From Autonomy to Habeas Corpus: Animal Rights Activists Take the Parameters of Legal Personhood to Court
Activists advocating for a better treatment of animals have been using various platforms to promote the welfare or the rights of animals. In recent years, some have proposed to extend “legal personhood” to animals. This strategy would allow animals to get direct access to the special category of “persons” which legal systems associate with a plethora of the most robust kinds of protections and rights. By contrast, the sluggish incorporation of ethical concerns about animals within legal frameworks seems to have trouble moving past the recognition that animals are sentient beings that should not be treated cruelly and into a normatively more stringent set of entitlements that would grant proper consideration to animal needs. Legal personhood is, therefore, a much coveted golden ticket to our political community.
In this article, I examine the arguments deployed to obtain it through judicial channels by an American animal rights group (the Nonhuman Rights Project). I focus on a 2015 judicial decision rejecting their petition for a writ of habeas corpus, as this case is the most detailed and representative of their assimilationist stance. This kind of animal rights activism aims at showing that animals are “like us” and should therefore be treated “like us”.
I will explain the philosophical foundations implicit to the position defended by the animal rights group in order to test their internal coherence and reveal their inherent limitations. Most of my arguments will cast doubts on this assimilationist strategy. In doing so, I draw from the disciplines of law and moral philosophy in order to recognize both the importance of legal strategies for animal rights advocacy and the difficulties that arise from capitalizing on moral theories and values cherry-picked because of their rhetorical purchase within legal and political discourses.