York University philosophy professor and team submit brief supporting chimpanzee personhood

Professor Kristin Andrews, York Research Chair in Animal Minds, serves on a team of philosophers that has filed an amicus brief in New York challenging the lawfulness of the captivity of two chimpanzees, Kiko and Tommy.

Kristin Andrews

Kristin Andrews

The Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) filed the petitions with the goal of changing the status of chimpanzees from things into persons. At issue in the courts is what counts as a person capable of possessing any legal rights. The Philosophers’ Brief maintains that the courts’ rulings “uses 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 Philosophers’ Brief, which is coauthored by 17 philosophers, including six Canadians (Andrews, J.G.D Crozier, Sue Donaldson, Andrew Fenton, Will Kymlicka, Letitia Meynell) argues that since chimpanzees can only be categorized under the law as either persons or things, consistent logical reasoning demands we categorize them as persons.  In their rulings, the courts introduced four conceptions of personhood (species membership, social contract, community membership, and a capacities conception), and the Philosopher’s Brief maintains that the judges equivocate between these different conceptions of personhood.

“The biological category of homo sapiens isn’t equivalent to the legal category of person, because any attempt to justify that equivalence dissolves some set of criteria that actually does the moral work — things like rationality, autonomy, or even language,” says Andrews. “These criteria leave out some humans, or they include some nonhuman animals.”

As for the other three conceptions, Andrews maintains that “chimpanzees Tommy and Kiko are like other humans who are protected under a social contract but who cannot themselves be contractors, like children and those with certain cognitive limitation. They are members of our human community, because we made them part of our community, and they depend on us for their continued survival.”

The NhRP’s case is based on the argument that Tommy and Kiko are autonomous individuals whose interests are not met in their housing situations. Tommy was found living alone in a cage inside a shed on a trailer lot, and Kiko is living alone in a cage in a residential storefront. The Philosopher’s Brief defends the NhRP’s claim that autonomy is sufficient for being a person, but not necessary.

“Like other social categories, such as woman, we’re realizing that there are different ways in which an individual can qualify,” says Andrews. “I claim there is no necessary property associated with the social category person, except possibly consciousness, and that being autonomous, which also entails being conscious and rational, is sufficient for counting as a person.”

For more York University news, photos and videos, visit the YFile homepage