Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Nonhuman Persons

A recent Austrian court ruling (1/15/2008) declared that chimpanzees are not persons, a doubly obscene irony: first, because a big part of Austrian identity now consists of bitter remorse for the failure (the refusal) to perceive the humanity of Jews just a few decades ago; second, because legal personhood is exactly what has enabled corporations to destroy most of the biosphere and its inhabitants. Nobody can look into Raytheon’s eyes; a chimp, or an elephant, is a different story. The stakes are high in any discussion of the boundaries of the human, the rights of other species, and the grounds for claims about those rights. What hangs in the balance is a world of food and medicine and sport, a planet’s worth of contested land-use, and a long-cherished belief in the utter superiority of one species of primate. The impediments to a new paradigm are deeply rooted in the two poles of the world’s culture — Biblical Dominionism (e.g., Genesis 1:28) and Aristotelian anthropocentrism (e.g., Nichomachean Ethics, 1098a). The former rests upon the alleged divine origin of the Bible, vexingly difficult to uphold after four centuries of textual criticism. The latter, Aristotelian claim for absolute human superiority is the product of the same imagination that brought you the flaming crystalline spheres of the planetary orbits. When Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus asks his Mephistopheles whether those spheres exist, the devil replies: “No, Faustus. They be but fables.” That hungry category – the fabulous – yawns open the moment the ancient Hebrews turn from Monolatry (the worship of one God) to Monotheism (the belief that only one God exists). That forces monotheists to keep their own God from slipping into the same void that He himself excavated as a tomb for His predecessors. Were human uniqueness to go the way of the epicycles, the ether, and the soul, then the slaughter of animals for food would become far more difficult to reconcile with the more compassionate elements of both Biblical and Aristotelian sources. Doubt about human superiority and doubt about God’s existence are of the same form.

I suppose I call for a category of animality called non-human person, to include dolphins and porpoises, apes, elephants, and parrots, beneficiaries of the convergent evolution of intelligence. Those animals should have rights that approximate the legal rights of human persons. Corporations, on the contrary, should not have that set of legal rights pertaining to individual personhood.

Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen (Yiddish: בייַ מיר ביסט דו שיין, "To Me You're Beautiful")


  1. Perhaps too we need a sub-human persons category, for those who get the sonnets they deserve...

  2. BRILLIANT !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


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