A Step Forward in Animal Rights: But Do We Have The Capacity To Classify Animals?

[ By on July 14, 2014 ]

Last month, Yale University held the Personhood Beyond the Human conference, attracting experts from the fields of law, ethics, science and activism to discuss re-examining the status of non-human animals as “things” without rights, and changing the paradigm to a position of personhood with legal rights. Although most of the discussion surrounded primates, the conference is also looking to discuss animals, such as elephants and cetaceans because there is a considerable body of science that recognizes that these animals have critical capacities required for legal personhood designation, including self awareness, awareness of others, complex social relationships, mental time travel, culture, and complex problem solving. This is a fantastic effort and is the first conference that is attempting to bring people for such varying disciplines together to discuss animal rights; however, these classifications beg the question of how this conference is going to differentiate between those animals that have the “capacities required for legal personhood designation” and those that do not. They seem to be determining this based on our current scientific understanding of the consciousness of various animals, but this scientific knowledge is always growing and changing. This means that scientist may still be ignorant of many animals that actually meet this standard. Also, even though this is a huge step forward in animal rights, do humans even have the right to “imprison” those animals that don’t posses this “capacity”?  (Thanks to Aditi Ahuja for this post.)

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