Nonhuman Personhood? Is there such an animal?

What is a person? 

The definition varies wildly depending on who is defining it.  Most persons would agree that all humans are persons. See what I did there? It is a very important definition for legal and moral reasons. Persons are granted certain rights. Nonpersons get the shit end of the stick.

In most instances we aren’t allowed to buy and sell persons. Or keep them locked up in cages without good reason as we would other animals. Here in the United States we have gone so far to state in our Declaration of Independence “that all men are created equal” and all people have certain inalienable rights such as “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” This is a fine example because the definition of men has changed over time in which the document was produced.

At the time the Declaration was written it literally meant only men had these rights.  And not just any men but male white land owners. Slowly over time more of us wanted to have certain rights and be considered men and so the definition was seen as a more general term of any human.  I realize in many cases that these rights exist only on paper but I still see that as a victory for everyone and another step in the right direction. Obviously I’m operating under the assumption that having the rights of a person and extending those rights to all humans is a good thing.

Change for the better

I would argue that just as the definition of men has changed the definition of person should also change.  The most obvious new members of the party would be other animals that are self aware, sentient and appear to have a conscious experience such as the other great apes, whales and dolphins.

Where would it end?

Would we include a self aware, conscious, sentient artificial intelligence? I would. In fact I would go so far as to include all living things. I might lose you here but that’s ok. Maybe I could win you back with another point.  I get that we need to eat and have a varied diet. Things need to die in order for us to eat.  I’m not a vegetarian. But I believe if and when possible we should try and reduce suffering in all things. One real possibility is that in the very near future we will be able to produce protein in a lab that will be indistinguishable in every way from meat obtained from animals. I feel when that happens and is openly available and monetarily feasible we have a moral obligation to stop eating animals.  The same argument could be made for plants when we could produce plant tissues in a lab.

Would you do the same?


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