In 1772, the famed English magistrate, William Murray, First Earl of Mansfield, presided over the case, Somerset v. Stewart. It was the first significant test of slavery as a legal institution.
In his decision, Lord Mansfield held, "It [Slavery] is so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law. Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from the decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore the [slave] must be discharged."
We can contrast that decision with the infamous U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Dred Scott v. Sandford, whereby the Court reasoned that a black person "whose ancestors were … sold as slaves" was not entitled to the rights of a citizen; and therefore had no standing in court, as they are "beings of an inferior order" and thus not equally protected by the Constitution.
The legal tradition of the United States has little about which to brag when it comes to the pace of its evolving standard of personhood. Arguments pivoting around race and gender have moved with the greatest celerity, which isn’t saying much.
Last week, an intrepid legal team sought to push these boundaries once again by arguing to extend a very limited kind of personhood beyond the confines of Homo sapiens.
Animal rights lawyer Steven Wise and his associates filed multiple lawsuits on behalf of several chimpanzees who are held in various research and entertainment facilities.
To be clear, Wise does not argue that the chimpanzees are human nor that they should be afford the full scope of rights as though they were. Rather, his team asserts that these chimpanzees (and by extension all chimps) have the capacity for autonomous thought, self-determination and emotions that resemble the same traits found in humans; and that possession of those abilities makes them something more than objects.
The bulk of behavioral research strongly supports Wise’s core argument. Chimpanzees share many physiological features with humans —- enlarged frontal lobes, asymmetry between left- and right-brain functions, specialized cell types in specific brain regions —- all of which are associated with higher-level cognitive ability in humans.
Wise cites the research of Mary Lee Jensvold, an experimental psychologist and former director of the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute. Jensvold’s work confirms chimpanzees’ communicative abilities. During the three decades she spent teaching chimps to use sign language, she observed their capacity to employ symbolic thought, perspective-taking and make reference to past and future events. She also notes the parallel manner in which these faculties develop in both human and chimpanzee infants.
Dozens of other researchers come to similar conclusions. While they aren’t us, chimpanzees share a great deal genetically, psychologically and socially with humans, but is it enough to afford them limited personhood?
They make tools. They use medicine. They live in complex family and social groups. They use symbolic language. They aren’t, however, human. At the end of the day, does that narrow distinction really matter?
For some whose economic or religious dicta depend on that kind of simplistic distinction, it will. To extend limited legal status to another creature, who is by all accounts just as sentient and capable of feeling pain, would be taken as validation of evolutionary theory. It would somehow challenge humanity’s dominion over the Earth.
More importantly, it would force many in the business of animal research to confront the Machiavellian ends-justifying-the-means immorality of their research methodologies.
Of course that’s nothing new. When corporations and government frame their acts as "life saving" it becomes all-too easy to defend everything from the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment to eugenics. When they cast test subjects as somehow less than the rest of us, everything is fair game. Maybe it’s prison inmates. Maybe it’s black sharecroppers. Maybe it’s developmentally disabled children. They aren’t quite "us;" therefore the normal rules shouldn’t apply.
Once you tell yourself that the value of the end product will excuse all the pain, suffering and torture it took to get it, almost anything is possible. To paraphrase Lord Mansfield, "whatever inconveniences may follow… they must be discharged."
Matthew Pate is a former law enforcement executive who holds a doctorate in criminal justice from the University of Albany and who has advised police agencies around the country. He writes from Pine Bluff, Ark. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org