Guest author: Steven M. Wise
Nonhuman Rights Project
On December 2, 2013, I filed a habeas corpus lawsuit in the Fulton County, New York, Supreme Court demanding the immediate release of a person who had been imprisoned for years, alone, in a cage in a warehouse on a used trailer lot in rural Gloversville with nothing but a small television for comfort and company. The next day I filed a similar lawsuit on behalf of another person who, for many years, had been imprisoned in a cage in the back of a cement storefront in Niagara Falls. Two days later I filed a third lawsuit on behalf of two persons who had been held for five years in the basement of a Stony Brook University computer building. There wires had been thrust into their muscles and they were forced to undergo general anesthesia every few weeks.
I filed those three suits as an attorney for the Nonhuman Rights Project on behalf of chimpanzees. Attached to our habeas corpus petitions were nearly a hundred pages of affidavits from some of the most experienced and respected chimpanzee scientists in the world, from Japan, Sweden, Germany, Scotland, England, and the United States. They demonstrated that chimpanzees have capacities for autonomy and self-determination, that they possess an autobiographical self, episodic memory, self-consciousness, self-knowingness, self-agency, referential and intentional communication, empathy, a working memory, language, metacognition, numerosity, and material, social, and symbolic culture, that they have the ability to plan, engage in mental time-travel, act intentionally, engage in sequential learning, mediational learning, mental state modeling, visual perspective-taking, cross-modal perception, that they can understand cause-and-effect and the experiences of others, that they can imagine, imitate, engage in deferred imitation, emulate, innovate, and use and make tools. Our arguments were explicitly grounded in scientific fact, justice as it has long been understood in the Anglo-American tradition, as well as the liberty, dignity, equity, and equality of each prisoner. In subsequent cases, we filed seven more affidavits that showed that chimpanzees routinely bear duties and responsibilities both within chimpanzee communities and within human/chimpanzee communities.
In short, contrary to a species solipsism that permits us humans to pretend that only humans had minds, chimpanzees live intellectually rich, emotional, and sophisticated individual, family and community lives. They recall their past and anticipate their future and, when their future is imprisonment, they suffer the enduring pain of isolation and the inability to fulfill their life’s goals or even move about as they wish, as we humans do. In short they are, or ought to be, persons, at least to the extent of being able to demand freedom from imprisonment.
The First Principle of Unitarian Universalism affirms and promotes the inherent worth and dignity of every “person.” The word “person” has multiple senses. In the legal world I inhabit it is not a synonym for “human being”; it is a protean concept. A legal “person” is an entity that evolving ideas of justice, equality, liberty, policy, and morality demand we ought to treat as if he or she possesses inherent worth and dignity. “Person,” we show, is not restricted to humans; it is not even a biological category.
In its legal memoranda, the Nonhuman Rights Project walked the judges through an Anglo-American legal history in which, over the last quarter millennium, women, blacks, Native Americans, children, and others who were once treated as “things” - those who lack the capacity for any legal rights - and not “persons” - those who possess the capacity for legal rights. We demonstrated how even such entitles as corporations, ships, Sikh Holy Books, a Hindu idol, and a New Zealand river came to be treated as “persons” for some purpose in parts of the English-speaking world, and argued that, as a result of new scientific discoveries about chimpanzee minds, advances in public morality, and the accretion of human experience, the time had come for chimpanzees to be treated as “persons,” at least to the extent of preventing their confinement and exploitation. Oppressing a chimpanzee who suffers oppression in a way similar to how we suffer oppressions is morally wrong and is inconsistent with the vision of the First Principle. Their thinghood strips chimpanzees of their inherent worth and dignity and relegates them to the status of a nonperson, a slave; it entirely undermines their ability to exercise their autonomy, as it would undermine yours.
On the other hand, the word “person” is often understood outside the courtroom as being synonymous with “human.” To the extent this sense is enshrined in the First Principle, the “First Principle Project” seeks to widen the circle of those individuals entitled to be treated as if they have intrinsic worth and dignity to all beings. That is why the Unitarian Universalist Animal Ministry initiated the First Principle Project, which is now a collaboration of sponsoring congregations and organizations. The First Principle Project proposes that the First Principle be amended to substitute “being” for “person.” Its purpose is to emphasize that individual worth and dignity go beyond just human beings to bring all the individuals who comprise the interdependent web of existence to which the Seventh Principle speaks within the circle of moral concern. It is fully within this spirit that the Nonhuman Rights Project works to assure fundamental legal rights to those beings for whom real legal rights, as well as moral rights, are most appropriate.
The Second Principle of Unitarian Universalism is a call for justice, equity, and compassion to human beings. But in the first quarter of the 21st Century, in light of the ongoing scientific inquiries into the nature of so many nonhumans, it would be unjust and inequitable to limit the ideals of justice, equity, and compassion to human beings. The Seven Principles derive from the Six Principles that accompanied the 1961 formation of the Unitarian Universalist Association, which were revised and extended to the Seven Principles in 1985. Both the First And Second Principles were drafted and discussed at a time before the explosion of scientific knowledge began that has allowed us to begin to understand how remarkably autonomous chimpanzees are. A more equitable, humane, and just reading of the Second Principle would take into account the evolution of scientific knowledge, morals, and human experience, and ask that justice, equity, and compassion be extended to those who can understand they are benefitting from it,
The Sixth Principle of Unitarian Universalism affirms and promotes the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all. Again the question is “who is encompassed by the word ‘all.’” An appropriate response might be that “all” should embrace those who can flourish in the medium of peace, liberty, and justice. Whomever else may be a part of that “all,” science has left us with no doubt that the chimpanzees the Nonhuman Rights Project has chosen as its first plaintiffs should. But the science is not limited to chimpanzees. Our knowledge about the minds of nonhuman animals from great apes to elephants to whales to parrots and corvids, dogs, and others continues rapidly to expand.
The Seventh Principle, introduced in 1985, suggests respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part: as early as 1985, the Unitarian Universalists were beginning to look past the ancient prejudice that only one species, out of the more than ten million who share the earth, should count. However, the Seventh Principle is vague about the degree to which humans might respect the many individuals who comprise this web, and how.
Not only are apes, whales, elephants, and many others part of the interdependent web of all existence, they are nearly the same part. The cognitively complex qualities we share should surprise no one who knows that we also share a substantial portion of our DNA, have brains that are similarly plastic, flexible, and heavily dependent upon learning. As Mark Causey, President of the Unitarian Universalist Animal Ministry, reminds us: “we are all made of the same star-stuff and all share a common destiny. We all share the same hopes of a life free from harm and suffering and the same aspirations of happiness, love, and flourishing—being able to express our own unique natures and capacities as best we may.” Not only is the Seventh Principle a call to embrace something greater than oneself, but to embrace something greater than one’s species.
Principles of equity and equality suggest that the Seventh Principle should cause us to embrace any one of our fellow species consonant with the nature of that species. As James Russell Lowell wrote: “New occasions teach new duties. Time makes ancient good uncouth.” The respect to which our fellow beings should be entitled should harmonize with who they are, and we learning more every now who they are.
If you wish to learn more about the ongoing work of the Nonhuman Rights Project, please visit our webpage at www.nonhumanrights.org, look us up on Facebook, or follow us on twitter.
Steven M. Wise, Esq.
March 30, 2016