Hypocrisy and logical inconsistency are two of the most common traits of being human. People espouse deeply held beliefs, religious or otherwise. However, we have contradictory value judgments. We pick and choose where, when, and how to apply our convictions. We equivocate. Importantly, we often fail to think critically about the implications of our beliefs.
As someone who generally opposes abortion, I am dismayed that too many people who profess to be “pro-life” don’t support programs and public dollars for children who are born into difficult socioeconomic circumstances. It is hypocritical to lose concern for children after they have escaped the birth canal. (As I’ve written previously, we should distinguish between being “pro-life” as compared to merely being “pro-birth.”) For the record, while I believe that abortion is morally wrong in most cases, I think that overturning Roe is a bad idea. That’s a story for another day.
On a related note, I am also troubled by people who don’t consider fetuses to be worthy of protection even as they consider the lives of animals to be on par with those of people. This is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the fact that there are animal activists who are seeking, quite literally, to grant human status to elephants. Or, more specifically, they want to have human status legally conferred on a particular elephant.
I raise this issue because I was stunned by recent news coverage of legal attempts to give human status to an elephant in the Bronx Zoo whose name is “Happy.” A nonprofit organization called the Nonhuman Rights Project is representing Happy. They say that her innate intelligence and other qualities, including the ability to recognize herself as an individual in a mirror, should allow her to be classified as human. (The organization argues that Happy is “self-aware,” which, presumably, could have ramifications for artificial intelligence.) Changing Happy’s legal status could be done through a writ of habeas corpus — which heretofore has not applied to non-human animals. Of course, the legal machinations are only a means to an end; the ultimate goal is to have Happy moved from the relatively small confines of the zoo to a much larger area.
Let’s set aside the multiplicity of arcane legal and philosophical issues that are involved in trying to anthropomorphize an elephant. The practical implications could be quite far reaching. If one elephant is given such status, wouldn’t it be discriminatory not to confer such status on all elephants — even if they aren’t self-aware? Further, it is inevitable that apes and other animals would achieve the same status. And, if animals are human, killing them (including for consumption) would legally be murder. This would also mean that — in theory — animals could be forced to stand trial for committing crimes.
Other consequences could include the outlawing of scientific testing on animals (given that they can’t exactly give their consent). Perhaps it would even mean that, say, two dolphins could get married. Would animals be able to own property, such as the land on which they hunt? Further, this could potentially open the door for other “life forms.” For example, there are legal briefs arguing that trees should have certain rights. In fact, the founders also considered whether to allow animals to be counted for purposes of governmental representation. (The Congress ultimately rejected the notion.)
While such arguments might seem far-fetched, it’s important to remember that some laws that are commonly accepted today were fought for in the courts and in the public square over several decades. (Slavery and women’s suffrage come immediately to mind.) Further, legal precedents actually mean something in American jurisprudence — though stare decisis is likely not to prevail in at least one Supreme Court case this summer.
To be fair, I understand that the question of conferring human status on animals is driven by two legitimate impulses: (1) the desire not to be cruel to sentient beings and (2) concern for our rapidly deteriorating environment. Regarding the latter, our rapacious destruction of natural habitats has real implications for humans — the homo sapien kind.
I think that such sentiments have merit. However, as an African American, this issue gives me some pause. Infamously, the U.S. Constitution declared that African Americans and Native Americans were less than fully human. And, as we see all too frequently today, too many violent white Americans still consider people of color to be less than human. Perhaps we should fix that issue first.
Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.