Sandra the Orangutan: A Non-Human Person

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Photo by Marcos Brindicci / Reuters

Photo by Marcos Brindicci / Reuters

It’s been fascinating to read the news stories on Sandra, the orangutan who an Argentine court decided has a right to freedom as a “non-human person”. Reporting it, UPI made one of the most revealing blunders, declaring-

On Sunday the court agreed with AFADA attorneys’ argument that Sandra was denied her freedom as a “non-human person” — a distinction that places Sandra as a human in a philosophical sense, rather than physical.

Well, no: the distinction doesn’t “place Sandra as a human” in any sense, and especially not “in a philosophical sense”. Rather, the court is implying that non-human animals have rights, not as honorary members of our species, but in virtue of their own cognitive abilities. Some animal rights activists might even take offense at this sort of “discrimination” by cognitive class (at what degree of cognitive impairment does a human cease to have rights?), but at least it avoids the – probably unconscious – speciesism that seems to lie behind the UPI comment.

That’s not to say it is philosophically easy to decide who has rights, and on what basis, partly because there are so many views of what a “right” is. What seems clear is that granting all and only humans rights (on the basis of their species alone) is objectionably arbitrary. An alternative approach is to argue that any sentient creature deserves moral consideration on the basis of its ability to feel pleasure or pain, but such a view has its own complications. While all of the philosophical kinks are being worked out (a process that is notoriously slow), it seems safest to “err” on the side of maximal compassion, which we can hope to be also the side of maximal impartial rationality.