Judge Cites Philosophers in Decision on Chimpanzee Case


The State of New York Court of Appeals rendered a verdict yesterday in a case involving the question of whether chimpanzees are persons, and in doing so, cited the work of Tom Regan and an amicus curiae written by several philosophers

The case concerned two chimpanzees, Tommy and Kiko, who have been abused and held in solitary confinement for much of their lives in New York and whom the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) have been trying to move to an accredited animal sanctuary in Florida.

The NhRP asked the NY Court of Appeals to grant the chimpanzees habeas corpus relief. The idea was to require that the chimpanzees be brought to court as part of a proceeding to determine whether they are, in effect, illegally imprisoned. The NhRP has submitted a memo to the court seeking an appeal of a previous decision declining to issue writs of habeas corpus for Tommy and Kiko. A central issue in the decision of whether to grant habeas corpus relief to the chimpanzees is whether they are legal persons. It is on this issue that a group of philosophers wrote their brief. They argue that the court, in its previous decision, has failed to use a “consistent and reasonable definition ‘personhood’ and ‘persons.’”

The court, which is the highest court in New York State, denied the appeal.

However, in his concurring opinion, Judge Eugene Fahey stated that “denial of leave to appeal is not a decision on the merits of petitioner’s claims” and he noted that “the inadequacy of the law as a vehicle to address some of our most difficult ethical dilemmas is on display in this matter.”

He writes: “The question will have to be addressed eventually. Can a non-human animal be entitled to release from confinement through the writ of habeas corpus? Should such a being be treated as a person or as property, in essence a thing?” The rest of the decision begins to explore these questions, making use of a distinction between moral agents and moral patients, for which the judge cites philosopher Tom Regan’s The Case for Animal Rights.

Regan’s book is also cited in a discussion of “whether a chimpanzee is an individual with inherent value who has the right to be treated with respect.”

Meanwhile, the philosophers’ amicus curiae and work by Tom Beauchamp (emeritus at Georgetown) is credited with bringing to the court’s attention “recent evidence that chimpanzees demonstrate autonomy by self-initiating intentional, adequately informed actions, free of controlling influences.”

You can read the whole decision here.

(via Jeff Sebo and Nathan Nobis)

untitled painting by Brent, a 37-year-old chimpanzee

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