Chimps and Habeas Corpus 
Letter to the Editor of Philosophy Now sent in under one of my pseudonyms, Thomas Jeffries

Published in Issue 113

Dear Editor,

I’m sure it was just coincidence that Shawn Thompson’s article about the pursuit of rights for chimpanzees was in the Humour edition of Philosophy Now (111); but the arguments for chimps to be legally persons and so the subject of Habeas Corpus seem to me, as a lawyer, to be, shall we say, a bit thin.

The chimpanzees’ self-appointed legal representative, Mr Wise, first argues that the definition of a legal person has changed over the years: “At different times in Western Culture, certain classes of humans – such as women, children, slaves or natives – were not legally full persons… in contemporary law, corporations have the status of ‘person’ even though they’re not intelligent beings like apes…” This is a non-argument. Slaves were conveniently regarded as less than human precisely in order to deny them the rights common to human beings. Women in Britain did not have the same voting rights as men until 1928, but no British court suggested that women were therefore not ‘full persons’ and hence unable to rely on Habeas Corpus.  All we see from these examples are classes of humans finally being recognised as members of the same species, and so entitled to the same treatment under the law as all other humans.  And ‘corporations’ are simply a legal fiction created by Statute to give limited liability to the very real ‘persons’ running or putting their money into them.  So then, that’s hardly an argument for the Courts, independently of the Legislature, to decide to confer personhood on other great apes.

Wise’s wider argument is that Habeas Corpus should be used to protect the autonomy of all “autonomous and self-determining beings.” In his opinion apes have these qualities and are sufficiently like us to warrant the protection we give ourselves.  As highlighted in the same article, some specialists in chimpanzee behaviour disagree.  With our fellow human beings we are at least members of the same species, and that makes it very difficult to say that a right to liberty for one should not be the same for everyone else.  But apes?  Clearly the Courts could decide to cross the line based on the divided opinions of experts, but this would be a major shift in jurisprudence.  Judges mostly leave major changes in the law to the Legislature, that is, the democratic will of the people, rather than taking decisions about obviously contentious propositions into their own hands. I suggest that that is the right course here, too.

Thomas Jeffreys, Warwickshire

Home      A Point of View     Philosophy     Who am I?      Links     Photos of Annecy