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An Ape Ethic and the Question of Personhood

An interview with Gregory Tague about ways in which apes are moral individuals.

A few months ago I was asked to write an endorsement for Gregory Tague's forthcoming book An Ape Ethic and the Question of Personhood . Dr. Tague is professor of English/interdisciplinary studies and founder and senior developer of The Evolutionary Studies Collaborative at St. Francis College.

When I saw the book's description which partially reads, "Gregory F. Tague’s An Ape Ethic and the Question of Personhood argues that great apes are moral individuals because they engage in a land ethic as ecosystem engineers to generate ecologically sustainable biomes for themselves and other species. Tague shows that we need to recognize apes as eco-engineers in order to save them and their habitats, and that in so doing, we will ultimately save earth’s biosphere," I immediately read the manuscript and found it to be a fascinating and eclectic book. Now that the book is available, I'm pleased Dr. Tague could take the time to answer a few questions. Our interview went as follows.

Why did you write An Ape Ethic and the Question of Personhood?

Thank you, Dr. Bekoff, a leader in so many fields related to conservation and animal studies, for the opportunity to talk about my work. An Ape Ethic and the Question of Personhood originated in a three-day working group paper as part of the Modern Language Association annual convention a few years ago. Shortly thereafter I had a conversation with Gary L. Shapiro, primatologist and conservationist, whom I’d been working with for a scholarship project. I knew from other conversations with Gary that he wanted to write a book based on some of his ground-breaking work teaching sign-language to semi-wild orangutans in Borneo in the 1970s. I suggested we collaborate. At one point we had a book of about 100,000 words, but the publishers we contacted did not like the interleaving of voices, so we decided to split the book. It goes without saying that An Ape Ethic was inspired by Gary’s work and why the book is dedicated to him.

Lexington Books
Source: Lexington Books

How does it relate to your background and general areas of interest?

Curiously, this book is a far cry from what an English Ph.D. might write. I began my academic career late, over age 40, and my first four books were literary studies. In the second book, though, I delved a little in neuroscience. Since I was interested in the notion of individual character, I thought it might be useful to understand how the brain works. This, in turn, led me into human evolution. I went on to write Making Mind (which locates the prehistory of narration in social consciousness and individual feelings of approval/disapproval); Evolution and Human Culture (which looks at emotions underlying the arts and argues for art and aesthetics as moral cognition); and Art and Adaptability (which complements the previous works and contends that art making behavior and theory of mind co-evolved in human culture to ensure our adaptability on both an individual and group level). Essentially, these three middle books look at the arts and humanities in light of evolution. Going well beyond these previous efforts which focused almost exclusively on the human realm, An Ape Ethic moves the scholarship of human/ape differences into the arena of practical ethics with a call to action concerning animal rights for environmental conservation.

Who is your intended audience?

The intended audience, as I relate in the opening pages of the book, is not entirely for the team I play on. Last year I attended a panel that had a philosopher, a bioethicist, a veterinarian, and a neuroscientist. The philosopher argued for not excluding “animals” from our care. But the vet and the neuroscientist argued that they need to be able to drill holes in monkey heads (their example) to better understand human disease/cures. The neuroscientist gratuitously added that the philosopher does not live in the real word. What an insult to practical philosophers of the past, Socrates, and now, Martha C. Nussbaum. So my audience is not the philosopher, nor the bioethicist who was mute, but the veterinarian and the neuroscientist.

Let me continue in this vein. Here’s what a publisher’s reader said on an earlier version of the book. “I did review some of the materials and am well aware of the arguments and the movement to grant personhood to apes. I can say that I would never recommend or purchase a book on this topic... it does much to undermine our science... these types of projects are often used as weapons for the animal rights community bent on destroying research and careers of scientists who are trying to make life better for those who currently have personhood.” I cut out only a few words. This defensive/offensive reader report on a large manuscript was a mere 108 words and came within six days of sending the typescript to a press at a large Midwest university that drug tests on a variety of primates. How difficult is it to see that this reader’s bias reflects those of the large university he/she works for (perhaps even a corporate-capitalist mentality) that conducts medical and behavioral research on primates. Melded into this debate is a question of public policy: the welfare of other species is as important as human well-being.

What are some of your major messages?

Indeed, the book was written not to coach players on my team but perhaps to change the attitudes of other teams. I should note, however, that some people I thought were on my side actually told me they don’t agree with my “approach.” I am puzzled by this. If we are all fighting for animal rights and biodiversity conservation, do our different approaches matter? If I use moral individualism as opposed to Kantian rationalism or utilitarianism, would that be less effective? The intended audience ties in with the message of the book. If we continue to view “animals” as property for experiments, or sport, or entertainment, or food, then we are doomed to continue along a path of self-destruction while persecuting them. The thrust of my book is radical but not unheard of: to grant sovereign dominion over tropical areas and rainforests to great apes. They have tended these areas for millennia as ecosystem engineers and in so doing have helped what James Lovelock has eloquently described as Gaia, the self-regulation of nature’s atmosphere and oceans.

How does your book differ from others that are concerned with some of the same general topics?

How exactly does my approach differ from others on our team? Some philosophers are still a bit reluctant to grant moral agency to non-human species, in spite of the evidence. This comes from a variety of misinformation: animals are not rational; they don’t really have full self- or other-awareness; they don’t have a “belief” system, etc. As opposed to looking at “animals” from the outside in, I try to look from the inside out. In this way, I view apes as “moral individuals.” I address the question of moral concerns and whether they reside only in a “rational” human sphere. In light of what we know, moral query is evident in children and animals.

So now I am suggesting that great apes are moral individuals by virtue of their land ethic as ecosystem engineers. With their social values, great apes are the “good” eco-engineers, not humans. A virtue ethicist might wonder how successful any human/top-down tactic has been in the battle for animal rights, e.g., either a neo-Kantian or consequentialist method. My tactic is different. Isn’t it time to look at “moral” behavior in the animal world from the inside out in line with thinking from eco-psychology and embodied cognition, from angles such as gestalt and Umwelt? Are apes fully aware of this? They don’t have to be. Look at the net effect of their social behavior, plant-based food resourcing, evolved birth intervals, and tool use.

What are some of your current projects?

My current project is to work with Gary so that his book can be finished and published. Right now, Fredericka Jacks and I recently started Literary Veganism: An Online Journal which includes writing by, for, and about vegans. Finally, I’d like to express my gratitude to the many colleagues and scholars in psychology, biology, philosophy, and animal studies who have motivated me to write this book.


Bekoff, Marc. Animals as Persons: Can We Scale Intelligence or Sentience?

_____. Judge Recognizes Two Chimpanzees as Legal Persons: A First.

_____. Sandra Orangutan and Personhood: An Essential Clarification.

_____. The Nonhuman Rights Project: An Interview with Steven Wise.

_____. The Politics of Species: Reshaping Relations With Animals.

Elassar, Alaa. Sandra the orangutan, freed from a zoo after being granted 'personhood,' settles into her new home. CNN.

For more information about Sandra, click here.