Are Chimpanzees "Persons"?

Since 2013, the Nonhuman Rights Project has been working on behalf of two chimpanzees, Kiko and Tommy, to have them declared eligible for basic rights—the same as if they were a "person." After all, chimpanzees can recognize themselves in a mirror, communicate through sign language, pursue goals creatively and form long-lasting relationships.

(Currently, the two animals are privately owned. The goal is to have them released to live with other chimpanzees.)

Under current United States law, one is either a "person" or a "thing." There is no third category. In response, the Nonhuman Rights Project argues that if every being must be either a person or a thing, then Kiko and Tommy are persons, not things. In February of this year, a group of philosophers submitted an amicus curiae brief to the New York Court of Appeals in support of legal personhood for Kiko and Tommy. The court is considering whether to allow the case to proceed.

The philosophers admit that the idea of "nonhuman personhood" seems confusing, as we tend to use the two terms synonymously and interchangeably. But, they argue, they are not equivalent. "Human" is best understood "as a biological concept that refers… to a particular species, Homo sapiens. In contrast, 'person' is best understood as a moral and legal concept that refers to an individual who can hold moral and legal rights." There is, they add, "nothing special about species in and of themselves. They are morally arbitrary taxonomic categories."

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