Nonhuman personhood may seem like an oxymoron to some; however, scientists are helping us understand that humans are not the only intelligent and self-aware species on the Earth. In legal terms, the entity that has legal rights and legal standing in regard to those rights is referred to as a “person.” We already use “person” to denote both a human individual and a nonhuman corporate entity, but we do not yet extend these rights to nonhuman animals, plants, or even minerals. Our awareness of their right to self-determination and being treated with dignity and respect is limited by the lack of a common language (e.g., cetaceans communicate through different sound patterns and frequencies than humans), or even a common sensory modality (e.g., plants communicate chemically).
Why does the status of “personhood” matter? Matthew Hiasl Pan is a case in point. This chimpanzee was abducted from Sierra Leone in 1982 and transported to Austria where he was placed in a shelter. In 2007, when the shelter threatened to go into bankruptcy and close friends of Matthew tried to intervene and establish a fund for his care, the Austrian courts found that Matthew existed only as an asset of the shelter and had no moral/legal standing to either receive funds or even to have a legal guardian appointed who could receive funds in his name. The case was appealed unsuccessfully to the European Court of Human Rights.
If, however, Matthew were recognized as a person, the damage done to his life would count and he himself could start legal procedures against those responsible for it. He could sue the animal dealers, who abducted him and killed his mother. He could sue the company, who paid for his abduction in order to do experiments on him. And he could sue the governments of those countries, who gave permits for his abduction or for those experiments. All those are responsible for his situation, and all those should…be held liable to undo the damage as best they can.
Based on all of the scientific evidence available regarding the complex cognitive functioning and emotional intelligence of chimpanzees, Matthew qualifies for moral standing and hence for personhood; however, he faces an uncertain future because that status has not been acknowledged. So the matter of moral standing and personhood is not simply philosophical; there are life-altering consequences.
If an entity is a “person,” then it is entitled to moral standing and moral inclusion. In other words, our relationship with such beings would need to change from paternalism or exploitation to one of dignity and mutual respect. Our present economic policies are primarily based on a “sustainability paradigm,” which assumes that all of nature is a resource for humanity. We measure the success of those policies by the percent of species that do not become extinct, without regard to the moral rights of those species. In fact, we exercise policies to “cull” (murder) populations of species that we view as predatory, such as bears or wolves, in order to control their numbers and hence the impact on our own choices.
If debates within the scientific community are examined, humans’ vested interests are clearly at play. Designating a species as a legal “person” (as we do corporations) means that we then have the moral obligation to take their needs and perspectives into consideration. For example, the impact of tanker traffic in a body of water cannot be evaluated simply with regard to the likelihood of spillage. We also have to consider the very harmful effects of the noise generated on aquatic life such as cetaceans. Once we concede personhood and moral/legal standing, certain rights follow that impinge on our ability to exploit nonhuman persons in whatever way we like:
See Evolving Concepts of Nonhuman Personhood.
To offset this vested interest, the work of the Nonhuman Rights Project to obtain legal standing for nonhuman persons, beginning with chimpanzees, is vitally important. See a summary of scientific evidence, extracted from Appendix B of Moving Beyond Duality, for the personhood of:
- The Earth
- Members of the Animal Kingdom
- Members of the Vegetable Kingdom
- Members of the Mineral Kingdom
 M. Balluch, “Personhood Trial for Chimpanzee Matthew Pan” (2008).