Treating Pets as Persons in Citizen Canine

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Rights without Responsibilities

But then there’s the personhood of children and the developmentally disabled. Both are legal persons with various rights, such as the right to an education. And both—especially the youngest or most profoundly disabled—have limited or no understanding of their rights. Both also bear less legal responsibility (and enjoy fewer freedoms) than typical human adults.

Despite their lack of understanding, children and the developmentally disabled do count as persons. Cats, dogs, and other nonhuman animals don’t count as persons because of their lack of understanding. A double standard seems to be at work.

To justify this distinction in status (person vs. nonperson), we need a relevant difference between our groups (children and the developmentally disabled vs. nonhuman animals). Richard Cupp proposes two such differences.

[C]hildren and incompetent adults are different from animals in the potential for full consciousness and human autonomy that they represent. Even brain-dead humans who have no hope of recovering consciousness are connected to other humans by the nonimpaired humans’ emotions and by societal and (for most Americans) religious values much more closely than are intelligent animals. [emphasis added]

The appeal to human potential gathers typically developing children into the community of persons, but it leaves out individuals with profound, unremitting cognitive disabilities. And while the appeal to human connection may support the latter’s inclusion, it may also support cats and dogs’ inclusion, contrary to Cupp’s intention. Citizen Canine offers substantial evidence that people care deeply about their pets and even value them as family. Do they value pets as much as human family? Maybe not. Still, people are closely connected and increasingly committed to their cats and dogs, and the law has been changing to reflect that fact. (See, for instance, chapter 5 of Citizen Canine on Hurricane Katrina and the 2006 Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act (PETS).)

Whatever position you take on pet personhood, don’t misunderstand the analogy between pets and the developmentally disabled. Although comparisons between nonhuman animals and certain human populations (including racial minorities) can be intended to lower the status of those humans, they’re not used for that purpose in the context explored here and in Citizen Canine. Rather, they’re meant to raise the status of nonhuman animals. Critics of animal rights like Richard Cupp might object that we can’t raise nonhuman animals up without pulling human beings disastrously down. Maybe so. Regardless, average pet owners don’t intend to degrade their human relatives when they claim cats and dogs are like family. Likewise, animal rights supporters don’t intend to degrade any human beings when they say cats and dogs are like mistreated members of our species.

Final Thoughts on Personhood and Citizen Canine

Modestly expanding on Citizen Canine‘s introduction to the issue of pet personhood, I’ve looked at analogies that aim to elevate cats, dogs, and other nonhuman animals’ legal status. The four comparisons—to blacks, women, children, and the developmentally disabled—face challenges. The first three run up against differences between humans’ and nonhuman animals’ mental potential. The fourth raises questions about how best to understand personhood for any being, human or otherwise. Requiring persons have higher-level cognition rules out likely all nonhuman animals. But it could also rule out some of the most vulnerable human beings. A more inclusive view of personhood may be needed to illuminate our commitment to developmentally disabled humans, not just cats and dogs.

Those interested in arguments for omitting rationality and autonomy as conceptual requirements for personhood might want to read At the Margins of Moral Personhood by Eva Kittay. Kittay is a scholar who writes about how we should view the disabled. Her daughter, Sesha, has congenital cerebral palsy and severe mental retardation.

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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.