An alternative approach, and an approach consistent with the strategy of the Non-Human Rights project, is to insist that all sentient beings have ownership over their own bodies and, to the extent that they can exercise autonomy without harming others, should be allowed to do so. This approach respects the inherent dignity of all life. It recognizes that Happy should be released from captivity, not because it is the will of the people, but because Happy is not the kind of entity that ever should have been “kept”; Happy is a “who,” not an “it.”

The Legal Case of Elephant Personhood

An image of four elephants walking along a muddy field.

Asian elephants have been observed reassuring other elephants in distress. Elephants have also been observed behaving in ways that appear to show  grief at the death of other elephants. Evidence (admittedly sparse) has also suggested that elephants may be self-aware—that is, aware of themselves as separate from other objects and the environment. Over the years, we have learned much about the rich cognitive and social lives of elephants. Does this increasing body of evidence indicate that elephants should be treated as persons, too?

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The Ivory Trade: Ban or Regulate?

The United Nations’ Convention on International Trade and Endangered Species (CITES) will begin on September 24th in Johannesburg, South Africa. The hot topic at the convention will be lifting the ban on the ivory trade that was imposed in 1989. Botswana has been the most recent country to speak out against the ban and to side with fellow African countries, such as Kenya and Tanzania. Botswana carries heavy influence in the decision because  it is home to the world’s largest population of elephants. Along with South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe are some of the larger players in the African ring to support lifting the ban. They are in favor of the economic benefits that come with sales of this natural resource. They will offer a proposal at the conference to lift the ban on the sale of legal ivory. China and Japan also play a large role because of the sheer amount of ivory that finds its way into their borders.

Continue reading “The Ivory Trade: Ban or Regulate?”