steven wise rattling the cage

lesley grason animals in research

nature, 17 august 2000

Are animals persons or things? That’s the question at the heart of Steven Wise's controversial new book. Legally, Wise points out, only humans are 'persons'; in the eyes of the law animals are merely things. It is this distinction that Wise wants to challenge. He demands 'legal personhood for chimpanzees and bonobos’ so that they can be ‘recognised as a potential bearer of rights'. Rattling the Cage is a lucidly written, passionately argued case for animal rights. What makes it different is that Wise, a practising attorney who specialises in representing animals, builds a legal, as opposed to simply a scientific or philosophical case for rethinking the relationship between humans and animals.

Wise begins by excavating the historical and philosophical roots of laws relating to animal rights. The Roman belief that 'All law is established for men's sake' remains central to modern systems of law. But this notion, Wise believes, has given rise to conflict between 'natural law' and the 'law of nations'. Natural law he defines as a universal law rooted in the nature of things, the law of nations as specific laws that humans make, and which can vary according to time and place. Slavery and racism, Wise suggests, were 'abhorrent' to natural law but acceptable under the law of many nations. Similarly, the denial of personhood to animals is a product of human law but contrary to natural law. The fundamental question we have to answer, according to Wise, is whether 'things or beings or ideas [are] valuable because we value them or because they are inherently valuable'.

This argument is surely wrong. Historically, slavery and racism were challenged not because they were incompatible with natural law but when they were seen as contrary to human morality. Indeed, the idea that something is inherently valuable lay at the heart of racial thinking: the belief that certain people were by nature more valuable than, or superior to, others. As the great Enlightenment philosopher Condorcet put it, racism 'makes nature an accomplice in the crime of political inequality.'

To demonstrate the inherent value of chimpanzees and bonobos, Wise provides an overview of recent research on the mental capacities of the Great Apes. Apes, he argues, possess the same kinds of complex cognitive abilities as humans: they have minds and are able to read others' minds, are consciousness and self-consciousness, and capable of using language. Most the material is familiar - the work of ethologists and primatologists such as Donald Griffin, David Premack, Alex de Waal, Michael Tomasello, Roger Fouts and Sue Savage-Rumbaugh. Wise, however, skates over the controversial nature of much of this work - especially the interpretation of the data about apes' linguistic and mind-reading abilities - and peremptorily dismisses any critics. Daniel Dennett's arguments are 'bizarre', while those of Daniel Povinelli are 'extraordinary for any ape researcher'.

At the heart of Wise's approach is the argument from analogy. We can assume that apes are conscious, intentional beings, he argues, for the same reason we assume that humans are so. We do not have access to other people's heads, but most of us accept that other human beings have minds, beliefs and desires as we do, because they behave much as we do. But if we can make this assumption with humans, why not with animals? Wise adopts Frans de Waal's axiom that 'strong arguments would have to be furnished before we would accept that similar behaviours in related species are differently motivated', to argue that the Great Apes have minds similar to those of human children.

It was the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein who showed why this argument is muddleheaded. Human minds could not be truly private, he pointed out, because if they were we would not be able to communicate the contents of our minds to anyone else. My inner feelings mean something to me, in some part at least, in so far as they mean something to others. I can make sense of my self only insofar as I live in, and relate to, a community of thinking, feeling, talking beings. Far from inferring other humans' experiences from our own, we can only truly know what goes on inside our own heads by relating to other humans. It is only because we live not as individuals, but within a social community and, moreover, within a community bound together by language, that we can make sense of our own inner thoughts and feelings. No animal possesses either language or a social network like ours. Therefore it is simply not valid to assume that they have inner experiences as we do.

Suppose it was true, however, that apes did have the kinds of minds that Wise imagines they do - that they are conscious, intentional beings with a cognitive skills of a three-year-old child. Would this be sufficient to allow them to possess rights? Wise clearly thinks so. Just as we give rights to three-year-old children, so we should give rights to equivalent apes.

This, however, is to misunderstand the character of rights. Rights do not exist in the abstract, but are created by beings capable of possessing and asserting such rights. To have a right means also to be responsible for one's actions, to be recognised as a moral being. Adult humans, unlike children or apes, live within a web of reciprocal rights and obligations created by our capacity for rational dialogue. We can distinguish between right and wrong, accept responsibility and apportion blame. Neither young children nor apes can, and hence cannot bear rights. In truth, children are not accorded rights but protections. A right requires us to make our own decisions. A protection requires us to make decisions on behalf of others. Indeed many rights, such as the right to vote, are denied to children, precisely because they cannot make rational decisions.

Why does the law provide protection for children - and for the mentally disabled, who also may not be rational and autonomous - but not for apes? Because children normally grow up to be full members of the moral community. Indeed, it is only because we treat them as potential moral agents that they grow up to be so. As for mentally disabled people, we provide them protections because they once possessed the potential to be a moral being. Children and the mentally handicapped are of the same kind as adult, autonomous humans: the kind whose normal instance is a moral being. Apes are not.

Wise is right that there is a clear demarcation in law between 'persons' who possess rights and non-persons (or things) who don't. But his desire to break down this distinction confuses the categories of moral and non-moral beings. Apes, like many animals, are individuals, each with a distinguishable character. But humans are individuals in an entirely different sense: we are self-created beings, who realise ourselves only through our relations with other such beings. This is at the heart of what we mean by personhood, and why animals may be individuals but can never be persons.

The real impact of the campaign for rights for apes is to diminish rights for humans. The current controversy over increased applications for animal research in the wake of the sequencing of the human genome is a good case in point. The government is worried about the political impact of an increase in new licenses in a pre-election year. The consequence will be that disease will remain untreatable for longer and people will continue to suffer from the effects of potentially avoidable ill-health and disability.

While Rattling the Cage is a work of advocacy, and necessarily one-sided, Animals in Research is a bibliography of both sides of the debate. Compiled by Lesley Grayson for the British Library, the bibliography is both comprehensive and highly readable. Grayson cover a wide field including debates about animal consciousness, the value of animal research, and the issue of the law and of regulation, as well as newer issues such as the GM revolution and transgenic animal welfare. The aim of the book, she writes, is to create a 'dialogue' between the two sides in the debate. Both the aim and the book itself are invaluable.