About ten years ago my deeply caring, passionate, and devoted father asked, "Marc, can you please wheel Mom into the kitchen and get her ready for dinner?" I answered, "Sure, Dad," and began the short trek. But the journey went well beyond the confines of my parent's home. In my heart and my head it remains a very difficult and multi-dimensional pilgrimage for which there weren't any road maps or dress rehearsals. I watched myself watching Mom. The role reversal was riveting; I became my keeper's keeper. Where's the person I called "Mom?"
My mother, Beatrice Rose, who I loved dearly, suffered major losses of locomotor, cognitive, and physiological functions. She didn't know who I was and likely had lost some self- and body-awareness. In a nutshell, my mother had lost her autonomy. She had little or no self determination. Nevertheless, there's no doubt others would still have thought of her as a "person" whose spirit and soul reside within and who's entitled to certain moral and legal standing. And they should.
Generally, included among the criteria for designating a being a "person" are being conscious of one's surroundings, being able to reason, being able to experience various emotions, having a sense of self, adjusting to changing situations, and performing various cognitive and intellectual
tasks. While many human beings fulfill most if not all of these criteria, there are humans who don't, for example young infants and seriously psychologically challenged adults. But they're also rightfully considered to be persons. Renowned Washington University legal scholar Rebecca Dresser calls them "missing persons" (Dresser, R. "Missing Persons: Legal Perceptions of Incompetent Patients." 46 Rutgers Law Review 609, Winter 1994; a full discussion of personhood in animals can be found in Rutger University law professor Gary Francione's book Animals as Persons: Essays on the Abolition of Animal Exploitation; see also and).
Now, what about animal beings such as my late companion dog, Jethro? He was very active, could feed and groom himself, was very emotional, and even cared for injured animals. Jethro's was as autonomous as a dog could be. Yet, many people wouldn't feel comfortable calling Jethro or other nonhuman animals a "person." This irreverence would be a prime example of just what's wrong with academic musings!
Why the different attitudes toward my mother and Jethro? Why are some people, especially in Western cultures, hesitant to call chimpanzees, gorillas, dolphins, elephants, wolves, and dogs, for example, "persons," even when they meet the criteria for personhood, more so than some humans? Fear. Many people fear that elevating animal beings to persons would mean that the notion of personhood is tarnished, that it means less for humans. Some also fear that animals will then have the same legal and moral standing as humans and they'd be equals.
While some may believe this whole exercise is shamefully crass, there are some important issues at stake. Loving Jethro (and other animals) as much as I do doesn't mean I love my mother or other humans less. Does granting Jethro and other animals personhood and attendant moral and legal standing lessen or take moral and legal standing away from humans? No. Such fears aren't warranted. Little's to be gained by claiming that granting "personhood" to some animals would be a misguided or blasphemous move. Surely, Jethro went through life differently from most human and other dog beings, but this didn't mean he hadn't had any life at all. Indeed, he had a great life. People vary greatly (there are countless different personalities), but the term "person" is broad enough to encompass and celebrate this marvelous diversity. Excluding nonhumans from personhood is speciesistic and supports questionable human exceptionalism.
So, does calling a nonhuman a person degrade the notion of personhood? Not at all. However, this move would mean that animals would come to be treated with the respect, dignity, compassion, empathy, and love that's due them and that their interests in not suffering would be given equal consideration with those of humans. It would be part of what I call "minding animals" (see also). Could one reasonably argue that a world with less cruelty and more compassion and love wouldn't be a better place to live and to raise children? I hope not. Nothing is lost and much is gained by viewing nonhuman animal beings as persons.