Our Declaration of Independence proclaims that all men are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” The framers believed that human rights originated from God, and through him, are bestowed onto all persons. To our founders, this was “self-evident.”
These days, however, the self-evidence of these truths is increasingly called into question. Politicians and intellectuals treat our most basic rights—values like expression, life, and property—with little regard and even contempt. “Social justice” ideologues demand that the desires of arbitrary collectives supersede the rights of individuals. And social activists play the victim, protesting for special treatment under the guise of “rights.”
Perhaps most egregiously of all, political movements now believe that human rights belong to more than just mankind, but to non-humans as well.
Groups like the Nonhuman Rights Project and The Great Ape Project argue that sufficiently intelligent animal species, particularly our closest genetic relatives, primates, are deserving of legal personhood and the basic rights that come with such designation.
A Growing Push For Animal Rights
Over the years, these movements have gradually made significant gains. Animal rights are now a common topic in philosophy departments and law schools. Across several countries, courts have wrestled with the question of ape personhood, and some governments have codified rights for primates. The push for animal rights has garnered support from such noted personalities as Alan Dershowitz, Jane Goodall, and Richard Dawkins.
Apes’ rights advocates say that since some primates have been observed to possess a cerebral capacity somewhat akin to a three-year-old human, they should have legal personhood and rights. Surely, they say, if a three-year-old has basic rights and personhood, so should a chimpanzee.
But the problem with this idea is that brainpower lacks the universality and objectivity needed to form the basis for rights. If the only thing that gives us rights is intelligence, then it becomes justifiable, necessary even, to grant high-IQ people more rights than low-IQ people.
Intelligence is an unequal factor and can be subjective. Some people are smarter than others, and some people have different values as to what constitutes brilliance. These hollow factors mean that groups and governments could easily justify depriving those deemed “unintelligent” of rights, while granting greater rights to those found to be “intelligent.”
What Makes Us Human
The other argument we hear from the apes’ rights crowd is genetic similarity. Chimpanzees, our closest relatives, have DNA that’s 98 percent identical to humans. Therefore, they say, chimpanzees and other simians are deserving of some human rights and legal personhood.
But first and foremost, apes’ DNA is not 100 percent human. If the DNA of a species is not 100 percent Homo sapien, then the species in question is not a human, full stop.
Second, DNA relativity does not say much about how “human” a species is in any meaningful sense. For example, a banana has DNA 50 percent identical to a human, but we do not see anyone claiming that a banana tree possesses half the rights of a human.
What’s more, suppose we encountered a humanoid form of intelligent extraterrestrial life. Though they may be more “human” than a chimpanzee in a conscience sense, their DNA may differentiate from ours more substantially. Surely beings on the level of Spock or Yoda are deserving of more rights than a chimpanzee?
Besides all this, the fact is there is nothing particularly “special” about the genetic code of a species. To say genetic code is the basis for rights is completely arbitrary. All this calls into question the idea that DNA possesses the worthiness to stand as a basis for the legitimacy of rights.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, ape’s rights advocates want legal protections for apes, but they only wish to enforce those protections against humans.
For example, in the world envisioned by ape’s rights advocates, medical testing on a chimpanzee to forward research and save human lives would be a criminal violation of the ape’s basic rights. However, if a chimpanzee were to kill another chimpanzee, a scenario known to happen in the wild, there would be no recourse against the simian assailant.
To invoke rights when an ape is acted on by a human, but to have no problem with apes brutalizing fellow apes, is to say that apes only have rights some of the time, which basically means they have no rights at all. Additionally, to penalize a human scientist for infringing on an ape’s rights, while excusing the behavior of violent primates, is to place apes on a higher legal pedestal than humans. Therefore the animal rights movement is not so much pro-animal as it is anti-human.
Primates and other species are remarkably intelligent creatures, and there are certainly profound moral questions when concerning the treatment of animals. Chimpanzees are intelligent, social creatures; elephants mourn their dead, and animals do feel pain. However, to confer rights and personhood onto apes is a step too far.
Personhood Only Belongs To Mankind
Rights are supposed to derive from nature itself and be universal. There is nothing in nature to reinforce the idea that apes have rights, if we only invoke them against humans.
People can pass laws regarding the treatment of animals, but they are laws derived from man, not rights derived from personhood. These man-made laws only apply to other humans. This shows that animal rights’ advocates recognize what most know to be true: that humans are exceptional.
We feel a moral responsibility to treat animals fairly. This in part, demonstrates that humans are a special case within the animal kingdom. For this reason alone, personhood, and the rights that come with it, belong to man and man alone.