Ethicist Peter Singer says a case calling for a pair of chimpanzees to be recognised as people by the courts could help “narrow the gulf” between humans and animals.
A New York judge recently agreed to hear a case of two chimpanzees, which essentially questions whether the animals should be viewed as people in the eyes of the law.
The chimpanzees are being held at Stony Brook University in New York for biomedical experimentation, and a lawyer representing the animals argues they are being unlawfully detained.
Justice Barbara Jaffe, from the New York State Supreme Court, is presiding over the case and has ordered, in the first instance, that the state provide an explanation as to why the two young chimps should not be released from captivity.
On Monday’s Q&A program, Mr Singer said this could be the first sign of a court granting personhood rights to animals.
“That provides the first glimmer of an opening — I wouldn’t put it further than that — that possibly the courts are not going to class chimpanzees simply as property, but are going to say that they may have some legal right to be free or to be sent to a sanctuary or something of that sort,” he said.
“The law recognises things that are not human beings as persons — corporations are a clear example. So it would mean that they have standing in court to claim those rights.”
The panel was asked whether other, less intelligent animals could therefore be granted the same rights.
“If we’re going to give chimpanzees certain rights for being intelligent, self-aware and emotionally complex, does that lack of qualities in other animals mean that they will be discriminated against? Who will be their lawyers?” the audience member asked.
Mr Singer said the New York case could lead to the extension of the same basic rights to other animals.
“I would see that the extension of these basic rights to chimpanzees would be a kind of a bridge that would help to narrow the gulf that I think we now feel exists between humans and animals,” he said.
“So we think there is an enormous difference between humans and all animals, and when we use the term ‘animals’ we are talking about [everything from] chimpanzees to a snail.
“Whereas we’re very closely related to chimpanzees, if you look at our DNA.
“So if we could narrow that gulf a bit and establish a bridge, then there may be benefits that will flow to animals in the longer run.”
Fellow panel member, Environment Minister Greg Hunt, said people already had a deep connection with animals.
“There is this instinctive engagement that people have with the vast bulk of the animal world,” Mr Hunt said.
Mr Singer countered that this connection was selective, and host Tony Jones added: “You wouldn’t eat a dog, but you would eat a pig and they have similar intelligence.”