Recently, the newspaper Guardian provided a news story that many people probably thought of as a prank. The chimpanzee Hiasl (pronounced Hee-sel) was suggested to be given human rights, i.e., to be recognized as a person. But it was not a prank. Indeed, activists and well-renowned scientists such as Jane Goodall have fought for the recognition of Hiasl as a person. However, the court ruled down the suggestion.
You can read more about the story from Nature, Guardian, and other googled resources. But what if the ruling have ended otherwise? What if Hiasl had been accepted personal rights? An article in Nature Neuroscience discusses some of the impacts of this ruling. For example, Hiasl could bring a lawsuit against the pharmaceutical company that was involved in his kidnapping and illegal import to Austria some 20 years ago. But should one chimp get granted some — even not all — human rights, then chimps as a group should have many lawsuits going their way. Chimp group representatives could accuse companies for deforestation. And if chimps why not other non-human primates or even mammals?
What I find particularly interesting is that whether or not we have a reason to reserve basic rights to humans, an increasingly stronger scientific literature demonstrates a huge similarity in mental functions between humans and non-human primates as well as mammals. Self-recognition, emotions and personality are just well-known phenomena that are not just anecdotally evident, but even scientifically sound. So the question is (perhaps to me) not necessarily so much if we should grant animal X specific rights. The question is: given that we know that animals are experiencing, emotional and personal beings, albeit not necessarily in a fully human sense, how does this imply that animals should be treated?
Just peeking back into the history of mankind, it is not that many centuries ago that children were thought of as “small adults”, and that donkeys and even axes could be put on trial (and “executed”) for, e.g., the murder of a person. Since then, the pendulum has shifted from such a panpsychism and anthropomorphism towards a human-only rights view. But to some extent, the baby could have been thrown out with the bathwater here. Maybe we should not necessarily grant non-human primates legal rights per se. Or maybe we should.
At the least, we should raise a fundamental neuroethic question: does our increased knowledge about the animal mind (and mental properties such as consciousness, self, emotions and suffering) urge us to treat these animals in a different way? In a century from now, will we see that these are the first feeble steps of acknowledging animals a significant increase in legal rights?