Questions of great ape personhood

recent op-ed in The Globe & Mail discussed the current ethical implications and debate over the possibility of extending the status of personhood to non-human primates. In response, a letter writer expressed doubt that it should be extended because “they don’t possess rule-structured language” and “without that, we can’t know that they exercise rationality, understanding and self-awareness like we do.”

But is this true? Consider the evidence: research has shown that great apes (chimpanzees, gorillas, bonobos, and orangutans) meet all the standards of personhood, including self-awareness, the ability to understand complex rules and their consequences, a capacity for empathy, and the ability to think abstractly.

Also, consider the fact that we grant rights to babies and some adults with severe mental disabilities. Even though they may not possess rule-structured language and self-awareness, they should be granted rights. Peter Singer, the Australian moral philosopher best known for his work in the field of bioethics, applied ethics, and utilitarianism, notes:

“It is true that no great ape can discuss philosophy, or reciprocate our recognition of their rights. But my argument for their rights is not based on the idea that they are our intellectual equals. If it were, we would have to deny these rights to many humans to whom we now grant them. For a typical great ape is the intellectual equal, or superior, of millions of young or disabled humans whose rights to life, liberty and freedom from torture we do recognise.”

Combine this with what philosophers refer to as the “problem of other minds”. In short, it states that no one can really know for sure whether others think in the same way that they do—or whether others even have a mind at all. It could be an illusion, after all. We get around this problem, however, through analogical reasoning and by granting others the benefit of the doubt. 

Therefore, based on the evidence, shouldn’t these same empirical and philosophical approaches be used for extending personhood for great apes? I believe the answer is ‘Yes’.

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