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THE ROLE OF PERSONHOOD IN ETHICS Can nonhuman animals legitimately be construed as persons? Extending personhood to all sentient beings may seem absurd at first. For example, The Oxford English Dictionary defines a “person” in human-centred terms as “a man or a woman,” or “a human being in general,” and the term can also be used “emphatically” to distinguish a person from a thing “or from the lower animals.” The Oxford Dictionary also provides philosophical definitions of a person as a self-conscious or rational being, an individual personality and a being having legal rights. The Funk and Wagnall’s Standard College Dictionary defines a “person” as “any human being considered as a distinct entity.” However, as I wish to maintain, the traditional definition of “person” is unacceptably anthropomorphic. In this essay, I will show that it is indefensible to identify persons with humanity and to centre personhood on rationality is also unacceptably contrary to the ways in which we think about our own personhood. I propose that a better test of who is a person may be found through a thought experiment. Very briefly, if you were suddenly to experience the experiences of another conscious being such as a chicken’s experience of pain, you would count that as a personal experience, and you would count the experience of pain as a personal experience whether or not the being were capable of reasoning (either wholly, or at a particular time). I will elaborate and defend this controversial idea. 241 11 Animals as Persons david sztybel The concept of the person has a central pride of place in ethics, political philosophy and philosophy of law. In the words of philosopher Jonathan Jacobs: There is nothing magical about the concept person, and it is not simple or obvious. But it is the focal concept to which and through which concepts of moral goods and harms, needs, responsibilities, respect, friendship, virtue, happiness, agency, and so forth are connected.1 Historically, there has been a certain stinginess about recognizing personhood . The denial of personhood seems to have something to do with being oppressed. Women, for instance, and blacks have historically suffered a denial of their status as persons, resulting in a concomitant denial of rights. An individual is likely not to be equally respected if he or she is not considered to be essentially the same kind of being as those who are substantially respected in the moral community. For example, the Barabaig, a North African tribe, although they considered the killing of fellow Barabaigians to be murder, used to consider the killing of members of neighbouring tribes not to be murder: killing non-Barabaigians was less like the killing of persons and more like the killing of animals.2 R.S. Downie argues in Respect for Persons that persons are “formal objects of agape” (i.e., love of one’s neighbour), by which he means that we are inclined to follow moral rules when we have an active sympathy for the purposes of persons.3 He does not consider “children, the senile, lunatics and animals” to be persons, since he claims that such beings lack personality to a lesser or greater extent.4 Downie’s conceptualization hardly does justice, for example, to the fact that so-called lunatics often go through long phases in which they are lucid. Downie, however, holds that “congenital idiots,” although they will never be persons in the full sense, still have suf- ficient resemblances to persons “to justify extending the language of agape to them.”5 He characterizes nonhuman animals as having “minimal personality ” in the form of sentience. However, are the conscious experiences of nonhuman animals only “minimally” personal? Or are they full persons in their own right? HOW NOT TO ARGUE THAT ANIMALS ARE PERSONS Whether or not nonhuman animals qualify as persons is—for animals—a highly important conceptual question. A number of thinkers have urged 242 David Sztybel that nonhuman animals are persons. Joan Dunayer makes a grammatically based argument that “animal” is a noun and a noun is a person, a place or a thing. She observes that animals are not places, and since they have minds, they are not mere things, thus by a process of elimination animals must be persons.6 This argument while suggestive is not conclusive because nouns are merely conventional categories that do not pretend to be logically exhaustive. What if animals are “sentient beings” that are neither things nor persons? We...


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