30 Jan 2014

Animal ‘Personhood’: Muddled Alternative to Real Protection

A new strategy of granting animals “personhood” under the law is being advanced by some in academia and the animal rights movement. But this approach fails to address the fundamental truth that all species have an equal right to their own existence.
By verlyn klinkenborg

In March 2002, grizzly bears were banned from Fremont County, Wyoming, which lies within shouting distance of Yellowstone National Park — grizzly habitat. The ban took the form of a unanimous resolution passed by the county commissioners, and it prohibited not only the introduction or reintroduction of grizzlies in the county but also their mere presence. It was a peculiarly muddy moment in animal law. The resolution made it seem as though grizzlies might somehow become aware of the ban and choose to obey or disobey it. It seemed to suggest that there was a regular traffic in grizzly bears. Like so much animal law, the resolution sounded as though it was meant to shape the behavior of grizzlies when, of
The question is whether expanding animal rights would protect animals better than stricter animal protection laws.
course, it was really meant to shape the behavior of humans and their agencies — in this case, the federal government and its grizzly management policies.

Confusion often reigns when animals wander into the law. We commonly talk about animal rights as if "rights" actually belong to animals. (This is the way we almost always talk about rights — as a possession of the person or thing whose rights we mean to protect.) The law posits those rights on behalf of animals and tries to enforce them on behalf of animals. But what is really being enforced (to the extent that animal rights are enforced) is a limit, a restraint on human behavior.

The same is true of the growing effort to grant animals personhood in the eyes of the law, a legal strategy that is being advanced by some academics, lawyers, and members of the animal rights movement. Animal personhood is meant to fill an inherent vacuum in the workings of animal rights. Even if animals have rights, there is no legal personality — a version of the legal personality that you and I (and corporations) have — for those rights to adhere to. Imagine a dog-shaped population of fleas without the dog, and
Japan macaque
Alfonsopazphoto/Wikimedia Commons
The legal designation of animal "personhood" would include primates, including this Japanese macaque.
you get the idea. The animal personhood movement posits the existence of the dog, with standing in the law.

The point of bestowing legal personhood on animals is to protect them from humans — and, especially, from the cruelty of certain kinds of laboratory research. In other words, the animal personhood movement hopes to force humans to treat animals as legal persons and, as a result, to remedy the inadequacy of existing animal protections. In a paper presented at a Yale University conference last December called "Personhood Beyond the Human," one panelist, Saskia Stucki from the University of Basel, wrote, "The case for nonhuman legal personhood has become increasingly pressing in light of the systematic failure of traditional animal welfare law to protect animals in any meaningful way." The question is whether expanding animal rights — or instituting legal personhood for animals — would protect animals better than stricter animal protection laws that leave the legal status of animals unchanged.

The purpose of animal personhood is laudable, the goal honorable and truly humane. But the concept embodies a deep philosophical muddle. Witness this statement, from the same conference, noting "how our need, as humans, to proclaim that ‘I am not an animal!’ and to deny personhood to other animals affects our relationship with them at a fundamental level." Let us never mind who the "we" is. There’s something troubling, almost unreal in that statement. It suggests that humans deny they are animals by
How do we restrain humanity enough to allow the continuing existence of other species?
denying that animals are persons. Really? Imagine the puzzling converse: animals denying they are persons by denying that humans are animals! Sooner or later, the language of animal personhood seems to go right through the looking glass. It becomes impossible, for instance, to talk about "animals." They become "nonhuman animals" as a way of reminding us that humans too belong to the grand kingdom of Animalia.

The push to create animal personhood within the law only goes so far. It happily includes primates, domestic and companion animals, elephants, dolphins, and the like. But it would enhance the legal status only of those animals that stand within the light of the human campfire, animals on whom it’s easy to project human qualities like "intelligence," animals that have an obvious economic utility or that readily appear to be capable of suffering cruelty. It stops well short, to put it mildly, of insisting on something far more fundamental: that all species have an equal and equivalent right to their own existence.

Even to call this a "right" is to fall into a familiar legalistic and linguistic trap. We don’t have a word — much less a concept in law — to suggest that the existence of any species is its own sufficient justification, a justification that applies to every species, including us, whose justification is in no way superior to that of other species. In the Western tradition, God was the guarantor of the equivalence of all species. God was also, of course, the grantor to humans of dominion over all species.

The important question is this: How do we restrain humanity enough to allow the continuing coexistence of other species? I wish I believed that a fiction like the legal personhood of animals could really help do it. But I


The Folly of Big Agriculture:
Why Nature Always Wins

The Folly of Big Agriculture: Why Nature Always Wins
Large-scale industrial agriculture depends on engineering the land to ensure the absence of natural diversity. But as the recent emergence of herbicide-tolerant weeds on U.S. farms has shown, Verlyn Klinkenborg writes, nature ultimately finds a way to subvert uniformity and assert itself.
don’t. To ask humans to deny themselves for the benefit of any other species, especially those that lie outside our immediate awareness, seems to be asking what is nearly impossible. We’re blinded by our self-regard, or perhaps we’re just inherently blind. It’s profoundly difficult to feel our kinship with all other species, whether kinship is expressed as an overwhelming overlap of DNA or the shared occupancy of this earth or any other way you like. We have to imagine it, construct it in our minds, actively engage the thought. And even then, it remains a thought, and thought — compared with hunger and habit — is barely able to influence our actions.

To grant animals legal personhood is to welcome them into the courtroom — not exactly a revolutionary concept for a species that has also granted legal personhood to corporations. I like to imagine an animal fable that would explain our confusion. Even as some people try to extend personhood to neighboring animal species, we as a species seem to exist in exile from the animal kingdom, as if the grizzly bears of Wyoming had voted to ban human commissioners from Fremont County. But even that is to imagine in animals a behavior that is all too human. What we cannot conceive — it is too wounding — is the indifference of the rest of nature when it comes to us.


Verlyn Klinkenborg is the author of numerous books, most recently More Scenes from the Rural Life and Several Short Sentences About Writing. He was a member of the editorial board of the New York Times from 1997 to 2013. In previous articles for Yale Environment 360, he has explored what DNA analyses reveal about humans' toll on wildlife and offered a critique of large-scale agriculture.

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I totally agree with your point on the indifference of the rest of the nature and on the shortcomings of the same 'discontinuous' perspective that Dawkins once referred to. But what is the outcome of your reflection? What kind of solutions are you specifically offering? While arbitrarily granting personhood to some species and excluding others would seem flawed, so is it self-evident that business-as-usual protection is not having much success either.

To the extent that law is always a human concept, and exists to put restraints on human behavior, what is needed then is a development that goes towards wide-ranging legal rules that protect all creatures from unnecessary killing (as blurred as such a concept might be), with a particular emphasis on trophy hunting, wildlife management through cruel methods, pesticide use, habitat pollution, guidelines on urban planning, and so on. Moreover, a focus on the strictest protection of endangered species (following the 'good of its kind' ethical approach) might be also required to better cope with the loss of biodiversity. This could sound far from the personhood debate, but I don't believe it actually is, since after all 'necessary killing' of human beings is allowed too.
Posted by Dario Piselli, University of Siena on 30 Jan 2014

"The important question is this: How do we restrain humanity enough to allow the continuing coexistence of other species?"

There doesn't seem to be a lack of cattle, chickens, or hogs. Farming animals we like to eat doesn't seem to lead to their extinction. Perhaps good recipes would be the solution.
Posted by Bob K on 30 Jan 2014

Thank you for this wonderful reflection on personhood. I struggle with this very question — with my background in ecology (from Yale FES) that leaves me on one side of the question, and now working in the realm of public philosophy that has me considering some other sides of this question. Gavin Van Horn has an excellent blog post at where he wrestles with the concept of "non-human animals."
Posted by Brooke Hecht (Ph.D. FES on 30 Jan 2014

The logic of this article has the same flaws as that of the arguments against carbon pricing or monetizing ecosystem goods and services: It might be against your principles to "devalue" nature with human prescriptions, but the reality is that in the current system these are seen as having zero value.

A carbon or ecosystem price will do a lot more to prevent oil/mining companies from liquidating nature than the present system, as will providing rights to animals. This adds costs to the firm's business logic where before there were none.

It's not about your philosophizing of what is right and wrong, but what has real impacts on the ground and the organisms living on it.
Posted by Tom on 30 Jan 2014

I would rephrase the important question as: How do we, humans, think we ought to treat other living beings? It is a question of moral status. One that should allow us to fine tune our decisions when the interests of animals are in conflict with those of humans. And legitimate conflicts do arise — such as humans wanting to live in cities free of grizzly bears, or wanting to advance medical knowledge and human/animal health through research.
Posted by Dario Ringach on 31 Jan 2014

I can't be sure, Bob, because he does not say this explicitly, but I think this article is about wildlife and lab animals. Not sure if he thinks farmed animals deserve the same rights as other animals, or of the logic he would use to argue that some animals are more equal than others.

This article was fine, if somewhat pointless, right up until the "indifference of the rest of nature when it comes to us" ending. This implies that humans are somehow separate from "nature," that it is something outside of us that we need to protect, not something that we are a part of. The word "nature" itself is an ambiguous and useless term. You write for a living. You should be more responsible with the language you use.
Posted by Micah on 31 Jan 2014

"It’s profoundly difficult to feel our kinship with all other species..."

Really? Not sure what goes on in your head but I certainly feel strong empathy towards anyone who screams or flinches in pain.
Posted by Chris on 31 Jan 2014

The rights movement is largely responsible for the discrediting of the conservation movement because of such untenable positions as personhood for animals. When will animal conservation step up, speak out, and act against radicals and their leaders? Biodiversity is a necessity, as is habitat preservation but not by taking humans out of the equation, as is more often the case than not. Is this getting out of control?
Posted by eric on 31 Jan 2014

Imagine grizzlies turning on each other because one of them scared some campers. That's what we do. You are right. Human activities, thoughts and plans just don't matter to nature or her first children.
Posted by DC on 02 Feb 2014

Plain and simple — there are just too many humans on this planet. It has to be established what the optimal human population ought to be. I have some suggestions to this at "Universal Platform for Developing Sustainable Earth Vision/Model Cooperatively: Global Citizens Envisioning the Future Together" —

Posted by Mr. Jan Hearthstone on 11 Feb 2014

The most cogent and clear approach I'm aware of in this arena is one developed by Thomas Berry, in a movement that has sprung from his efforts called Earth Jurisprudence. See his "10 Principles for Jurisprudence" here:\%20Berry\%2010\%20Principles\%20for\%20Earth\%20Jurisprudence.pdf

Berry avoids the muddled thinking of humans extending personhood to other species or similarly extending rights to other forms of life by correctly declaring that rights do not come from humans but from where existence itself originates, which is undeniably the universe itself. Once this is recognized and acknowledged, other species quickly gain equal footing with humans in terms of having the triple right to its existence, to its habitat and to its roles, whether it be predator, plant or decomposer. Furthermore, humanity, as with all other species, are inextricably dependent on the planetary web of life, and as such must respect its healthy functioning. Check out the rest of the website to see how productive this thinking has already gone.
Posted by Ken Lassman on 02 Mar 2014

Yeah, wildlife animals deserve the right, but not sure farmed animals have the same.
Posted by Tim on 27 Apr 2014

Any biologist who is not a vegan environmentalist lacks credibility. This is similar to any veterinarian who eats his clients lacks credibility. Many write about the Rights of Animals, the Rights of Nature or the the Rights of Mother Earth without understanding. They cannot discard the religious myth that nature is man's dominion and that man needs to eat the animals. They often refer to animals as critters which comes from creatures which in turn comes from the creation myth.

This is the 21st century. What is wrong with these writers? Animals occupy this planet. It is the Species' Planet. A species' forest, grassland, or desert is of, by and for all the other native plants, animals, fungi and soil microbes that occupy or have occupied those places. Animal personhood does not "Muddle Alternative to Real Protection" any more than personhood muddles efforts to protect minorities and women around the world. If you continue to eat animals you will always be ambivalent. These writers cannot pretend to speak for both humans and the animals.
Posted by Richard Stafursky on 13 Oct 2014



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