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Great ape personhood

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

 Bonobos, members of the great ape family
Bonobos, members of the great ape family

Great ape personhood is a movement to extend personhood and some legal protections to the non-human members of the Hominidae or great ape family: chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans.[1]

Advocates include primatologists Jane Goodall and Dawn Prince-Hughes, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, philosophers Paola Cavalieri and Peter Singer, and legal scholar Steven Wise.[2]

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  • Personhood: Crash Course Philosophy #21
  • Symbolic Species (Humans vs Chimps)


Crash Course Philosophy is brought to you by Squarespace. Squarespace: share your passion with the world I bet you think you know a person when you see one. For example, I am a person, right? But was I always a person? Was Johann Strauss a person? Or Freddie Mercury? Are they still people? What about a nine-month-old baby? What about a fetus? Or Chewbacca? Or C3PO? To philosophers, ‘personhood’ is a technical term. ‘Person’ doesn’t equal ‘human.’ “Human” is a biological term – you’re human if you have human DNA. That’s it. But ‘person’ is a moral term. For a philosopher, persons are beings who are part of our moral community. They deserve moral consideration. This distinction is really useful, but it kinda complicates things. Because there might be non-humans that we think deserve moral consideration. And there might be some humans who don’t. But the determination of who’s a person and who’s not, is tricky. And the slipperiness of what constitutes a person is at the core of almost every major social debate issue you can think of. Abortion. The death penalty. Euthanasia. Whether your passion is human rights or robots, science or sociology, you have to get to the bottom of personhood. [Theme Music] We’re gonna do something a little different today and head straight into the Thought Bubble. Because I think there’s some Flash Philosophy that’ll help us a lot when we start thinking about what constitutes a person. Is Superman a person? I mean, if you encountered Superman on another planet, the question wouldn’t even cross your mind. The way he acts and talks certainly indicates that he’s a person. But Supes definitely isn’t human – he’s Kryptonian. He lacks human DNA, and is affected by the sun and by kryptonite in a way that humans are not. So, calling him a human is incorrect. But most of us would disagree with anyone who wanted to deny him personhood. Superman’s non-humanity is one of the reasons Lex Luthor hates him. And part of why we hate Lex Luthor. Just because Superman happens to be from another planet doesn’t make him different in any moral way, just like skin color doesn’t make a moral difference among humans. For the people who really know him – Lois and Jimmy and Ma and Pa Kent – there’s no question that Superman is a person. In fact, if anything, Superman might be more of a person than Luthor is. Because Luthor is fueled by hatred and prejudice and a lust for power. He’s less deserving of moral consideration than Superman. So, if Superman is more of a person than Lex, then humanity definitely isn’t what makes someone a person. So, yeah. Is Thought Bubble a person? Bye-bye, Thought Bubble! Now, there are plenty of candidates for non-human persons. Aliens like Superman, as well as artificial intelligences like WALL-E, or Samantha from the movie Her. Many people think some non-human animals are persons too – great apes like Koko are a good example. But is it possible to be human, yet not a person? Some people believe that fetuses, though clearly human, are not yet persons. Others think that bodies in persistent vegetative states, or that have experienced a complete and irreversible loss of brain function, are no longer persons, either. Still others argue that a human can surrender his or her personhood through grossly inhumane actions, like rape or murder. Many careful thinkers disagree about what personhood really is – where it starts and stops – which explains why we disagree about abortion, and euthanasia, and capital punishment. And I’m sure no one in the comments will be shouting their opinions on the matter at all. But it seems to come down to this question: What must one possess to be part of our moral community, to be deserving of our moral consideration? A contemporary American legal scholar named John Noonan gives us one option – he calls it the genetic criterion. This view says you are a person if you have human DNA, and you are not a person if you don’t. The virtue of this view is its simplicity. But its implications are so problematic that most philosophers dismiss it. If all you need to be a person is human DNA, then like my mouth cells are persons. And so are corpses. None of our favorite androids – or aliens, like Superman – meet the genetic criterion, even though they seem more like persons than, like, you know some of my cells. But American philosopher Mary Ann Warren offers five, more specific criteria that she believes, together, constitute personhood: Consciousness, reasoning, self-motivated activity, capacity to communicate, and self-awareness. These five factors are known as the cognitive criteria for personhood. Warren argues that some humans just aren’t persons, either not yet, or not anymore. In her view, if a being is incapable of communicating, isn’t aware of itself as a self, can’t think, or move around on its own, or isn’t conscious, then she says that’s not a being that we call a person, even if it happens to have human DNA. Now you might have noticed that Warren’s criteria definitely rules out fetuses. But it also kind of rules out young children. Kids don’t become self-aware until at least 18 months. So, Noonan’s criterion seems to allow some obvious non-persons into its definition, like the cells in my spit, but Warren’s criteria may kick out of the personhood club some beings that to you, are clearly people. Then maybe you’d find the social criterion more palatable. This view says that you’re a person whenever society recognizes you as a person, or whenever someone cares about you. This one seems pretty intuitive. It says that you matter, morally, when you matter to someone. It allows for society’s understanding of a person to change over time, which seems good when we’re thinking about something like expanding rights to protect primates, for example. However, if you think carefully about this view, it also means that, if no one happens to care for a particular being, that being simply isn’t a person. It would mean that fully rational, healthy, functioning adult human beings might not have personhood – just because no one happens to care about them. And we probably want inclusion in our moral community to be something more than a popularity contest. So, then there’s contemporary Australian moral philosopher Peter Singer, who says that the key to personhood is sentience, the ability to feel pleasure and pain. This criterion ignores the whole idea of species altogether, and instead looks at a being’s capacity to suffer. This view says it’s wrong to cause unnecessary pain to anything that can feel, but if it can’t feel, well, we do no harm by excluding it from the group of beings that matter. So, fetuses younger than at least 23 weeks are not persons, nor are humans in persistent vegetative states. But any animal with a developed central nervous system is a person. Now, some people think that personhood is a right, a sort of ticket to the moral community that you forfeit when you violate the laws of society in a major way. In this view, you can surrender your own personhood through grossly inhumane actions. This line of reasoning is one way that people justify capital punishment. Yes, killing people is wrong, they might say, but if a criminal has surrendered their personhood through their actions, then they’re no longer a person anymore. So we, as members of the State, would think ourselves justified in killing them. Now, so far we’ve been talking about personhood like it’s a toggle switch – you have it or you don’t. But a more nuanced option is the gradient theory of personhood, which says it’s not all or nothing – it’s more like a dimmer switch. So, personhood comes in degrees, and you can have more or less of it. In this view, a fetus would slowly grow in personhood throughout pregnancy, as cognition develops. So a 26-week old fetus would have less personhood than a 34-week old fetus, which would have less personhood than a newborn baby, who would have less personhood than a toddler. And likewise, personhood can be lost as gradually as it can be gained. A lot of people think this is a reasonable way to look at the issue. For instance, you might think a fetus has some degree of personhood, and so deserves moral consideration. But when the fetus is compared with its mother – a being with far more personhood, by this logic – then the interests of the being with more personhood gets more weight. So, this doesn’t deny the personhood of either being, but it allows that some beings have more personhood than others. This stuff is hard to talk about. But that’s why we’re talking about it. Because it merits your attention. Not only does it matter now, as we’re studying the concept of personhood for its own sake, but the answers you give to these questions are going to be important later, when we’re studying ethics. So give it a good long think and try to figure out what you believe constitutes personhood. As you consider the factors that you think are most important, be careful how you cast your net. Make sure you include everyone you think should be included and exclude those you think should be excluded. It’s harder than you might think. Good luck. Today we talked about personhood. We considered several criteria – genetic, cognitive, social, sentience, and the gradient theory – for determining what constitutes personhood. And we explored how the definition of personhood informs some important social debates. This episode of Crash Course Philosophy is made possible by Squarespace. Squarespace is a way to create a website, blog or online store for you and your ideas. Squarespace features a user-friendly interface, custom templates and 24/7 customer support. Try Squarespace at for a special offer. Squarespace: share your passion with the world. Crash Course Philosophy is produced in association with PBS Digital Studios. You can head over to their channel and check out a playlist of the latest episodes from shows like PBS Idea Channel, It's Okay to be Smart, and Physics Girl. This episode of Crash Course was filmed in the Doctor Cheryl C. Kinney Crash Course Studio with the help of these awesome people and our equally fantastic graphics team is Thought Cafe.



 Hercules and Leo Habeas Corpus Order
Hercules and Leo Habeas Corpus Order

On February 28, 2007, the parliament of the Balearic Islands, an autonomous community of Spain, passed the world's first legislation that would effectively grant legal personhood rights to all great apes.[3] The act sent ripples out of the region and across Spain, producing public support for the rights of great apes. On June 25, 2008 a parliamentary committee set forth resolutions urging Spain to grant the primates the rights to life and liberty. If approved "it will ban harmful experiments on apes and make keeping them for circuses, television commercials, or filming illegal under Spain's penal code."[4]

These precedents followed years of European legal efforts. In 1992, Switzerland amended its constitution to recognize animals as beings and not things.[5] However, in 1999 the Swiss constitution was completely rewritten. A decade later, Germany guaranteed rights to animals in a 2002 amendment to its constitution, becoming the first European Union member to do so.[5][6][7]

New Zealand granted strong protections to five great ape species in 1999. Their use is now forbidden in research, testing, or teaching. Some argue that New Zealand's protections amount to a form of weak legal rights.[8]

Several European countries (including Austria, the Netherlands and Sweden) completely banned the use of great apes in animal testings.[9]

Argentina granted a captive orangutan basic human rights, starting from late 2014.[10]

On April 20, 2015, Justice Barbara Jaffe of New York State Supreme Court ordered a writ of habeas corpus to two captive chimpanzees.[11] On April 21, the ruling was amended to strike the words "writ of habeas corpus".[12][13]


Well-known advocates include primatologist Jane Goodall, who was appointed a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations to fight the bushmeat trade and end ape extinction; Richard Dawkins, former Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University; Peter Singer, professor of philosophy at Princeton University; and attorney and former Harvard professor Steven Wise, founder and president of the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), whose aim is to work through U.S. common law on a state-by-state basis to achieve recognition of legal personhood for great apes and other self-aware, autonomous nonhuman animals; all advocate for great ape personhood.[2][14]

In December 2013, the NhRP filed three lawsuits on behalf of four chimpanzees being held in captivity in New York State, arguing that they should be recognized as legal persons with the fundamental right to bodily liberty (i.e. not to be held in captivity) and that they are entitled to common law writs of habeas corpus and should be immediately freed and moved to sanctuaries.[15] All three petitions for writs of habeas corpus were denied, allowing for the right to appeal. The NhRP is in the process of appealing all three decisions.[16]

Goodall's longitudinal studies revealed the social and family life of chimps to be very similar to that of human beings in some respects. She herself calls them individuals, and says they relate to her as an individual member of the clan. Laboratory studies of ape language ability began to reveal other human traits, as did genetics, and eventually three of the great apes were reclassified as hominids.

Other studies, such as one done by Beran & Evans,[17] indicate other qualities that humans share with non-human primates, namely the ability to self-control. In order for chimpanzees to control their impulsivity, they use self-distraction techniques similar to those that are used by children. Great apes also exhibited ability to plan as well as project "oneself into the future", known as the process of mental time travel. Such complicated tasks require self-awareness, which great apes appear to possess: "the capacity that contribute to the ability to delay gratification, since a self-aware individual may be able to imagine future states of the self".[18]

This, alongside the increasing risk of great ape extinction, had led the animal rights movement to put pressure on nations to recognize apes as having limited rights and being legal "persons." In response, the United Kingdom introduced a ban on research using great apes, although testing on other primates has not been limited.[19]

Writer and lecturer Thomas Rose makes the argument that granting legal rights afforded to humans to non-humans is nothing new. He points out that in the majority of the world, "corporations are recognized as legal persons and are granted many of the same rights humans enjoy, the right to sue, to vote and to freedom of speech."[3] Dawn Prince-Hughes has written that great apes meet the commonly-accepted standards for personhood: "self-awareness; comprehension of past, present, and future; the ability to understand complex rules and their consequences on emotional levels; the ability to choose to risk those consequences, a capacity for empathy, and the ability to think abstractly."[20]

Gary Francione questions the concept of granting personhood on the basis of whether the animal in question is human-like (as some have argued for great apes), and clarifies that sentience is the sole characteristic an animal requires to have basic rights. Therefore, he asserts, other animals—including mice and rats—should also be granted such rights.[21]


Depending on the precise wording of any proposed or adopted declaration, personhood for the Great Apes may raise questions concerning protections and obligations under national and international laws, such as:

See also


  1. ^ Bhagwat, S. B. Foundation of Geology. Global Vision, 2009, pp. 232–235:
    "The Hominidae form a taxonomic family, including four extant genera: humans, chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans."
    Groves, Colin P. "Great Apes: The Conflict of Gene-Pools, Conservation and Personhood" in Emily Rousham, Leonard Freedman, and Rayma Pervan. Perspectives in Human Biology: Humans in the Australasian Region. World Scientific, 1996, p. 31:
    "The recognition that we as a species are not phylogenetically separated from other animals, but are nested within the primate group known as the Great Apes, is no longer controversial. Goodman (1963) proposed on this basis to include the great apes (orang utan, gorilla and chimpanzee) in the family Hominidate, a view revived by Groves (1986) and increasingly adopted since then. Increasingly, too, the vernacular term 'Great Apes' has come to be used as a pure synonym for Hominidae, so that humans are also 'Great Apes.' The only remaining systemic controversy seems to be whether chimpanzees and gorillas together form the sister-group of humans, or chimpanzees and humans together constitute the sister-group of gorillas."
    Karcher, Karen. "The Great Ape Project" in Marc Bekoff (ed.). The Encyclopedia of Animal Rights and Animal Welfare. Greenwood, 2009, pp. 185–187:
    "The Great Ape Project (GAP) seeks to extend the scope of three basic moral principles to all members of what the GAP founders call the five great ape species (humans, chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans)."
  2. ^ a b Goodall, Jane in Paola Cavalieri & Peter Singer (eds.) The Great Ape Project: Equality Beyond Humanity. St Martin's Griffin, 1994.
    Dawkins, Richard. "Gaps in the Mind" Archived April 19, 2016, at the Wayback Machine. in Paola Cavalieri & Peter Singer (eds.) The Great Ape Project: Equality Beyond Humanity. St Martin's Griffin, 1994.
    Cavalieri, Paola & Singer, Peter (eds.) The Great Ape Project: Equality Beyond Humanity. St Martin's Griffin, 1994.
    Motavalli, Jim. "Rights from Wrongs. A Movement to Grant Legal Protection to Animals is Gathering Force", E Magazine, March/April 2003.
  3. ^ a b Thomas Rose (2 August 2007). "Going ape over human rights". CBC News. Archived from the original on 2010-02-03. Retrieved 26 June 2008. 
  4. ^ "Spanish parliament to extend rights to apes". Reuters. 25 June 2008. Retrieved 2008-07-11. 
  5. ^ a b "Germany guarantees animal rights in constitution". Associated Press. 2002-05-18. Retrieved 2008-06-26. 
  6. ^ "Germany guarantees animal rights". CNN. 21 June 2002. Retrieved 2008-06-26. 
  7. ^ Kate Connolly (2002-06-22). "German animals given legal rights". The Guardian. Retrieved 2008-06-26. [dead link]
  8. ^ "A STEP AT A TIME: NEW ZEALAND'S PROGRESS TOWARD HOMINID RIGHTS" BY ROWAN TAYLOR Archived July 28, 2013, at the Wayback Machine.
  9. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2016-03-03. Retrieved 2013-07-31. 
  10. ^ Giménez, Emiliano (January 4, 2015). "Argentine orangutan granted unprecedented legal rights". CNN Espanol. Retrieved April 21, 2015. 
  11. ^ "Judge Recognizes Two Chimpanzees as Legal Persons, Grants them Writ of Habeas Corpus". Nonhuman Rights Project. April 20, 2015. Archived from the original on September 9, 2016. Retrieved April 21, 2015. 
  12. ^ "Judge Barbara Jaffe's amended court order" (PDF). New York Supreme Court. April 21, 2015. Retrieved April 21, 2015. 
  13. ^ "Judge Orders Stony Brook University to Defend Its Custody of 2 Chimps". New York Times. April 21, 2015. Retrieved April 21, 2015. 
  14. ^ "Nonhuman Rights Project". 
  15. ^ Charles Siebert (23 April 2014). "Should a Chimp Be Able to Sue Its Owner?". New York Times Magazine. 
  16. ^ Robert Gavin (3 October 2014). "Appeals panel to weigh personhood for chimpanzee". Times Union. 
  17. ^ Beran MJ; Evans TA (2006). "Maintenance of delay of gratification by four chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes): the effects of delayed reward visibility, experimenter presence, and extended delay intervals". Behavioural Processes. 73 (3): 315–24. PMID 16978800. doi:10.1016/j.beproc.2006.07.005. 
  18. ^ Heilbronner, S. Platt, M., L. (4 December 2007). "Animal Cognition: Time Flies When Chimps Are Having Fun.". doi:10.1016/j.cub.2007.10.012. 
  19. ^ Alok Jha (2005-12-05). "RSPCA outrage as experiments on animals rise to 2.85m". The Guardian. Retrieved 2008-06-26. 
  20. ^ Prince-Hughes, Dawn (1987). Songs of the Gorilla Nation. Harmony. p. 138. ISBN 1-4000-5058-8. 
  21. ^ Francione, Gary (2006). "The Great Ape Project: Not so Great". Retrieved 2010-03-22. 
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