Treating Pets as Persons in Citizen Canine

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Citizen Canine presents arguments for pet personhood that compare cats and dogs’ legal journey to that of blacks, women, children, and the developmentally disabled. All of those humans have been denied personhood, and at least the first three have been considered property. Citizen Canine doesn’t develop or critique these analogies so much as it reports them. But that’s alright. The book is best understood as a work of legal/science journalism, not a rigorous review of arguments for the personhood of nonhuman animals.

Nevertheless, upon reading Citizen Canine, you’ll likely crave, as I did, a bit more  discussion of those easily contentious comparisons. Here’s my contribution to the conversation.

Civil Rights and Animal Rights

Let’s start with the comparison to African Americans. In Citizen Canine, author David Grimm admits this analogy “may seem like a stretch.” But he also explains why animal rights advocates might find it instructive.

[I]f we’re talking about a group of beings once considered wild animals, then declared property, and finally granted personhood, blacks are the only precedent pets have. Like the natives of Africa, cats and dogs were removed from their original environment and transplanted into “civilized” society, where they worked for and among people without being considered one of them … Over time, social attitudes began to change … A group of reformers rose to push for personhood: abolitionists for blacks, the animal law movement for cats and dogs.

In a National Geographic interview, Grimm points out the flaw in this analogy. Denying personhood to blacks began with a glaring factual error—namely, that blacks are subhuman or even nonhuman. But blacks are simply human. And pets simply aren’t.

However, being recognized as human didn’t prevent women from being considered closer to property than persons in early US law. Under the legal practice of coverture, unmarried female minors had no legal personhood apart from their fathers, and wives had none apart from their husbands. Legally, a married woman could not own property, collect wages, enter contracts, withhold sex from her husband, or win custody of her children in the event of divorce.

In the case of women, sexism motivated the denial of personhood. In the case of blacks, racism did. Or did it? Race is a classification of human beings. But blacks were seen as less than human. So, perhaps we should say “speciesism” led others to see blacks as less than persons.

Compared to racism and sexism, speciesism might sound like, well, a specious “ism.” Racism and sexism can be understood as dubious (if not flatly mistaken) factual claims about innate group differences, particularly in intelligence or other mental traits. But speciesism doesn’t get the facts quite so wrong. As a species, humans have psychological capacities that other species either lack or have far less of, such as language and abstract reasoning. In fact, nonhuman animals appear to lack the sort of reflective, principled understanding of rights and duties that’s required for full moral and legal responsibility. If nonhuman animals can’t bear such responsibility, then we need to confront the concerns raised by Richard Cupp, legal scholar and animal rights opponent. (This quote’s last sentence appears in Citizen Canine).

Political scientists often describe human civilization and government as grounded upon a “social compact” between citizens and government. In exchange for being assured of valued rights and protection, humans in effect agree to sacrifice some freedoms and to take on responsibilities to others in their community and to their government. A powerful argument may be made that assigning rights to animals that do not possess moral responsibility represents a rejection of the foundation of human civilization.

Taking Cupp’s position, we’d say species isn’t an abhorrent or unfounded criterion for personhood (and thus “speciesism” isn’t a pejorative like “racism” or “sexism”). On the contrary, as a mark of mental capacity, species becomes a crucial part of taking human personhood seriously.

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Comments 4

  • Since Corporations are now more than privileged businesses by Citizens United SC Case (adjudged people just as voters), what would happen if a dog were to Incorporate its commercial endeavors, e.g. Spot & Rin Tin Tin Counseling Service, Inc.

    A new Double-Legal status as Dog & Corporation!

    • Ha! Legal personhood can be a strange beast (pun intended). The argument for moral and, thus, legal personhood looks to be a bit easier to make for pets as opposed to corporations. For instance, cats and dogs are sentient, and sentience has a long history (stretching at least back to Jeremy Bentham in the West) as being sufficient for inclusion in the moral community. Corporations aren’t sentient creatures. But it seems we can speak intelligibly about them having rights and responsibilities, just as individual persons do. Still, I must admit I’m unfamiliar with the arguments given in Citizen United for corporate personhood. I should check that out. Thanks for commenting, Connor.
      EDIT: Note that I’m not endorsing sentience as being sufficient for moral personhood. I’m just saying we can see how, e.g., classical utilitarianism makes pet personhood—but not so much corporate personhood—intelligible.

  • Thanks for drawing attention to this book and for your response. How do you think we should address issues brought up by animals such as the elephant who can pass the mirror test? This test suggests that they are, in fact, self aware to some degree. Should this level of intelligence warrant greater protection or should a mollusc be lumped in with an elephant? (Should we base our level of protection on a sliding scale?) Could we not assign some desgination that would ensure our pets and other more intelligent animals are protected vigorously and offenders properly prosecuted without assigning them something akin to human rights?

    • Citizen Canine is a good read, Mark. I hope people check it out. About passing the mirror test, I think we should be cautious how we interpret the results. For non-human animals, passing may just indicate kinesthetic self-awareness, rather than the cognitive self-awareness you seem to have in mind. If you’re unfamiliar with this criticism of the test, you should google Daniel Povinelli’s short piece “Can Animals Empathize? Maybe Not”

      Insofar as higher cognition (like a psychological self-concept) is found in non-human animals, I think that, intuitively, it does warrant greater protection for those animals. But I also think we have to keep in mind our intuitions about the moral status of children and the developmentally disabled. I really don’t mean to drop a reading list on you, Mark, but there’s an illuminating exchange about cognition and personhood between Peter Singer (of Animal Liberation fame) and Eva Kittay in the journal Metaphilosophy. My own thinking on this issue is still developing, so I feel more comfortable just sharing some stuff that I think we have to consider when answering the questions you pose.