Should animals have personhood rights?

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A herd of elephants at the Mashatu game reserve in Mapungubwe, Botswana. Mashatu is a 46,000 hectare reserve located in Eastern Botswana where the Shashe river and Limpopo river meet. (Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)
A herd of elephants at the Mashatu game reserve in Mapungubwe, Botswana. Mashatu is a 46,000 hectare reserve located in Eastern Botswana where the Shashe river and Limpopo river meet. (Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

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For years, legal activists fought to free their client ... who was ... an elephant. They argued that Happy the Elephant is being imprisoned against her will in a New York Zoo.

Earlier this year, the state's highest court rejected that argument.

But the question is now out there — if corporations can have some personhood rights, why not animals, too?

With every passing year, scientists learn more about animals' complex cognitive and emotional lives.

“For example, chimpanzees, they console others who are distressed. So, if someone is screaming after a fight, others come over and embrace them and calm them down," Frans De Waal says.

And each new scientific discovery forces humans to think about how we treat the rest of the animal kingdom.

"Based on what the science is telling us, based on the autonomy, the cognitive complexity, we need to change things," Elizabeth Stein says.

So, a growing number of activists have been seeking a legal change in humanity's relationship with animals.

Not just pushing to expand animal rights ... they've gone to court arguing that some animals should be granted personhood rights.

Today, On Point: A quixotic pursuit, or an essential reset in how humans think about our dominion over the natural world?


David Scheel, professor of marine biology at Alaska Pacific University.

Richard Cupp, professor of law at the Pepperdine Caruso School of Law. Animal welfare advocate.

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Elizabeth Stein, New York counsel and staff attorney at the Nonhuman Rights Project.

Interview Highlights

On how our understanding of animal cognition has changed since the year 2000

David Scheel: "The science has been building up gradually over a long period of time. And some of what's changed in the past two decades has more to do with how we evaluate that information, how we judge it. Science, and philosophy and maybe even ethics have become more willing to take the evidence that's before us all, all the time, and sort of say, all right, there's a way to look at this in which it's an interior state of the animal that we can't see or directly measure.

"And in that way, it might be easier to dismiss. But there's another way to look at it, in which the interior states give rise to a number of measurable things. And as our ability to see into other habitats, as our interest in animal behavior and animal physiology grow. As we begin to look into those other ways of regarding the question, the ways in which interstates become outwardly observable or influence outwardly observable things, then we become more willing to say, oh, yeah, of course, that's a valid way of approaching the question."

How would you describe the commonality between Homo sapiens and other animals?

David Scheel: "There's an Australian researcher, Derek Denton, who is a physiologist and he's spent his career studying thirst. The mechanism of being thirsty, and what it does to the body and the mind and then how it gets resolved so that you're not thirsty anymore by drinking. And he recognized that the sensation of thirst is an interior sensation that compels us to a specific kind of action. And in that way, it's very much like an emotion. The notion of an emotion being an interstate that we can't directly assess, but it compels certain it's a motivator.

"It makes you want to do certain kinds of things. And thirst is one of those. And there's a number of other ones like hunger and the urge to urinate. And all of these together, Derek Denton labeled the primordial emotions. Because they're ancient in the animal kingdom, and they command a particular action. And if those have been around for that long, then that suggests that there is a lot of commonality between what humans experience and what the other animals have to cope with."

Can we measure free will in an elephant?

David Scheel: "We can measure the capacity for certain capabilities sometimes if we have a clear enough thinking and clear enough scientific design. So there was a lovely experiment that has been done on children in which an experimenter offers the child a treat such as a marshmallow and then tells the child, I'll be back in a minute and if you don't eat that one, you may have a better treat when I return. Maybe two marshmallows, maybe something else, but something better. And so then the child faces the conundrum of satisfy myself now or wait and let my future self be happier with a better treat.

"It's kind of a famous experiment, in part because some people have filmed children in these moments and trying to find ways to distract themselves from the present temptation in order to get the better reward. So someone replicated an experiment, something like this with cuttlefish, and found that they are capable of doing the same thing, of delaying a particular reward in order to pick up a later, better expected reward."

Corporations are not recognized as human beings, but they have certain personhood rights. Why wouldn't a similar thinking apply to animals?

Richard Cupp: "That's really one of the most common questions that's faced in this issue. And it's a good one for that reason. And I think it's one that might sound a little bit like a fastball question, but it's kind of a softball when you talk it through. Because courts have recognized that corporate personhood exists. And The New Yorker highlighted this in its decision rejecting animal legal personhood, that corporate personhood exists because the corporation is serving as a proxy for the human owners. It's a human creation and it's a convenience.

"... We can like corporate personhood or not, I'm agnostic with regard to this field on that question. And I know that it's controversial, but it does exist as a vehicle to promote the interests of the humans and the rights and responsibilities of the humans who put it together. So, animals are not a proxy for humans. They're completely, completely different. So corporate personhood, the New York court said, is effectively an extension or a byproduct of the focus on humanity. And personhood doesn't serve as a good challenge to the idea that personhood is centered on humanity."

On human dominion over animals

Richard Cupp: "It's actually exactly right factually that we'll have dominion over animals. Dominion might be kind of a loaded word, but if dominion means control. Well, obviously we do have control. And then the question is, what are we going to do with it? Does dominion or control mean that we just show a blind eye to the suffering of animals? Immanuel Kant, the famous philosopher, had a great quote where he said something to the effect of, The person who is hard to animals becomes hard also to men.

"What does it say about us if simply because we can treat animals as completely utilitarian objects for our benefit without any concern for their welfare, that that doesn't speak well to humans. It doesn't speak well to our empathy. It doesn't speak well to how we're going to treat other human beings. So I think there's a big difference between what we could do, because we actually do have control of the animals and morally what we should do."

This program aired on October 27, 2022.


Headshot of Meghna Chakrabarti

Meghna Chakrabarti Host, On Point
Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.


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Jonathan Chang Producer/Director, On Point
Jonathan is a producer/director at On Point.



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