The Great Ape Project, based in a Seattle, Washington, has campaigned for a "community of equals" in which all the great apes would have the legal rights to life, freedom, and protection from torture. Now the ruling coalition in Spain is proposing to apply this idea in a law that would recognize the moral rights of great apes as legal persons.
The argument that all the great apes have the same moral rights as human beings rests on the biological connection that human beings have to the other apes, and to the relatively high intelligence shown by non-human apes. Human beings, apes, monkeys, and lemurs belong to the primate order of mammals. Human beings are of the Hominoidea superfamily of primates, which is composed of two families, Hylobatidae (gibbons, the lesser apes), and Hominidae, the great apes.
The great apes include gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans, and homo sapiens, human beings. According to current biological taxonomy, Hominidae are currently classed into two subfamilies, Homininae (human beings and gorillas) and Ponginae (orangutans). Homininae are divided into two tribes, Hominini and Gorillini (gorillas). Hominini are classed in two genera, the genus Pan with chimpanzees, and the genus Homo with human beings.
So we can see that human beings are very closely related especially to chimpanzees, and also kin to gorillas. Homininae are highly intelligent, some gorillas having learned to speak in sign language, and chimpanzees being observed to use tools and to have a learned culture. The evidence indicates that the non-human great apes use reason and choose their action to a great extent. Moral logic therefore concludes that killing to inflicting pain on great apes imposes a great amount of harm on them, which implies that all great apes have moral rights. Spain would be well justified to become the first country to legally recognize the moral rights of great apes.
The proposal, led by Francisco Garrido, a member of the Green party, would legally replace the "ownership" of great apes with "moral guardianship," similar to the treatment of children and people in comas. Under that law, the initiation of force against a great ape, such killing, inflicting unnecessary pain, taking a baby away from its family, or enslavement (such as confining them in a cage), would be a crime, although zoos could continue to keep them if moving them elsewhere would be more harmful.
Other countries have already enacted some legal recognition of moral rights for apes. New Zealand's animal welfare act prescribes that research and testing using a great ape requires that the expected benefits be greater than the harm to the apes, and Great Britain has banned medical experimentation on great apes.
Opposition to the Spanish proposal has been voice by prominent Catholics, who say that human embryos would have less legal protection than the designated animals. Spanish members of Amnesty International have pointed out that the moral rights of many human beings are not yet protected, and should have priority.
But these are not valid arguments against the legal recognition of the moral rights of the great apes. One wrong does not justify another wrong. Those opposed to the legal protection of apes against harm need to confront the argument in favor of moral rights for apes. There is nothing in natural moral law that specifically privileges human beings as morally superior. The moral rights of human beings derives from their high degree, as a species, of intelligence and sentience, and if other species, such as chimpanzees and dolphins, exhibit such characteristics, then by natural moral law, they have the same level of moral rights.
The degree of reasoning capacity held by non-human apes, along with other animals such as dolphins, is a matter of biological evidence. It seems to me that we should give these animals the benefit of the doubt, and if we err, it should be on the side of their having moral rights.
So, bravo to Spain for leading the way. If the great apes are accorded more respect, then this would help the world to give human beings also greater protection for their human rights. If all the great apes are accorded legal protection against harm, we will then have to speak not of just human rights, but Hominidae rights. We could call all the great apes "sapiens" and refer to sapient rights. The motto could then be: equal rights for all sapiens; privileges for none!
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FRED E. FOLDVARY, Ph.D., is an economist and has been writing weekly editorials for Progress.org since 1997. Foldvary's commentaries are well respected for their currency, sound logic, wit, and consistent devotion to human freedom. He received his B.A. in economics from the University of California at Berkeley, and his M.A. and Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University. He has taught economics at Virginia Tech, John F. Kennedy University, Santa Clara University, and currently teaches at San Jose State University.
Foldvary is the author of The Soul of Liberty, Public Goods and Private Communities, and Dictionary of Free Market Economics. He edited and contributed to Beyond Neoclassical Economics and, with Dan Klein, The Half-Life of Policy Rationales. Foldvary's areas of research include public finance, governance, ethical philosophy, and land economics.
Foldvary is notably known for going on record in the American Journal of Economics and Sociology in 1997 to predict the exact timing of the 2008 economic depression—eleven years before the event occurred. He was able to do so due to his extensive knowledge of the real-estate cycle.