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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Apes, legal personhood and the plight of Nim Chimpsky.

Eberhart Theuer: A legal person would be something like a company or a certain society that in itself, or a fund that has certain rights without being a natural person.

Anita Barraud: This is similar to the US in common law notion of a juristic person that can apply to corporations and organisations that they're artificial persons created by the law.

Eberhart Theuer: Exactly.

Paula Stibbe: It's not talking about the rights for non-human animals to go and vote or be able to go to university, that would clearly be inappropriate and ridiculous. This is about recognising that non-human animals share with us sentience, which means that they have the ability to suffer, and that they have interests which can be damaged.
In sci-fi-philosophic terms, this is the distinction between sapience and sentience; while apes likely cannot "think" in the human sense, they and other animals can certainly feel pain, and that capacity is something we are morally obliged to respect.

I say likely because I am by nature extremely wary of the anthropomorphistic tendency to project human emotions and consciousness into animal behavior that is actually instinctual or learned—in general I'm impressed with Daniel Dennett's theory in Kinds of Minds that our dogs appear to "love" us precisely because we've selected for just that impression over millenia of canine domestication. But as an anecdotal matter I must admit this is really evocative:
Paula Stibbe: I've learned what he likes to do most, what food he likes to eat most, though that would include some games. He likes to use charcoal with paper sometimes to draw, or chalk.

Anita Barraud: What does he draw?

Paula Stibbe: They are kind of abstract angular kind of works and he takes the paper and the chalk and he leans against the wall, he bites his bottom lip and concentrates really hard on what he's doing. He won't let himself be distracted while he's drawing.
(cross-posted at culturemonkey)