Equality and Similarity to Humans

Paola Cavalieri, co-editor with Peter Singer of The Great Ape Project: Equality Beyond Humanity, wrote an essay about the recent shooting of a chimpanzee, Johnny, a chimpanzee in his 40s, at Whipsnade Zoo in Bedfordshire, north of London. According to Cavalieri, Johnny was shot because he was described by zookeepers as “‘a bit of a thug.'” The Times claims that Johnny and another chimpanzee, Koko, had escaped and Koko “gave herself up to a keeper in a nearby field” whereas Johnny apparently did not, and the decision was made to shoot Johnny for reasons of “public safety.”

The shooting of Johnny was, in any event, a terrible tragedy—on multiple levels. First, Johnny spent decades living in a zoo, which, under the best of circumstances, is nothing but a pathetic prison for the nonhumans kept there. Before being moved to Bedfordshire last year, Johnny and Koko were imprisoned in Regent’s Park Zoo, in London. There is simply no comparison between the natural life of a chimpanzee in the wild, and the conditions under which they are kept in these nonhuman freak shows we call zoos. Second, it is not clear why, if Johnny was resisting being recaptured, he could not have been shot with a sedative, although some have said that he would still have posed a danger to zoo visitors before the sedative took effect.

Cavalieri is careful to reject the “hierarchical approach” that “the richer inner life of humans entitles them to more serious moral consideration.” Such an approach, she argues, would lead to saying “we could treat intellectually impaired humans differently.” But the main focus of her argument is that “[c]himpanzees, gorillas and orang-utans are our closest relatives, sharing 98-99% of our DNA, and ‘great apes’ is a natural category only as long as it includes humans.” Cavalieri argues that chimpanzees are “similar to us” in that they are cognitively like us and do share our “richer inner life.” They are capable of complex cooperation and social manipulation, cultural transmission including teaching of skills such as tool-making and tool-using, possess reason, “this long favoured mark of our superiority,” using symbolic communication, and they have reflective self-awareness.

I have four responses to Cavalieri’s analysis:

First, it is problematic to assume that humans have a “richer inner life” and that nonhumans are somehow analogous to “intellectually impaired humans.” Each species has a type of life that is valued by the members of that species. I have no idea whether my rescued canines have lives that are less “rich” than mine. I do not even know what that means. My inner life may be different from that of a dog or a mouse, but that does not mean that my life is “richer.”

I do understand the argument that if the lack of a morally superior characteristic by a nonhuman entitles us to accord that nonhuman less or no moral consideration, then, unless we are willing to be speciesist, we would have to treat similarly situated humans, such as the “intellectually impaired” in the same way. But the problem is that we assume from the outset that humans have morally superior characteristics and that human life is therefore “richer” than nonhuman life. This is a common fallacy among many animal ethicists, including Tom Regan. As I discussed in an essay in New Scientist, there is no reason to assume that characteristics thought to be uniquely human entitle us to make the normative conclusion that those with such characteristics have “richer” lives.

Second, the “hierarchical approach” presents no problem to utilitarians like Singer, who would be willing to accord less moral consideration to “intellectually impaired” humans.

Third, the fact that everyone has long understood how similar to us chimpanzees and other nonhuman great apes are and we still continue to support their commodification suggests that “similarity” is a most elusive concept that does not do much in the way of changing human behavior. As I argued in Introduction to Animal Rights: Your Child or the Dog?, the “similarity” game is one that nonhumans can never win. They will never be considered to have the “special” characteristic to the degree necessary to get us to stop exploiting them if we want to keep doing so. We are wasting our time by thinking that the solution to the problem of animal exploitation is to have cognitive ethologists do experiments, which, ironically, may involve vivisection, in order to show the extent to which nonhuman great apes and other primates, dolphins, parrots, etc. possess some “special” characteristic. Empirical similarity is really not the problem; the problem is moral theory. Jane Goodall, who wrote the opening chapter of the The Great Ape Project knows better than any of us how similar nonhuman great apes are to human great apes; yet she not is willing to condemn unequivocally the use of all nonhuman great apes in biomedical research and to call for its immediate abolition.

Fourth, as I argued in my chapter in The Great Ape Project and as I have said repeatedly since then, the right to full membership in the moral community and the right not to be treated as property is dependent on only one characteristic—sentience. If a nonhuman is sentient, then we have a moral obligation not to treat that being as a resource or commodity. The fact that a dog may not have the same sort of reflective self-awareness that a chimpanzee has does not mean that the dog and the chimpanzee are not equal for the purpose of not having their fundamental interests in life and in not suffering disregarded if it benefits someone else to do so.

Animals are killed everyday at zoos (and many, many other places) for a variety of reasons. The shooting of poor Johnny was surely tragic, but equally so are those deaths of nonhumans who are not “similar” to us in the way that Johnny was, beyond being creatures who had subjective awareness and who valued their lives in their own ways.

Go vegan, never patronize zoos, and resist the creation of new hierarchies based on anthropocentric values.

Humans are not the measure of things; we are only one measure among many.

Gary L. Francione
© 2007 Gary L. Francione