While the ethical status of animals has been debated since at least the time of Pythagoras, the serious debate over whether or not animals are people has just recently begun to heat up. While it is easy to dismiss the claim that animals are people, it is actually a matter worth considering.
There are at least three type of personhood: legal personhood, metaphysical personhood and moral personhood. Legal personhood is the easiest of the three. While it would seem reasonable to expect some sort of rational foundation for claims of legal personhood, it is really just a matter of how the relevant laws define “personhood.” For example, in the United States corporations are people while animals and fetuses are not. There have been numerous attempts by opponents of abortion to give fetuses the status of legal persons. There have even been some attempts to make animals into legal persons.
Since corporations are legal persons, it hardly seems absurd to make animals into legal people. After all, higher animals are certainly closer to human persons than are corporate persons. These animals can think, feel and suffer—things that actual people do but corporate people cannot. So, if it is not absurd for Hobby Lobby to be a legal person, it is not absurd for my husky to be a legal person. Or perhaps I should just incorporate my husky and thus create a person.
It could be countered that although animals do have qualities that make them worthy of legal protection, there is no need to make them into legal persons. After all, this would create numerous problems. For example, if animals were legal people, they could no longer be owned, bought or sold. Because, with the inconsistent exception of corporate people, people cannot be legally bought, sold or owned.
Since I am a philosopher rather than a lawyer, my own view is that legal personhood should rest on moral or metaphysical personhood. I will leave the legal bickering to the lawyers, since that is what they are paid to do.
Metaphysical personhood is real personhood in the sense that it is what it is, objectively, to be a person. I use the term “metaphysical” here in the academic sense: the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature of reality. I do not mean “metaphysical” in the pop sense of the term, which usually is taken to be supernatural or beyond the physical realm.
When it comes to metaphysical personhood, the basic question is “what is it to be a person?” Ideally, the answer is a set of necessary and sufficient conditions such that if a being has them, it is a person and if it does not, it is not. This matter is also tied closely to the question of personal identity. This involves two main concerns (other than what it is to be a person): what makes a person the person she is and what makes the person distinct from all other things (including other people).
Over the centuries, philosophers have endeavored to answer this question and have come up with a vast array of answers. While this oversimplifies things greatly, most definitions of person focus on the mental aspects of being a person. Put even more crudely, it often seems to come down to this: things that think and talk are people. Things that do not think and talk are not people.
John Locke presents a paradigm example of this sort of definition of “person.” According to Locke, a person “is a thinking intelligent being, that has reason and reflection, and can consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing, in different times and places; which it does only by that consciousness which is inseparable from thinking, and, as it seems to me, essential to it: it being impossible for any one to perceive without perceiving that he does perceive.”
Given Locke’s definition, animals that are close to humans in capabilities, such as the great apes and possibly whales, might qualify as persons. Locke does not, unlike Descartes, require that people be capable of using true language. Interestingly, given his definition, fetuses and brain-dead bodies would not seem to be people. Unless, of course, the mental activities are going on without any evidence of their occurrence.
Other people take a rather different approach and do not focus on mental qualities that could, in principle, be subject to empirical testing. Instead, the rest personhood on possessing a specific sort of metaphysical substance or property. Most commonly, this is the soul: things with souls are people, things without souls are not people. Those who accept this view often (but not always) claim that fetuses are people because they have souls and animals are not because they lack souls. The obvious problem is trying to establish the existence of the soul.
There are, obviously enough, hundreds or even thousands of metaphysical definitions of “person.” While I do not have my own developed definition, I do tend to follow Locke’s approach and take metaphysical personhood to be a matter of having certain qualities that can, at least in principle, be tested for (at least to some degree). As a practical matter, I go with the talking test—things that talk (by this I mean true use of language, not just making noises that sound like words) are most likely people. However, this does not seem to be a necessary condition for personhood and it might not be sufficient. As such, I am certainly willing to consider that creatures such as apes and whales might be metaphysical people like me—and erring in favor of personhood seems to be a rational approach to those who want to avoid harming people.
Obviously enough, if a being is a metaphysical person, then it would seem to automatically have moral personhood. That is, it would have the moral status of a person. While people do horrible things to other people, having the moral status of a person is generally a good thing because non-evil people are generally reluctant to harm other people. So, for example, a non-evil person might hunt squirrels for food, but would certainly not (normally) hunt humans for food. If that non-evil person knew that squirrels were people, then he would certainly not hunt them for food.
Interestingly enough, beings that are not metaphysical persons (that is, are not really people) might have the status of moral personhood. This is because the moral status of personhood might correctly or reasonably apply to non-persons.
One example is that a brain-dead human might no longer be a person, yet because of the former status as a person still be justly treated as a person in terms of its moral status. As another example, a fetus might not be an actual person, but its potential to be a person might reasonably grant it the moral status of a person.
Of course, it could be countered that such non-people should not have the moral status of full people, though they should (perhaps) have some moral status. To use the obvious example, even those who regard the fetus as not being a person would tend to regard it as having some moral status. If, to use a horrific example, a pregnant woman were attacked and beaten so that she lost her fetus, that would not just be a wrong committed against the woman but also a wrong against the fetus itself. That said, there are those who do not grant a fetus any moral status at all.
In the case of animals, it might be argued that although they do not meet the requirements to be people for real, some of them are close enough to warrant being treated as having the moral status of people (perhaps with some limitations, such as those imposed in children in regards to rights and liberties). The obvious counter to this is that animals can be given moral statuses appropriate to them rather than treating them as people.
Immanuel Kant took an interesting approach to the status of animals. In his ethical theory Kant makes it quite clear that animals are means rather than ends. People (rational beings), in contrast, are ends. For Kant, this distinction rests on the fact that rational beings can (as he sees it) chose to follow the moral law. Animals, lacking reason, cannot do this. Since animals are means and not ends, Kant claims that we have no direct duties to animals. They are classified in with the other “objects of our inclinations” that derive value from the value we give them.
Interestingly enough, Kant argues that we should treat animals well. However, he does so while also trying to avoid ascribing animals themselves any moral status. Here is how he does it (or tries to do so).
While Kant is not willing to accept that we have any direct duties to animals, he “smuggles” in duties to them indirectly. As he puts it, our duties towards animals are indirect duties towards people. To make his case for this, he employs an argument from analogy: if a person doing X would obligate us to that human, then an animal doing X would also create an analogous moral obligation. For example, a human who has long and faithfully served another person should not simply be abandoned or put to death when he has grown old. Likewise, a dog who has served faithfully and well should not be cast aside in his old age.
Given this approach, Kant could be seen as regarding animals as virtual or ersatz people. Or at least those that would be close enough to people to engage in activities that would create obligations if done by people.
In light of this discussion, there are three answers to the question raised by the title of this essay. Are animals legally people? The answer is a matter of law—what does the law say? Are animals really people? The answer depends on which metaphysical theory is correct. Do animals have the moral status of people? The answer depends on which, if any, moral theory is correct.