Should Animals Have Human Rights?

Hi there and welcome to BrainStuff. I’m Josh
Clark, and you’re you, and this is the BrainStuff where we talk about animal personhood. So have you ever seen a kid torturing a small
animal and thought, 1) there’s a future serial killer. And 2) why doesn’t that animal have
the same rights that I do? That’s a very interesting question, and you can put it a different way:
are there animals out there that experience life in a way similar enough to ours, that
they deserve the same protections that humans receive? And it’s not just an academic question, and
not just for naval gazing. There are actually a lot of people fighting for this right now. The problem is, you can’t just say, “Sure,
animals deserve rights, let’s just call them all humans from now on.” Which is why we’re
about to discuss some very arcane legal stuff. Let’s start with the definition of a person,
a natural human person. Philosophers have been grappling with this idea for millenia,
but we’ll keep our definition simple. We’ll say that a person is an individual with free
will, a sound mind, and certain inalienable rights. Like not having your face smashed,
because that’s annoying to say the least. And this definition of person extends to all
human beings, regardless of race, creed, gender, sexual orientation, and so on and so forth.
But you’ll notice that this definition doesn’t focus on things like physical attributes.
It focuses on things like mental attributes. Like the ability to think about abstract concepts,
to consider the future, to learn from the past. It doesn’t say anything about having
only two legs. But again, you can’t just say, “Alright, animals
are humans, let’s go forward.” That’s where the other definition of person comes up. This
is called ‘legal personhood.’ It’s the idea that you take the attributes of a person – their
rights, their responsibilities, the legal attributes – and bestow it on something that
is most decidedly not a person. Most frequently you run up against this with
corporations, who are able to enter into contracts and be sued and that kind of stuff. They are
considered (under the law) legal persons. So if it works for corporations, why can’t
we extend this to animals as well? The basis of that concept is that some animals are intelligent
enough and emotion enough that they experience life similar to that of a human child. And
as a result, they deserve the same protections that human children receive. Like not being
abused or tortured. The right to life, the right to freedom, things like that. This idea has been picking up steam in the
last couple decades. In 1992 the country of Switzerland amended its constitution to change
animals from ‘things’ to ‘beings.’ That was a watershed moment. In 2002 Germany followed
suit. And in 2007, Spain’s autonomous Balearic Islands decided to bestow legal rights to
great apes. In the US, a case was recently settled where
Steven Wise, the director of the Nonhuman Rights Project, sued a university in New York
for the freedom of two chimpanzees. At first, the case was going pretty well in his favor.
The judge ruled that the university needed to show why it was holding these two chimpanzees,
and actually used the term ‘habeas corpus,’ which, to that point, had only been applied
to human beings. The ruling was quickly reversed, like the
next day, but the case is still considered a watershed moment in the nonhuman rights
movement. But this new concept of animal rights has
its critics as well. Some people say, “Okay, if we did extend these same legal protections
that humans have to animals – like apes, cetaceans (dolphins), or elephants – then how do you
also accord them the same responsibilities that humans have, too? For example, if one monkey killed and ate
another monkey, do you charge that monkey with murder? And even if you do, and you try
him, who makes up his jury of peers? There are a lot of prickly legal questions that
would be opened up. But this does seem to be the way the animal
rights movement is moving. So, expect to be working alongside a chimp or a dolphin in
the next few years. That’s my prediction. What do you think? Do animals deserve the
same rights as you? Do corporations? Let us know in the comments section below. And while
you’re down there, go ahead and subscribe to BrainStuff. And if you like this kind of
thing, then head on over to, where you’ll find a treasure trove of interesting


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