Short Answer: No

As many Fog of Law readers know, I’ve been a vegetarian for fifteen years and have the best cat ever.  Furballs are friends, not food.   But the proposal by Harvard Law Professor Laurence Tribe to give human rights to chimpanzees?  No way. 

He and others have argued that chimps are able to use tools, interact socially, and teach their offspring. Some have also learned sign language, are able to communicate at the same level as a child of 3 or 4. [….]

With legal rights, chimps could seek injunctions to block researchers, animal trainers on movie sets, and operators of roadside attractions who might harm the animals either physically or psychologically. They could also seek damages for medical expenses, and their guardians could seek punitive damages against anyone who denies them their rights.

It is important to distinguish between humane treatment and human treatment.  Chimpanzees are not humans; they don’t get human rights.  A far better solution would be to grant them animal rights, such as the right to not be abused.   I feel a bit absurd even needing to explain this, but chimpanzees have no use for punitive damage awards.

The reasoning is deeply problematic.  Peter Singer has long argued that infants and some disabled individuals are not deserving of human rights because they cannot reason properly; with “Chimpanzee Rights”, Professor Tribe and his colleagues inadvertently underscore the noxious idea that rights are about abilities, rather than a moral absolute for each and every single human being.  We should be wary of untethering human rights from humanity, unless we want to live in a world wherein an otter has more rights than a disabled adult. 

I am writing this from the tenth floor of a skyscraper in downtown Boston; you’re all reading this on a computer.  It always impresses me when animals are able to use tools, invent recreation, or express a range of emotions, but chimpanzees did not build skyscrapers, rocket ships, hospitals, or nanorobots. They may be able to communicate in sign language, but they do not write novels, perform Shakespearean plays, or compose and perform symphonies.  Many animals communite socially, but they did not create governments, laws, philosophy, or the internet. Chimpanzees do not have any religion, or even atheism. 

Human beings are not mere animals, and any airhead who is reading my blog on an iPad ought to be able to grasp the distinction. That is why we alone have human rights, and why humans have human rights from the moment of conception until the moment of death: the sole requirement for those rights is being human, a part of the human race.

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Filed under Bioethics, Law

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