Friday, December 05, 2014

Tommy the Chimpanzee

The Nonhuman Rights Project recently filed a lawsuit for a chimpanzee, called Tommy, arguing that scientific research has established that chimpanzees are self-aware and capable of some kind of autonomy, and that therefore the common law boundaries of what counts as a 'person' should be expanded so that Tommy can have the right to bodily liberty as defended by writ of habeas corpus under New York law. The reason for focusing on habeas corpus, of course, is that it is a legal protection that does not have to be sought by the person it most directly concerns; any one can seek the writ of habeas corpus on behalf of anyone who is held in custody. The matter went to appeal. Today the appellate court rendered its decision (PDF), pointing out, in summary, that

(1) There is no precedent for considering chimpanzees persons for the purpose of habeas corpus relief; and
(2) the common law ascription of personhood for the purposes of rights and protections does not depend on self-awareness and autonomy but on the in-principle capability to exercise social obligations and duties as part of the social community, and thus
(3) to ascribe personhood to a chimpanzee would also be to ascribe social duties for which he would be accountable under the law; and
(4) the most appropriate manner of proceeding in order to protect animals and given them rights in a broad sense is to work for laws providing more complete protection (in the case of Tommy there was no claim at all that any laws were broken).

The NhRP put out a press release in response to the decision. They respond:

(1) "First, it denies the relief of a writ of habeas corpus to Tommy simply because no one has ever sought a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of a chimpanzee or any nonhuman animal before." -- This is an outright lie. The judges consider common law precedent for the obvious reason that such precedent is the primary interpretive principle for the matters in question, but then explicitly point out that this is not sufficient to end the question. There is no way the decision can be interpreted as a denial of relief "simply" for lack of precedent.

(2) "Second, the Court erroneously claims that in order for Tommy to have rights he must be able to assume responsibilities." -- This is a confusion, and an unsurprising one, but is also not true. The claim made by the judge was that he could not bear legal duties, submit to social responsibilities, or be held legally accountable. The court makes clear enough that it is a matter of exercising social responsibilities or having legal recognition in a way that can properly represent the society as a whole; and although they are fairly vague about the details, it is clear that chimpanzees currently do not and cannot be imputed responsibilities, legal duties, or accountability under law as things stand now.

(3) "Third, the ruling further contradicts the Court in Byrn by resting Tommy’s eligibility for legal personhood on his species." -- This is simply mistaken. The Court in Byrn, by NhRP's own admission, simply noted that this kind of matter is one of legal personality, not biology; but the decision only deals with legal personhood, and does not rest it on his species, but on the inability to exercise responsibility as recognized by law. There is no contradiction thus far. It is NhRP that is attempting to rest Tommy's eligibility on his species, not the court; NhRP's appeal to science is entirely about what kinds of capabilities are possible in animals of the chimpanzee species, and they have repeatedly insisted that biological research about the chimpanzee species is the ground for extending the right in question.

Of course, the Nonhuman Rights Project will appeal, and they will keep bringing up such cases until some judges crack. But the intellectual slovenliness of the response strongly suggests that they will not succeed in doing this with the case of Tommy.

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