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.