‘When does an animal count as a person?’

Posted on November 17, 2012

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Yesterday (16th November), an item was posted on io9.com titled ‘When does an animal count as a person?’, written by George Dvorsky.

‘… A grassroots movement has recently emerged in which a number of scientists, philosophers, ethicists and legal experts have rallied together in support of the idea that some nonhuman animals are persons and thus deserving of human-like legal protections. Their efforts have subsequently thrown conventional notions of personhood into question by suggesting that humans aren’t the only persons on the planet. So what isa person, exactly? We spoke to two experts to find out.

To help with the discussion, we spoke to Lori Marino, Senior Lecturer in Neuroscience at Emory University and the Science Director for the Nonhuman Rights Project (not to be confused with the IEET‘s Rights of the Nonhuman Persons Program, of which I am the founder and Chair), and John Shook, a Research Associate in Philosophy and faculty member of the Science and the Public EdM online program at the University at Buffalo.

As we learned through our conversations with them, it may be some time before we reach consensus on what truly constitutes a person, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that many nonhuman animals are smarter and more aware than previously thought — what will certainly upset our notions of their legal and moral standing.

The kind of beings that we are

Lori Marino, through her efforts with the NhRP, is trying to secure legal protections for a special subset of nonhuman species, a list of highly sapient animals that includes all the great apes (like bonobos and chimpanzees), elephants, cetaceans (which includes both dolphins and whales), and even some birds.

And the legal protections that Marino is talking about are not your run-of-the-mill animal welfare laws. Rather, they would be the same set of laws that protect any person — humans included.

If and when these laws get passed, nonhuman persons would be protected from such things as torture, experimentation, slavery, confinement (including zoos and water parks), and the threat of unnatural death (like hunting and outright murder). Essentially, if you wouldn’t do it to a human, you wouldn’t do it to a nonhuman person …

She agrees that there is an overwhelming amount of scientific evidence indicating that many other species, such as cetaceans, elephants, great apes, and some birds, share those basic characteristics that define personhood in our own species. But she takes it even further than that.

“On a personal level, I view all other animals with a brain as persons, she says. “They are not human but they are other persons. But regarding the NhRP we are letting the science lead our legal definition.”

Marino doesn’t believe that there is a clear-cut line in nature that differentiates conscious from nonconscious animals. “From a neuroanatomical point of view it is reasonable to accept the premise that all animals with a central nervous system are conscious,” she says. “This is what brains do for a living — they provide a way for the animal to process information and respond appropriately, and that’s true whether you are an aplysia or a chimpanzee.”

She concedes that the empirical evidence tells us there are differences across species. “Some readily recognize themselves in mirrors, for instance, and others just don’t get it,” she says. But when we look at the complete set of data in the literature, she argues, it demonstrates that consciousness is a dimensional phenomenon.

“Some animals may be capable of more complex and profound levels of awareness than others,” she says, “But all are conscious.” …’

Read the item in full, view images and add your comment online at http://io9.com/5961226/when-does-an-animal-count-as-a-person

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