What it Means to be Human

Posted by Stephen Wells, ALDF's Executive Director on June 9, 2008

Why is it that humans are the only animal species granted legal
rights? The answer is as complex as it is simple: Because we’re humans.
A case currently headed to the European Court of Human Rights will
cause us all to ponder what exactly that means and the answer is not as
simple as you might expect.

I wrote about the case of Matthew Hiasl Pan in the last issue of the Animal Legal Defense Fund’s print newsletter, The Animals’ Advocate
(PDF). Matthew is a 26 year-old chimpanzee living in a sanctuary in
Vienna, Austria. His fate is now uncertain as the sanctuary is facing
bankruptcy. An update and more background on his case can be found here.

case is important because the distinction the law makes between humans
and all other animals has enormous ramifications. Humans are the only
living "legal persons" (which can include, for various purposes,
inanimate entities like corporations and ships) — and you must be a
legal person to be able to sue to protect your interests or to have
someone sue on your behalf. This lies at the heart of the difficulty
animal advocates, like ALDF, face when trying to file lawsuits to stop
animal abuse.

So, what does it mean to be human? What is the
characteristic that distinguishes us so absolutely from all other
animal species? There is currently no scientific consensus. And the
more we learn about other animals, the more blurry any such distinction
becomes. The absolute differences relied on in the past have fallen one
by one to scientific research and observation. Tool use; tool making;
abstract thought; self awareness; compassion, have all been found to
exist in nonhumans. Intelligence? We now know that some animals are
more intelligent (even by our own species-biased tests) than some
humans such as young children, the mentally disabled, etc. which does
not deny the latter their rights. So what is it?

In the case of Matthew Hiasl Pan, the chimpanzee, it may very well be human beings who are on trial. We’ll keep you posted.