Animals as persons

Clara asks:

Can animals be considered persons?

Answer by Craig Skinner

Arguably, in some cases, yes.

Locke famously distinguishes between a person and a human being (a ‘man’ in his terminology). Thus a person is:

‘A thinking intelligent being, that has reason, and can consider it self as it self, the same thinking thing, in different times and places, which it does only by that consciousness, which is inseparable from thinking’ (Locke An Essay Concerning Human Understanding , 2nd ed, 1694, 27.9).

This distinction raises the possibility that there might be:

(a) human beings that are not persons.

(b) persons that are not human beings.

As regards (a), fertilized eggs, embryos, foetuses and adults in a persistently vegetative state all fit the bill — eggs, embryos and foetuses are only potential persons, PVS-adults are former persons — but they are all human beings.

As regards (b), aliens, computers and animals are all candidates.

Science fiction is rife with alien persons, from little green men to Mr Spock, and they may well exist for real elsewhere in our universe.

As regards computers as persons, again this is a science fiction staple, but it may become a fact in the not too distant future.

And now to animals. Are there non-human animals that are not just conscious (like my cat and dog for instance) but are self-conscious and thus might be seen as persons? Yes, experiments suggest this in chimps and in some other species. A chimp, for instance,
recognizes its mirror image as itself — if the experimenter has daubed bright paint on the chimp’s forehead, on looking in the mirror the chimp will realize he has paint on his own forehead and will wipe it off. The celebrated philosopher Peter Singer notoriously suggests that adult chimps, and other relevant species, have a greater claim to be regarded as persons than newborn humans.

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