19 Dec, 14 | by Iain Brassington
A little earlier this year, there was a case brought before the New York courts concerning a chimpanzee called Tommy: the matter was the lawfulness of keeping Tommy confined. Acting on Tommy’s behalf was an organisation called the NonHuman Rights Project. The legal documentation filed is available here. The basis of the case was not so much that Tommy was being harmed by his treatment as that he was wronged by it: to keep a chimpanzee in such conditions s a violation of certain rights, and ought not to be allowed granted a plausible application of habeas corpus, even the most comfortable of cages still being a cage – or so the claim went. Essentially, the legal question under consideration was this: does a chimpanzee have any of the legal rights that a human has; and, if so, which?
Perhaps predictably, the suit was rejected; Justice Karen Peters found that habeas corpus did not apply to chimpanzees, and the other judges agreed. Whatever legal restrictions there may be on primates, they do not fall under the rights paradigm.
The reasoning here strikes me as being a touch… well, wonky.
A significant part of the argument revolves around what kind of thing counts as a person, and so ought to have the rights of a person. It’s not difficult to see why this is important in bioethics, because it’ll impinge on what happens in laboratories, and – potentially – on what happens in a human uterus or neonatal unit. If the definition of “person” extends to chimps, the suit goes, then habeas corpus should apply. If it doesn’t, then there’s no reason to suppose that it would. The judgement is that personhood does not apply to chimps. The term has, the court found, never been explicitly defined; and habeas corpus relief has never been granted to any nonhuman. This wouldn’t mean that it shouldn’t be; the question then would move on to examining the ought question.
For Peters, there is no ought here, and this conclusion is based on an appeal to a particular definition of “person”. It’s worth quoting the ruling at length here: more…