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Why philosophers say chimps have to be considered persons
The Nonhuman Rights Project turns to philosophy to persuade courts to honor chimpanzees’ rights.
To anyone who follows science, the notion that other animals can be sentient, have emotions, suffer, engage in relationships, and be highly intelligent has become nearly inescapable. Study after study presents fresh evidence that we've been underestimating animals. Chimpanzees, crows, and cephalopods apparently use tools, apes form social groups, elephants mourn, goldfish get depressed, whales converse, crows, chickens, and goldfish remember faces, and on and on. For many, the findings are confirmation of something we already suspected. But make no mistake, they call for a fundamental change in the way we see our place in the world: All other life on Earth is not, after all, here simply to serve us, and we thus have no moral right to continue treating it as if it is. It's not surprising that there's been some resistance, given the manner in which our casual, entitled use and treatment of animals is so embedded in our culture.
We're only beginning to address the protection of non-human rights. That's where the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) comes in. Now a group of philosophers has submitted an amicus curiae brief in support of its ongoing efforts to secure protection for the basic rights of two chimpanzees named “Tommy" and “Kiko". We've written about the chimps' cases and their tortuous journeys through the courts of New York State before. The NhRP is attempting to have Tommy and Kiko relocated to the spacious, open-air Save the Chimps sanctuary in Florida.
(Photo: Save the Chimps)
The Nonhuman Rights Project, founded in 1996 by attorney Steven Wise, is working “to secure legally recognized fundamental rights for nonhuman animals through litigation, advocacy, and education." The organization is the subject of an excellent HBO documentary, Unlocking the Cage. (Trigger warning: The film contains just a handful of brief scenes that are difficult to watch.) NhRP knows its goals will take time and a lot of work.
Tommy and Kiko
Tommy, thought to be in his thirties, was living in a cage in a shed on a used-trailer lot in Gloversville, NY when his case began in 2013—it's believed he's been moved since then to a roadside zoo in Michigan. Tommy was raised by a trainer who's been alleged by TV host Bob Barker to have used blackjack batons and clubs on the chimp. Tommy appeared in the movie Project X, which is currently on Netflix.
Kiko is believed to be roughly the same age as Tommy, and he's thought to be living in a cage in a cement storefront in Niagara, NY. He's at least partially deaf in one ear, having been beaten for biting an actor on the set of the made-for-TV movie Tarzan in Manhattan. His owners have been talking for roughly 10 years about moving Kiko—and the other animals housed by their tax-exempt non-profit The Primate Sanctuary, Inc.—to a more rural location in Wilson, NY.
Person or thing? Choose one.
NhRP decided to attempt to secure a common law writ of habeas corpus for their animal clients. Habeas corpus literally means “that you have the body," and it's “used to bring a prisoner or other detainee before the court to determine if the person's imprisonment or detention is lawful," according to Cornell. (The body being the prisoner's.)
Wise tells Big Think in an email, "Common law habeas corpus is the first cause of action that we have begun using because courts value it enormously and it was the cause of action that was successfully used by slaves in the 18th and 19th centuries to obtain their freedom. We base our litigation on those cases. We are already publishing law review articles that set forth other causes of action, such as the ancient cause of action of de homine replegiando and manumission."
Critics of the NhRP's approach, including some judges, argue that these are not really habeas corpus cases and that they would be better addressed by revising animal welfare laws already on the books. Wise responds, “The NhRP is interested solely in obtaining legal rights for its nonhuman animal clients. History shows that the only way in which an individual's fundamental interests are protected is if [they have] legal rights. Animal welfare statutes merely regulate the manner in which humans may exploit nonhuman animals," Wise writes, but, “Rights prohibit exploitation. A rights-holder has inherent value, is understood to exist for their own sake, and is visible to the civil courts."
What makes getting the NhRP's habeas corpus writ for the chimps such a heavy lift is that, according to current U.S. law, you're either a person, or you're a thing. That's it. One or the other. And habeas corpus applies only to persons. “A rights-holder is a 'person'," says Wise. “Otherwise an individual is a 'thing' whose value is merely instrumental to 'persons', who exists for the sake of 'persons', and who is invisible to the civil courts." As a result, NhRP has to argue that Tommy and Kiko qualify, in the legal sense, for “personhood."
What the NhRP is not asserting
Wise and his team are not saying that the chimps should have identical rights to humans, as some news coverage may misleadingly suggest. It's simply that it's increasingly obvious that they're not unconscious things. The courts have not questioned any of the scientific assertions regarding animal awareness or capabilities presented by the NhRP, and some of the judges have been sympathetic. Still, the NhRP's claim of personhood for Tommy and Kiko has frequently been mischaracterized beyond the courtroom.
Likewise, while Wise has made the case that slaves, women, and children are all groups previously denied status as persons, he's not equating chimps to any of these groups as some inflammatory reporting suggests—he's simply reminding us of the many historical examples in which rights have finally been granted to those who, in hindsight, should never have been denied them.
The philosophers' brief
While Tommy's and Kiko's cases are now joined, they didn't start out that way—they both began in 2013, and finally came together in a Manhattan courtroom in March 2017. The NhRP site has a complete, detailed timeline of court appearances and filings in both cases.
The NhRP is now seeking an appeal at the New York Court of Appeals, the state's highest court. Concerned that courts have been misinterpreting key philosophical concepts in their rulings, Wise reached out to philosophers Andrew Fenton and Letitia Meynell, who assembled the team that produced and filed the new amicus curiae brief. It asserts that the courts have been “using a number of incompatible conceptions of 'person' which, when properly understood, are either philosophically inadequate or in fact compatible with Kiko and Tommy's personhood." The group is informally calling it Chimpanzee Personhood: The Philosophers' Brief.
At the most basic level, courts have taken the position that “personhood" can simply not apply to a non-human. The new brief, however, counters that the truth is not so simple: “In this brief, we argue that there is a diversity of ways in which humans (Homo sapiens) are 'persons' and there are no non-arbitrary conceptions of 'personhood' that can include all humans and exclude all nonhuman animals." The philosophers address four problematic philosophical conceptions regarding personhood that repeatedly appear in the case judgments.
While the brief endorses the longstanding view that biology should inform the legal system, it points out that our understanding of the science changes and that there is to-date “no method for determining an underlying, biologically robust, and universal 'human nature' upon which moral and legal rights can be thought to rest." As a result, not being a Homo sapiens should not mean one does not deserve to be seen in a legal sense as a person deserving of fundamental natural rights such as freedom from captivity and suffering. The authors remind the court that, “Any attempt to specify the essential features of 'human nature' either leaves out a considerable number of humans—often the most vulnerable in our society—or includes members of other species."
The brief also asserts that what separates the members of different biological classifications isn't definitive or absolute in any event and that there's no inherent hierarchy to justify assigning basic rights to one species and not another. It points out that Darwin's great insight was realizing that “the differences between species did not reflect the existence of essential characteristics, but instead were the product of a gradual process of natural selection." It also cites Linnaeus, the man who first created our biological categories, as having written that “his reasons for placing 'Man' in a distinct genus had more to do with placating theologians than with the principles of natural history."
Linnaeus and Darwin.
The New York State Supreme Court, Appellate Division, Third Judicial Department found against the NhRP on the basis that Tommy was not “a 'person' entitled to the rights and protections afforded by the writ of habeas corpus," since, “unlike human beings, chimpanzees can't bear any legal duties, submit to societal responsibilities, or be held legally accountable for their actions." This means that the inability of Tommy and Kiko to enter into such a social contract means they're not qualified to be persons.
This has the relationship backward: One must first be seen as a person to be able to enter into such a social contract. “Upon contracting with our fellows," the brief says, “we do not become 'persons', but rather 'citizens'; and we do not suddenly acquire rights..." To say an individual isn't a person because he can't enter into a social contract that proves he's a person is mind-bogglingly circular.
In addition, it's easy to come up with examples of people who have no duties, responsibilities and are not legally accountable—children and some cognitively disabled people, for example—who are nonetheless obviously persons. “A point that comes up repeatedly in the brief," says L. Syd M Johnson, one of the authors of the brief, “is that the court is understanding 'person' and 'personhood' in a way that, if consistently applied, would actually exclude many humans from qualifying as persons as well. We assume the courts don't really want to do that."
In any event, as affidavits submitted on Tommy's behalf by experts including Jane Goodall attest, chimpanzees do have duties and responsibilities in their natural communities.
The First Department claimed that to be a person one must be part of the “human community". The brief notes that, first off, this is just another way of asserting species membership as a requirement, since “'human community' is a synonym for 'members of the species Homo sapiens.'"
Beyond that, the philosophers offer two views of what it means to be a human community member and say that Tommy and Kiko satisfy both definitions.
In the widely inclusive view, “someone is a member of a community of persons because they are embedded in interpersonal webs of interdependency, trust, communication, and normative responsiveness." This includes children and people with cognitive disabilities whose dependence on guardians confirms that they're socially connected to the community, a view shared by philosophers of disability. Thus Tommy and Kiko are part of human communities since they “are embedded in interpersonal webs of dependency, meaning, and care with other human persons."
In the narrowly inclusive view, to be a person means having “more than sentience or vulnerability, but less than the capacity to bear legal responsibilities." Even in this more restrictive view, the chimps fit the requirements according to the scientific research the courts have not disputed: “While Kiko and Tommy are not members of the species Homo sapiens, they are clearly relevantly similar to humans in the kind of psychological beings they are, as it is reasonable to ascribe to them such psychological traits as beliefs, rationality, desires, emotions of care, as well as the capacity for autonomy."
Anonymous thoughtful chimp. (Photo: Rod Waddington)
The brief's discussion of capacities explains both why Tommy and Kiko should be considered persons, and also why the writ of habeas corpus being sought is the correct legal instrument for these cases.
Contemporary philosophers' discussions of personhood are likely to include seven capacities that may constitute personhood:
3. linguistic mastery
6. reflective self-awareness
The philosophers say that there would be no questioning that an individual with all these traits is a person. “However," as the brief says, “there is no way to hold that possessing all of these properties [our emphasis] is necessary for personhood without excluding some humans who lack one or more of these properties." The rulings of the First and Third Departments, again, find no dispute with the scientific affidavits supporting chimpanzees' possession of some of the capacities in the above list.
So which capacities are critical? The brief asserts we can only say that “to be a person one must have multiple personhood-making properties, although which properties cannot be non-arbitrarily specified."
The NhRP's case is especially concerned with the capacity for autonomy as one of the most longstanding qualifications for personhood, and as a “cluster concept" that requires a number of other capacities. Its definition has evolved over time, the brief says, with bioethicist and philosopher Tom Beauchamp and comparative psychologist Victoria Wobber recently defining an autonomous individual as one capable of self-initiating an action that is:
2. adequately informed
3. free of controlling influences
Chimpanzees certainly meet this standard, at least when they're free of “autonomy-depriving controlling influences" such as captivity.
Pasa likes leaves. (Photo: International Fund for Animals)
Another key importance of autonomy for the NhRP lies in the recognition that depriving a person of autonomy is widely regarded as doing them harm, and thus the habeas corpus writ seeks to end that harm as it's designed to do.
However, both the Fourth and First Departments claimed that “habeas corpus relief... is unavailable" since the NhRP is seeking to relocate the chimps to the Save the Chimps sanctuary, which the courts say is just a different form of prison, not a full release from captivity. Though this is more a legal issue than a philosophical one, one of the brief's authors, L Syd M Johnson, tells Big Think, “Historically, the writ of habeas corpus has been used to free women and children from abusive homes. In a landmark case in New York City in 1874, an abused child was granted habeas relief, and removed from her foster home. The court didn't just turn her loose on the streets of New York. She was sent to live in an orphanage. There is a long history of using habeas corpus to improve the circumstances of vulnerable individuals. What NhRP is asking in the cases of Tommy and Kiko is similar. Release them from solitary confinement, and allow them to live in a sanctuary, where they will have the company of other chimpanzees and will be free to roam, climb trees, and live as chimpanzees. That will allow them to be autonomous, and exercise their bodily liberty."
Hopefully, the philosophers' brief will convince the Court of Appeals to hear an appeal of Tommy's and Kiko's cases. Wise and the NhRP are expecting, and committed to, a long battle to encourage our justice systems to adopt a more consistent, moral perspective on non-human “persons."
Wise tells Big Think that, “We believe that ultimately legislatures will be a source of rights for nonhuman animals, but that the better place to begin is in the courts because the business of courts is dispensing justice in a fair, rational, and non-arbitrary way."
The patient NhRP believes the process so far has amounted to a victory regardless of the immediate outcomes in that it's successfully brought the issue of non-human rights before the courts for serious consideration, and that's it's encouraged a wider public discussion of our moral and legal obligations to our fellow inhabitants of this planet.
A cave in France contains man’s earliest-known structures that had to be built by Neanderthals who were believed to be incapable of such things.
In a French cave deep underground, scientists have discovered what appear to be 176,000-year-old man-made structures. That's 150,000 years earlier than any that have been discovered anywhere before. And they could only have been built by Neanderthals, people who were never before considered capable of such a thing.
This is going to force a major shift in the way we see these early hominids. Researchers had thought that Neanderthals were profoundly primitive, and just barely human. This cave in France's Aveyron Valley changes all that: It's suddenly obvious that Neanderthals were not quite so unlike us.
According to The Atlantic, Bruniquel Cave was first explored in 1990 by Bruno Kowalsczewski, who was 15 at the time. He'd spent three years digging away at rubble covering a space through which his father felt air moving.
Some members of a local caving club managed to squeeze through the narrow, 30-meter long tunnel Kowalsczewski had dug to arrive in a passageway. They followed it past pools of water and old animal bones for over 330 meters before coming into a large chamber and a scene they had no reason to expect: Stalagmites that someone had broken into hundreds of small pieces, most of which were arranged into two rings—one roughly 6 meters across, and one 2 meters wide—with the remaining pieces stacked into one of four piles or leaning against the rings. There were also indications of fires and burnt bones.
Image source: Etienne FABRE - SSAC
A professional archeologist, Francois Rouzaud, determined with carbon dating that a burnt bear bone found in the chamber was 47,600 years old, which made the stalagmite structures older than any known cave painting. It also put the cave squarely within the age of the Neanderthals since they were the only humans in France that early. No one had suspected them of being capable of constructing complex forms or doing anything that far underground.
After Rouzard suddenly died in 1999, exploration at the cave stopped until life-long caver Sophie Verheyden, vacationing in the area, heard about it and decided to try and uranium-date the stalagmites inside.
The team she assembled eventually determined that the stalagmites had been broken up by people 176,000 years ago, way farther back even than Rouzard had supposed.
There weren't any signs that Neanderthals lived in the cave, so it's a mystery what they were up to down there. Verheyden thinks it's unlikely that a solitary artist created the tableaux, and so an organized group of skilled workers must've been involved. And “When you see such a structure so far into the cave, you think of something cultural or religious, but that's not proven," Verheyden told The Atlantic.
Whatever they built, the Bruniquel Cave reveals some big surprises about Neanderthals: They had fire, they built things, and likely used tools. Add this to recent discoveries that suggest they buried their dead, made art, and maybe even had language, and these mysterious proto-humans start looking a lot more familiar. A lot more like homo sapiens, and a lot more like distant cousins lost to history.
A recent study used fMRI to compare the brains of psychopathic criminals with a group of 100 well-functioning individuals, finding striking similarities.
- The study used psychological inventories to assess a group of violent criminals and healthy volunteers for psychopathy, and then examined how their brains responded to watching violent movie scenes.
- The fMRI results showed that the brains of healthy subjects who scored high in psychopathic traits reacted similarly as the psychopathic criminal group. Both of these groups also showed atrophy in brain regions involved in regulating emotion.
- The study adds complexity to common conceptions of what differentiates a psychopath from a "healthy" individual.
When considering what precisely makes someone a psychopath, the lines can be blurry.
Psychological research has shown that many people in society have some degree of malevolent personality traits, such as those described by the "dark triad": narcissism (entitled self-importance), Machiavellianism (strategic exploitation and deceit), and psychopathy (callousness and cynicism). But while people who score high in these traits are more likely to end up in prison, most of them are well functioning and don't engage in extreme antisocial behaviors.
Now, a new study published in Cerebral Cortex found that the brains of psychopathic criminals are structurally and functionally similar to many well-functioning, non-criminal individuals with psychopathic traits. The results suggest that psychopathy isn't a binary classification, but rather a "constellation" of personality traits that "vary in the non-incarcerated population with normal range of social functioning."
Assessing your inner psychopath
The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to compare the brains of violent psychopathic criminals to those of healthy volunteers. All participants were assessed for psychopathy through commonly used inventories: the Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised and the Levenson Self-Report Psychopathy Scale.
Experimental design and sample stimuli. The subjects viewed a compilation of 137 movie clips with variable violent and nonviolent content.Nummenmaa et al.
Both groups watched a 26-minute-long medley of movie scenes that were selected to portray a "large variability of social and emotional content." Some scenes depicted intense violence. As participants watched the medley, fMRI recorded how various regions of their brains responded to the content.
The goal was to see whether the brains of psychopathic criminals looked and reacted similarly to the brains of healthy subjects who scored high in psychopathic traits. The results showed similar reactions: When both groups viewed violent scenes, the fMRI revealed strong reactions in the orbitofrontal cortex and anterior insula, brain regions associated with regulating emotion.
These similarities manifested as a positive association: The more psychopathic traits a healthy subject displayed, the more their brains responded like the criminal group. What's more, the fMRI revealed a similar association between psychopathic traits and brain structure, with those scoring high in psychopathy showing lower gray matter density in the orbitofrontal cortex and anterior insula.
There were some key differences between the groups, however. The researchers noted that the structural abnormalities in the healthy sample were mainly associated with primary psychopathic traits, which are: inclination to lie, lack of remorse, and callousness. Meanwhile, the functional responses of the healthy subjects were associated with secondary psychopathic traits: impulsivity, short temper, and low tolerance for frustration.
Overall, the study further illuminates some of the biological drivers of psychopathy, and it adds nuance to common conceptions of the differences between psychopathy and being "healthy."
Why do some psychopaths become criminals?
The million-dollar question remains unanswered: Why do some psychopaths end up in prison, while others (or, people who score high in psychopathic traits) lead well-functioning lives? The researchers couldn't give a definitive answer, but they did note that psychopathic criminals had lower connectivity within "key nodes of the social and emotional brain networks, including amygdala, insula, thalamus, and frontal pole."
"Thus, even though there are parallels in the regional responsiveness of the brain's affective circuit in the convicted psychopaths and well-functioning subjects with psychopathic traits, it is likely that the disrupted functional connectivity of this network is specific to criminal psychopathy."
Counterintuitively, directly combating misinformation online can spread it further. A different approach is needed.
- Like the coronavirus, engaging with misinformation can inadvertently cause it to spread.
- Social media has a business model based on getting users to spend increasing amounts of time on their platforms, which is why they are hesitant to remove engaging content.
- The best way to fight online misinformation is to drown it out with the truth.
A year ago, the Center for Countering Digital Hate warned of the parallel pandemics — the biological contagion of COVID-19 and the social contagion of misinformation, aiding the spread of the disease. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, anti-vaccine accounts have gained 10 million new social media followers, while we have witnessed arson attacks against 5G masts, hospital staff abused for treating COVID patients, and conspiracists addressing crowds of thousands.
Many have refused to follow guidance issued to control the spread of the virus, motivated by beliefs in falsehoods about its origins and effects. The reluctance we see in some to get the COVID vaccine is greater amongst those who rely on social media rather than traditional media for their information. In a pandemic, lies cost lives, and it has felt like a new conspiracy theory has sprung up online every day.
How we, as social media users, behave in response to misinformation can either enable or prevent it from being seen and believed by more people.
The rules are different online
Credit: Pool via Getty Images
If a colleague mentions in the office that Bill Gates planned the pandemic, or a friend at dinner tells the table that the COVID vaccine could make them infertile, the right thing to do is often to challenge their claims. We don't want anyone to be left believing these falsehoods.
But digital is different. The rules of physics online are not the same as they are in the offline world. We need new solutions for the problems we face online.
Now, imagine that in order to reply to your friend, you must first hand him a megaphone so that everyone within a five-block radius can hear what he has to say. It would do more damage than good, but this is essentially what we do when we engage with misinformation online.
Think about misinformation as being like the coronavirus — when we engage with it, we help to spread it to everyone else with whom we come into contact. If a public figure with a large following responds to a post containing misinformation, they ensure the post is seen by hundreds of thousands or even millions of people with one click. Social media algorithms also push content into more users' newsfeeds if it appears to be engaging, so lots of interactions from users with relatively small followings can still have unintended negative consequences.
The trend of people celebrating and posting photos of themselves or loved ones receiving the vaccine has been far more effective than any attempt to disprove a baseless claim about Bill Gates or 5G mobile technology.
Additionally, whereas we know our friend from the office or dinner, most of the misinformation we see online will come from strangers. They often will be from one of two groups — true believers, whose minds are made up, and professional propagandists, who profit from building large audiences online and selling them products (including false cures). Both of these groups use trolling tactics, that is, seeking to trigger people to respond in anger, thus helping them reach new audiences and thereby gaming the algorithm.
On the day the COVID vaccine was approved in the UK, anti-vaccine activists were able to provoke pro-vaccine voices into posting about thalidomide, exposing new audiences to a reason to distrust the medical establishment. Those who spread misinformation understand the rules of the game online; it's time those of us on the side of enlightenment values of truth and science did too.
How to fight online misinformation
Of course, it is much easier for social media companies to take on this issue than for us citizens. Research from the Center for Countering Digital Hate and Anti-Vax Watch last month found that 65% of anti-vaccine content on social media is linked to just twelve individuals and their organizations. Were the platforms to simply remove the accounts of these superspreaders, it would do a huge amount to reduce harmful misinformation.
The problem is that social media platforms are resistant to do so. These businesses have been built by constantly increasing the amount of time users spend on their platforms. Getting rid of the creators of engaging content that has millions of people hooked is antithetical to the business model. It will require intervention from governments to force tech companies to finally protect their users and society as a whole.
So, what can the rest of us do, while we await state regulation?
Instead of engaging, we should be outweighing the bad with the good. Every time you see a piece of harmful misinformation, share advice or information from a trusted source, like the WHO or BBC, on the same subject. The trend of people celebrating and posting photos of themselves or loved ones receiving the vaccine has been far more effective than any attempt to disprove a baseless claim about Bill Gates or 5G mobile technology. In the attention economy that governs tech platforms, drowning out is a better strategy than rebuttal.
Imran Ahmed is CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate.