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The Story: A judge in Manhattan has ordered a hearing that will touch upon the continuing debate over whether caged chimpanzees can be considered “legal persons,” in the eyes of the law, and thus sue, with human help, for their freedom.

The Background: The case in question was brought by the Nonhuman Rights Project, a group that, as the New York Times’ notes, has been active in promoting a legal theory that some animals, such as chimps, are “legal persons” with the right to “bodily liberty.” The group claims that two chimpanzees, Hercules and Leo, are being “unlawfully detained” at a university on Long Island. The order, by Justice Barbara Jaffe of New York State Supreme Court, directed officials at Stony Brook University to show cause for holding the two chimps, at a May 6 hearing.

This case is the most recent brought about by the great ape personhood movement which seeks to extend personhood and some legal protections to the chimpanzees , gorillas, and orangutans. Prominent advocates in this movement include primatologists Jane Goodall, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, philosopher Peter Singer, and legal scholar Steven Wise, president of the Nonhuman Rights Project.

Why It Matters: The concept of personhood for certain animals will strike many people as absurd, but ultimately harmless. In reality, the redefining of personhood may have profound ramifications for human dignity and could even lead to the denigration and exploitation of human infants.

The Christian worldview is not longer the dominant framework in our culture for considering questions about ethics, science, or technology. Unfortunately, we live in a society where answers that cannot be shoehorned into an acceptable non-religious interpretative structure must be discarded altogether. It is similar to being asked to provide the sum of 4 and 3 but having to do so without resorting to a “religiously based” prime numbers. The absurdity of this approach is obvious since no answer we could give would ever be correct. Yet this is often what is expected when we are asked to provide answers to questions about animal rights that must rely on non-religious criteria.

Take, for example, the question of why humans have more intrinsic dignity than other animals. The reason, according to Christian thought, is because our dignity rests upon being created in imago dei, in the image of God. Our dignitas, our worth, is not a characteristic we acquire, an ability we possess, or a condition we can lose. It is based on our being created for the purpose of entering into covenant fellowship with our Creator.

Secularists, however, not only deny that this explanation is essential to explaining dignity, but reject all such “God-talk” as irrelevant and thus excluded from all debate on the topic. Instead, they believe the search for a moral distinction between humans and animals must be rooted solely in non-religious criteria.

But just as in the search for a non-prime seven, the search for a moral distinction between humans and animals will be in vain. Inevitably, they will have to either tacitly accept the Christian answer that humans are metaphysically different or they will have to reject the question altogether. Most, like Princeton philosopher Peter Singer, will choose the latter. In his 1989 essay titled All Animals Are Equal, Singer claimed:

The truth is that the appeal to the intrinsic dignity of human beings appears to solve the egalitarian’s problems only as long as it goes unchallenged. Once we ask why it should be that all humans—including infants, mental defectives, psychopaths, Hitler, Stalin, and the rest—have some kind of dignity or worth that no elephant, pig, or chimpanzee can ever achieve, we see that this question is as difficult to answer as our original request for some relevant fact that justifies the inequality of humans and other animals. In fact, these two questions are really one: talk of intrinsic dignity or moral worth only takes the problem back one step, because any satisfactory defence of the claim that all and only humans have intrinsic dignity would need to refer to some relevant capacities or characteristics that all and only humans possess. Philosophers frequently introduce ideas of dignity, respect, and worth at the point at which other reasons appear to be lacking, but this is hardly good enough. Fine phrases are the last resource of those who have run out of arguments.

Singer is correct. Once we reject the idea that humans have intrinsic dignity merely because they are humans we must accept, as his title claims, that “all animals are equal.”

Singer obviously missed the irony of taking the title from George Orwell’s Animal Farm. As the book’s readers will recall, when the animals took over Manor Farm, the pigs painted the tenets of Animalism on the barn wall. The seventh commandment “written on the tarred wall in great white letters that could be read thirty yards away” was “All animals are equal.”

At Animal Farm it did not take long before all the commandments were reduced to one: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” I suspect we will see the same thing occur once Singer’s concept of equality becomes the norm. Singer, who is always ahead of the bioethical curve, sees no relevant distinction between animals and human infants:

The preference, in normal cases, for saving a human life over the life of an animal when a choice has to be made is a preference based on the characteristics that normal humans being have and not on the mere fact that they are members of our own species. This is why when we consider members of our own species who lack the characteristics of normal human beings we can no longer say that their lives are always to be preferred to those of other animals. In general, though, the question of when it is wrong to kill (painlessly) an animal is one to which we need give no precise answer. As long as we remember that we should give the same respect to the lives of animals as we give to the lives of those human beings at a similar mental level we shall not go far wrong.

If it is considered morally acceptable to experiment on monkeys then why should we not also experiment on human infants? Similarly, if we would have no qualms about euthanizing a severely deformed newborn orangutan why would we object if the newborn is a human child? If all animals are equal and some animals (i.e., a 3-year old ape) are more equal than others (i.e., a 3-day old human) then the definition of what constitutes “animal experimentation” could be broadly expanded. And this is where the true danger lies in expanding personhood to animals. We won’t merely be treating some animals like humans, we’ll begin to treat some humans like animals.