"I am not an animal, I am a human being," cries the character of Joseph Merrick in the movie The Elephant Man. These words encapsulate one of our most common, and most vicious, moral assumptions: that being an animal means having no inherent worth or dignity.
According to philosophers, to be a "person" is to be a member of the moral community, and thus to possess rights and deserve respectful treatment. Today all human beings are theoretically considered persons in this regard, though historically many societies have excluded and still do exclude some classes of humans (women, ethnic groups) from the category of person. Why is it so important to define personhood carefully? Because the concept has becomes a lynchpin for decision-making in a whole slew of tricky situations. Two of the classic "test cases" for personhood in bioethics are patients in a persistent vegetative state and anencephalic infants (who are born missing a large part of the brain or skull). Personhood has also gradually wormed its way into the abortion debates, as a device for focusing attention on the moral status of the fetus.
Various capacities are said to signify personhood: minimum intelligence, self-awareness, self-control, a sense of time, a sense of futurity, the capacity to relate to others, "personality" (as a collection of attributes). The problems with this kind of list-whether we require all of these capacities for personhood, or just one or another-are threefold: at least some animals fulfill all of these criteria, certain humans clearly fail in at least some categories, and traits like "ability to relate to others" or "futurity" are dangerously imprecise and open to interpretation. Nevertheless, personhood remains a potent concept in bioethics. And, the concept is routinely misused to exclude animals from the class of beings with moral worth.
We could push to have the category of "person" extended to include animals. This seems like a logical conclusion, and something some activists and some philosophers have proposed. Several legal cases have been filed to designate chimpanzees as legal "persons." A New York Times article on commercial whaling rules made the suggestion that perhaps cetaceans should be "persons" as well. The cetacean order is second only to humans in mental, social, and behavioral complexity. Whale expert Hal Whitehead says, "When you compare relative brain size, or levels of self-awareness, sociality, the importance of culture, cetaceans come out on most of these measures in the gap between chimps and humans. They fit the philosophical definition of personhood."
Before getting up in arms about prejudice against animals, we must step back and remind ourselves that "personhood" arose in the context of medical ethics, and the purpose of the term was to help us identify which people should appropriately be given treatment and which should be allowed to die. The initial fear was that people with disabilities might be left untreated, but later (as technologies such as the respirator came into wide use) the fear was that people who were no longer really "people" would be kept alive. The impetus behind "personhood" has always been human dignity. It should never have been applied to animals, and it should never have been interpreted as "that which separates the human from the animal."
Is a corollary of human dignity the indignity of animals? So it might seem. When we say that humans should not be treated like animals, but only like people, we affirm personhood, but we also affirm that animals can be caged, slaughtered, degraded, and sold as slaves. This is certainly not the intention of the personhood and rights debates, but it is an unfortunate side effect of the obsession to make humans "not" animals. If I were Philosopher King, I might do away with the concept of personhood. At the very least, I would require that it be used only in those situations for which it is the appropriate conceptual tool.
The concept "personhood" should only be introduced when we are trying to solve purely human questions (e.g., when is it appropriate to discontinue medical treatment?), not human-animal questions (e.g., what separates humans from animals? what makes a person a not-animal?). We need a more nuanced moral vocabulary-that much is certain. Should there be a concept of "animalhood" that allows us to affirm the qualities in animals that accord them moral value, that transform them from objects into subjects? This might be better than "personhood," since we really aren't arguing that chimps and whales are exactly like humans in the relevant respects, or, for that matter, that whales are like chimps. So maybe we need the terms "whalehood" and "chimphood" and possibly "doghood" (remembering, of course, that even these terms encourage us to overlook uniqueness).
What of the comparison of violence toward humans with violence toward animals? Some thinkers have ventured to compare animal and human genocides, and to liken the slaughterhouse to a concentration camp. And such comparisons are usually met with indignation and disgust, because humans obviously have so much more value than animals. But the comparisons fail to do justice to animals, too.
Human worth is not denigrated by identifying a person with animal. Indeed, some of the nicest, most intelligent, most compassionate "people" I know are animals. Sometimes, when she gives me a lick on the nose, I'll tell my little pointer mix Maya, "You're such a nice person!" I wonder: does she take this as an insult?