The Corner

Energy & Environment

One Cheer (and Maybe Two) for Non-Human Personhood

A Western Lowland Gorilla baby named ‘Mjukuu’ rides on the back of its Mother ‘Mbeli’ in their enclosure at Taronga Zoo in Sydney, Australia. (David Gray/Reuters)

I understand completely where Wesley Smith is coming from below. There’s something deeply unnerving and unsettling about granting a river “rights.” Similarly, I agree with Erick Erickson that much mischief — and far worse — can come from giving animals legal rights.

I’ve long opposed animal rights on the grounds Wesley has laid out over the years, and I still do. My standard argument is that animals don’t have rights, but humans do have obligations. Needless animal cruelty should be legally circumscribed not because the animals have a legal case, but because humans have a moral obligation. Similarly, I don’t think rivers or glaciers have rights either. But humans have moral — and other — obligations to protect resources and, put more basically, to protect lovely things and creatures that make life on this planet more lovely (and healthy and prosperous, etc.).

Where I think I dissent, however, is when the line between human obligations and non-human “rights” gets a bit fuzzy. Institutions, legal and otherwise, are simply rules that govern behavior. If “we” ban killing elephants — which I think we should do if feasible — the human behaviors that rule our behavior would largely look the same whether we did it under the rubric of “elephant rights” or simply anti-poaching laws. I have no problem with capital punishment for elephant poachers, but let’s make this more simple. Animal abuse is against the law. If I torture my dog, the sanction for doing so would look or feel no different if I was punished under a regime of animal-rights or anti-cruelty laws.

I worry a great deal about the precedents set by enlisting the language of rights for non-human things, animal or inanimate. But my worry about those precedents mostly take the form of worrying what it would mean for humans. If giving elephants or chimpanzees rights helped save chimpanzees and elephants, then that would be good, full stop. If doing so diminished the sanctity of human life, that would be bad, full stop. It is not obvious that the latter must come from the former (though I’m certainly open to the argument).

Corporations are legal persons, and have been for a very long time. That has been an incredible boon to human prosperity without much obvious effect on the rights of individual humans. Indeed, the rise of corporate personhood has tracked pretty closely with the rise of individual rights (we can noodle the correlation/causation questions later). (Meanwhile, I think it’s ironic how many on the left simultaneously hate corporate personhood but think river personhood sounds nifty.)

Anyway, I just have to wonder, given the nature of our legal system, whether the effort to give “rights” to entities that aren’t human isn’t (or can’t be) just a common-law approach to solving some very real problems. If we could somehow give the elephant population to a non-profit corporation, that corporation (under our legal system at least) could protect the elephants under the rubric of enforcing property rights. That doesn’t sound like a crazy approach to me.

Just as human rights have been enforced on a different track than corporate rights, we could have a different track for animal rights or river rights or whatever. I am as opposed as anyone to any metaphysical or moral equation of humans to anything other than other humans (I share Wesley’s commitment to “human exceptionalism”). But for purposes of efficiency, our legal system recognizes all manner of legal fictions. Those legal fictions are only dangerous if they serve to undermine the sanctity of human rights. Words matter of course. But words, used wisely, can also maintain important distinctions.

Jonah Goldberg, a senior editor of National Review and the author of Suicide of the West, holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute.

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