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What is personhood?

Animals, machines, corporations gain in stature, but humans must stand apart


Years ago at Christmastime, our kids outsmarted us by coming home from school with a petition signed by numerous classmates supporting their long-deflected request for a dog. What could we do? A little Schnauzer, Sophie, joined our family, and won a place in all our hearts. We still have dogs. They bring joy into our lives through the affection they give, but they also illuminate something of what it is to be human, too.

Normally, it's assumed that a vast chasm separates the animal species from the human — irrational and not self-aware on one side, thoughtful and self-conscious on the other. Yet in recent weeks, the question of how vast that chasm really is has received far more scrutiny than usual. In New York state recently, courts took up long-shot lawsuits filed by a group called the Nonhuman Rights Project on behalf of captive chimpanzees. (Judges rejected the suits.) Perhaps more tellingly, the group was also involved with a recent conference at Yale called "Personhood Beyond the Human," a title that itself poses a startling narrowing of the gulf.


The question of where personhood begins is hardly academic; indeed, it lurks below some of the deepest disagreements of our time. When is it proper, for example, to regard the fertilized ovum, and what follows from it, as a person? On a far more profane scale, by what logic can a corporation be regarded a person?

As a cursory review of abstracts of the papers presented at Yale suggests, the animal-rights movement, in its determination to protect animals from cruel treatment, has provoked a reconsideration of what actually separates human beings from other breathing, feeling, and bleeding creatures. Researchers find that chimpanzees seem capable of "future directedness," for example, when they store up rocks to later throw at antagonists, contradicting the common assumption that animals live in an eternal present tense. One scientist, Lori Marino of Emory University, found evidence that bottlenose dolphins can recognize themselves in the mirror. This finding of a "self-awareness" prompted her to stop conducting studies on animals in captivity.

Regarding certain animals as in some way "personal" strengthens the case for treating all animals with far more respect than they get in labs or poultry factories, and could culminate in a broad recognition of animal rights. Yet it's possible to attribute some facets of personhood to animals while affirming that humans are in a category apart.


At some point, the elevation of the moral and philosophical status of animals as "persons" can lead to the diminishment of humans as persons. Take the Citizens United court case as a cautionary analogy: The enhancement of corporations as "persons" clearly undercuts the political rights of individual humans as persons, when each citizen's capacity to influence an electoral outcome with a vote is overwhelmed by the corporation's capacity to swamp elections with money.

Is there an equivalent danger with animals? The more widely shared the sacrosanct category of personhood becomes, the less protected human beings will be, in rights and in moral standing. In other words, the surrender of the ancient idea that humans, while members of the animal kingdom, are unique and peerless, properly exercising dominion, can gut the hard-won, inviolable claim that each human has to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Chimps can be respected even while humans can be understood as standing above them in the order of things. Animal rights cannot equate to human rights.

The question will only grow more complex over time, as we begin to infuse machines with the qualities formerly attached to personhood. What happens, to cite a distinction made by the Yale conference participant Steve Fuller, when personhood based in technology comes to supplement personhood based in biology? When will servant robots be regarded as having rights?


What is a human being? Perhaps the simplest way to know is to hold our dogs close. It is true that when our ancestors domesticated animals something like 10,000 years ago, animals as beasts of burden and organized food supply became vulnerable to suffering unlike any they had undergone in untamed nature. Yet animals and humans also entered into a relationship of — well, call it love.

Both species thrived. Only one knew to wonder about the meaning of this magnificent interaction.

James Carroll writes regularly for the Globe.